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UB Financial Aid Delayed

The first few weeks of classes can be challenging and frustrating for students. Classrooms are difficult to find, parking spaces are all taken, and books don’t read themselves. This fall, University at Buffalo students are experiencing another challenge: Their financial aid checks, which include grants, scholarships, and government loans, have been delayed by the school until the third week of the semester.

Students say they were not told in advance of the policy change. In many cases, students were unable to plan ahead for their financial shortfall. For undergraduate Savion Washington, that meant having to pick what he could and could not afford. “We can’t even buy our books,” he said, standing outside the school’s Student Response Center in Capen Hall.

In the past, financial aid has been disbursed to students before the school year began, allowing them plenty of time to buy books, pay their rent, and ready themselves for the semester’s’ studies. The change came as part of a plan by UB’s financial aid department to “adopt a process more aligned with our academic calendar,” said John Della Contrada, assistant vice president of media affairs at UB. Other colleges and universities nationwide have a similar timetable in place, he said, including Buffalo State College. Financial aid is calculated based on a student’s need and course load. Administrators in financial aid would prefer to see checks disbursed to students after their class schedules are finalized to avoid having to adjust awards if a student drops or adds classes.

But in an interview with UB newspaper The Spectrum about the change in policy, interim director of financial aid Jennifer Pollard said that the problem stemmed from student fraud. Students were accepting grants and scholarships only to drop out of school, leaving the school to foot the bill. Pollard declined to be interviewed for this story.

Della Contrada said that students defaulting on their loans was not a factor. UB’s default rate is among the nation’s lowest, at 2.2 percent in 2008, the last year for which statistics are available. It was not clear why Pollard had cited student loan fraud as a concern.

For those on a tight budget, like graduate student and media studies adjunct Cayden Mak, the situation is serious. “I haven’t paid my September rent yet,” he said, though it was already the second week of the month. Mak relies on financial aid and his teaching stipend to pay for his tuition, room and board, textbooks, and living expenses. He says that though he can understand the motivation to streamline the financial aid process, he can’t understand the lack of information provided to students regarding the change. “We’ve all seen the football team’s new uniform. There’s no reason they couldn’t say that the financial aid disbursement had changed.”

Mak believes that students’ needs were disregarded by the financial aid department in this change, and that administrators simply forgot to consider low-income students.

Della Contrada admits that UB did not do enough to inform students of the change in policy. “The communication process should have been much better,” he said. “Right now we’re focusing on getting students all the aid they qualify for, then the office will look for what improvements need to be made.” The roughly 18,000 university students enrolled in financial aid were not directly notified that their aid would be delayed by three weeks. Although the school has resources devoted to issues of enrollment and financial aid, in recent weeks the Student Response Center has received a record number of callers, and the hold times have been long. There were notices on university websites for financial aid and student advisement, as well as students’ university home pages.

Della Contrada pointed out that students are able to take out a $600 loan against their financial aid using the school’s Campus Cash program. The card acts as a debit card and is accepted in several off- and on-campus shops, including the university bookstore. The sentiment among students seemed to be clear, though: The landlord doesn’t take Campus Cash.

Adding to the sense of frustration on campus were statements made by Pollard to The Spectrum, in which she said that “Financial aid is there to pay your tuition, fees, books and help with any additional expenses you have, but I think a lot of students believe it’s just there to help support their life style.” Mak said the statement made him feel like a welfare queen. “We should work in an environment more respectful than that,” he said.

Della Contrada said that Pollard’s statements were made weeks before the story ran August 31, and that Pollard “did not intend her quote to be a reaction to student frustrations.” Della Contrada emphasized that Pollard “has a reputation as someone who always has the best interests of students at heart” and that “she regrets that her statements were offensive to students.”

For Liz Rywelski, a graduate student and photography adjunct, getting another job to support herself isn’t an option. As a full-time student and adjunct instructor of photography, her financial aid includes her stipend as an instructor. Graduate assistants, she said, “are that group that can’t function without access to funds prior to school starting.” Rywelski said that graduate students were not considered as part of the process. Though she was open about her financial situation, she said that many students probably weren’t. “I would feel bad for someone who just moved here and doesn’t have resources.”

Della Contrada said the university is working to make the system work better next semester.

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