Posted by Dr. Tara J. Palmatier
I worked at a university counseling center for a few years in Boston. During that time, I met with many, many students presenting with a variety of issues and complaints. A constant problem students seemed to have, both undergraduate and graduate, was managing their budget, filing financial aid forms and financial aid disbursement.
I was readily able to empathize with them, as I was a doctoral student at the time. Financial aid forms are time consuming and difficult to fill out. A kid right out of high school has no idea what he’s signing. Oftentimes, parents have no idea what they’re co-signing. What’s Latin for “Co-signator beware?”
FAFSA (Free Application for Student Aid, or, as I like to call it, Forget About Financial Security Aid) forms are long, cumbersome and tedious (I believe they’re purposefully designed this way). Pair this with most young adults’ incapacity to think in terms of long-term financial consequences and you have the makings for future financial hardship. Why do you think credit card companies offer cards to unemployed 18-year olds? Same reason; most of them are the proverbial grasshopper, with no thought of the morrow. Play now; pay later.
I was fortunate in that I didn’t require financial aid until I began my doctoral program. Even though I was 24 at the time, I didn’t fully understand what I was signing. Furthermore, I thought I’d be able to find a good paying job after I graduated, after all, I’d have a doctorate, right? Wrong.
I have my share of horror stories about my program’s financial aid department. In fact, during my last year of classes, one of the F.A. workers filed a complaint against me and submitted it to my dissertation adviser. The woman provided inaccurate information regarding one of the forms causing my disbursement to be delayed by almost a month. I thought the information was inaccurate at the time and questioned her repeatedly. She assured me everything would be alright.
Sure enough, my application was rejected and returned. I had to reapply, pay a penalty fee, and the coup de grace, my school offered to grant me an “emergency loan” at a “fair” interest rate for an emergency they had caused. I very calmly thanked the F.A. woman for her “help” and suggested she might better serve humanity by flipping burgers at McDonald’s. Two weeks later, I received my copy of the complaint sent to my adviser in the mail. I saved the letter and treasure it to this day as a medal of valor.
When I worked at the university counseling center in Boston, I was asked to facilitate a training for financial aid staff on Listening Skills and Stress Management after Student Affairs received numerous and consistent complaints from parents and students. Although I had my biases, I agreed to run the 3-day workshop.
The staff spent a great deal of time complaining about students and fielding phone calls from angry parents. Granted, many college kids are irresponsible and don’t submit their forms on time, even with prompting, I was unprepared for the information disclosed.
Some of the F.A. staff revealed that they purposely misled students regarding the forms and/or did not return phone messages and e-mails in a timely fashion. Reasons given included: they didn’t like the particular student, the university made money on penalty fees and “emergency loans,” and they enjoyed the power of being able to wreak havoc in the lives of students they considered “entitled.” This occurred at one of the largest universities in Boston. I was appalled.
There were also genuinely caring F.A. staff persons who enjoyed assisting students. They were overshadowed by those who gleefully engaged in malicious practices. Navigating the world of financial aid is tricky enough without having people, who are paid to help students, deliberately sabotage the process.
When dealing with financial aid workers, try to remember, they’re people too. Don’t take an attitude with them (because they control access to the purse strings) and adhere to the deadlines. If you don’t understand the forms, schedule an appointment with them long before the deadline date and have them explain it to you. It’s their job and one of the reasons universities and colleges charge such outrageous tuition. Final bit of advice: Avoid the sharks (word gets around who to avoid on campus) and find yourself a sherpa.
Be sure to check out 401Kid’s College Financial Aid Guide.
Written by: Dr. Tara J. Palmatier