Tiny errors, big losses in financial aid mix-ups

by Beacon Staff • September 16, 2009

Foster, a print journalism major, is one of a group of students who say they lost badly-needed aid this school year because of communication errors, despite the college's decision to increase financial aid to undergraduates by 12.,A missing signature cost senior Kelsey Foster $17,000.

Foster, a print journalism major, is one of a group of students who say they lost badly-needed aid this school year because of communication errors, despite the college's decision to increase financial aid to undergraduates by 12.4 percent to help families hit by the recession.

Emerson spokesperson Andrew Tiedemann would not comment on the complaints, saying Vice-President of Administration and Finance David Ellis will meet with student government officials later this month to address the issue.

Foster said she was told by the financial aid office that her paperwork was missing important items she were sure she included-in her case, a signature.

"I know I signed it," she said. "I don't make mistakes like that."

Foster said she received crucial financial aid from the college in the past and completed her paperwork as usual for the April 15 deadline.

She said she called the financial office during the summer with a separate question about a private scholarship she was receiving and only then was told about the supposed mistake in her paperwork, which had caused the thousands of dollars in aid loss-money she needed to be able to attend Emerson.

"They never called me, they never notified me," she said. "They're really unprofessional and really bad at communication."

Junior Ashley Brow said she wasn't aware of problems with her application until after the deadline passed.

"I figured [aid] was merely slow in coming," Brow wrote in an e-mail interview. "I knew from the past if anything had been wrong, I would have been notified multiple times."

Since Brow is blind and her father is dyslexic, she said in the past she had problems completing all the necessary forms. When this happened, Brow's family would receive multiple written notices specifying exactly what was missing, with enough time to fix the problem without affecting her total aid, the communication sciences and disorders major said.

This year, Brow said she submitted her forms as usual, but received no notification of missing paperwork and, when the tuition bill came in July, Brow said she did not receive a financial aid package.

Brow was able to take out other loans and get scholarships to pay for her fall semester, but currently has only $9,600 to pay a $21,000 bill for the spring semester.

"I have no idea how I will accomplish the task of making up the difference," she wrote.

These missteps in the aid process were so common this summer they spawned a 450-member Facebook group, Emerson Students For Financial Reform, created in July by Student Government Association president Scott Fisher.

When asked by a Beacon reporter about these student accusations, Ellis said he was unable to comment until he addressed the SGA about the problem. Fisher said the meeting is planned for Sept. 22.

Fisher said he found out about the aid issues after a student contacted him about the problems he was having with a disputed form. The missing form put the student's ability to attend Emerson in jeopardy.

Fisher asked other students whether they had encountered problems this summer, and an overwhelming number of people responded, he said.

Almost twenty students met numerous times over the summer in Fisher's apartment for the Financial Aid Reform Luncheon, and decided that communication between students and the financial aid office needed improvement.

"People shared their stories and some students lost up to $20,000 in aid because of a missing signature that they were never even told about," said Fisher. "We're not asking for a huge policy change. This is common sense, in our opinion."

During the luncheon, the students discussed ideas for a reform policy Fisher hopes to bring before the SGA this school year.

He said he hopes to push for improving communication between students and the financial aid office, making sure students know about the appeals process, and ensuring students know the status of their application throughout the process.

Fisher also met with President Jacqueline Liebergott and Board of Trustees member Nancy Ryan on Sept. 11 about the problems students faced.

"They were surprised by students' difficulties," Fisher said. "They seemed receptive to the ideas I was proposing."

Despite complaints about the lack of available financial aid, funding was increased at the cost of other areas of the school, according to school officials. Departmental budgets have been slashed twice since September 2008 in order to make the aid increase possible, a solution that some students said they believe is perfectly reasonable.

"I don't think that it is unfair to cut funding from one department to increase financial aid as long as the department in question can still operate effectively," Brow wrote.

But more students are concerned about who's getting the aid, not where it's coming from, said Fisher, and that the difficulties over the summer are especially unfortunate since increasing aid last year seemed to be a step in the right direction.

"They did much better this year," he said about the amount of aid given out by the school. "But all I know is that students didn't receive money because of lack of communication, not because of lack of funds."