What’s Going on With Financial Aid?

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The Office of Financial Aid navigates changing systems

At a recent faculty meeting, the room almost immediately erupted into murmurs when financial aid stood up to present on an upcoming change in policy. Debbie O’Dea, Director of Financial Aid, and Nikol Roubidoux, Registrar, were asked to speak at the meeting, but with only five minutes and a complicated idea, things seemed to get lost in translation. Faculty seemed to hear that financial aid would no longer apply to non-major and “non-essential” classes. The pair tried to backpaddle, but faculty were already stirring. 

   Clearing things up in an interview with the Index, O’Dea and Financial Aid Counselor Griffin Shaulis spoke about changes being implemented in financial aid policy both at Pacific, and on a national level. 

   O’Dea had been asked to speak at the faculty meeting to explain a rule of Title IV funding to be implemented  next year. Title IV, to note, is what all federal financial aid falls under. With Title IV, it is stated that all of the funding involved is to go towards students completing degrees. While this may seem simple in practice, it gets much more complicated in implementation.

   O’Dea explained that, to implement this rule, the following will be happening: “Every semester when students register, the system runs a report to catch students that are in class that do not work towards their degree. Ultimately, Title IV funds are for the purpose of completing a degree. If a student is taking classes that don’t go towards their degree, we cannot count those classes in their enrollment. In order to be full-time, students have to be in 12 or more credits. If a student is enrolled in 16 credits, and one of those classes doesn’t apply to their degree, but the other 12 credits do, they are still considered full-time, and will still get their aid. Where we really see this come into play is students that are close to graduating and being done. Say that they’ve actually completed all their degree requirements, they’re completely finished with their degree, and now they’re just taking classes that interest them, but they do not actually go towards their degree program. Technically, Title IV funds cannot cover those classes.”

   O’Dea also explained that this is not actually a new rule, and it is not something unique to Pacific. Instead, it’s a matter of federal compliance, which is why it is important to implement. “I can’t account for why it hasn’t been previously implemented under a different leadership,” O’Dea began, “but given that there is a higher level of scrutiny on Title IV funds these days,… people are really looking at college and costs involved and how students are borrowing and the amount of debt.”

   While potentially scary on the surface, these changes may not actually affect students as much as they initially appear to. Shaulis pointed out that it is not really an issue that will affect underclassmen, “Because they have a bunch of basic core requirements that they can take, they can pull any class from, that necessarily aren’t super hyper specific to their degree yet, but it’s still fulfilling a requirement… really the issue is when you get to those folks who are getting close to being done, making sure that they’re in enough credits to actually be eligible for Title IV aid.” 

  A logical question for students following this change is, of course, what it means to not be in compliance with this rule, and to not be at “full-time” status. O’Dea answered that, if not a full time student, “Students receiving Pell grant or Oregon Opportunity grant, if you are a half-time student, then those grants are prorated, so you get a lesser amount at half time… You’re still eligible for loans at half-time, but because of how we do block tuition, if you are half-time your tuition charges look different. So it’s not that you can’t have any aid if you’re less than half-time, but it does change how your aid looks, and how you’re billed.”

   Shaulis continued this thought, adding “It is all so case-by-case. Unfortunately, with financial aid, there never is a one size fits all; every student’s situation is different, every cost of attendance that a student has is different, so it’s all on a case-by-case basis, depending on what scenarios, situations, courses and aid students are already getting.”

   While the announcement and implementation has already started to cause some anxiety, the policy is one that exists for the benefit of students. What a lot of the rule comes down to is monitoring if students are taking out unnecessary loans.

   A stricter compliance to Title IV funding is not the only change heading towards Pacific’s financial aid, and the university is already feeling the effect of a federal change regarding the Free Application for Federal Student Aid: FAFSA simplification. “FAFSA simplification,” O’Dea joked. “It is so simple that we don’t even have FAFSAs to work with right now.” 

   Passed December 27, 2020, the FAFSA Simplification Act officially went into effect this year. The act included a complete overhaul of the application, including replacing the Expected Family Contribution system with a Student Aid Index, modifying family definitions, expanding access to Pell Grants, and essentially working to “streamline” the FAFSA process. Implementing the changes, however, led to a delay in the application opening for the year —causing it to open in December instead of October—and has caused further delays in applications being processed and sent to schools. What all of this means is that no school in the country using federal aid has yet been able to tell incoming students what their financial aid package would be, causing  them to push back their enrollment deadlines. 

   “It is definitely a frustrating year to be working in financial aid,” O’Dea explained. “The Department of Education has said that they will start sending files out mid-March. But of course what that means is that first those files are going to have to go to the bigger systems… So first the systems have to do the testing to make sure FAFSAs and the new information, the way they’ve changed it, works within the system. So mid-March, we’re still going to be waiting, because that testing has to happen. So we’re hopeful that it’ll be close to the end of March we’ll get files. And then we’ll be able to start packaging students.”

   Shaulis expanded on this, adding how it might affect current students, as well as incoming freshmen. “Just across the board in general, the results of implementing the new system is that there’s just been a lot of glitches and issues… I have had conversations at least weekly with students who are running into a page that just won’t load properly, or just some sort of bug, and thankfully, and somewhat frustratingly, a lot of times the fixes for that is just refreshing the page or checking what browser you’re using. I do know there’s been a lot of issues just on the systems side of things in studentaid.gov. Kind of as a result of that, something we’ve tried to do on our side is extended out some of our deadlines for things. Typically, Pacific would have a FAFSA filing date of March 1st for specifically federal work study eligibility, and some grant eligibility, but that’s been extended out this year to April 1, to help give students some more time who are still running into those issues… We’ve also extended out our current student scholarship deadlines. A lot of them have been extended out to April 1st as well, giving students more time to build that financial aid package and get some more resources for next year. But I think this is going to be a one year hiccup, is what we’re hoping.”

   While causing some chaos around the financial aid office, the FAFSA delays have allowed for the office to focus more on moving to a paperless system, and to prepare their office for when they are able to begin putting together student aid packages. While there may be some anxiety about all of the changes being implemented, O’Dea and Shaulis both emphasized the adaptability of Pacific students. Pairing that with the work of the financial aid office, it seems hopeful that all changes should continue to roll out smoothly.


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