U. Memphis’ carelessness in awarding financial aid hurts students

When people picture college students, most of them think of free-spirited young people with a lot more ambition than money. In fact, college might be the only period of the typical American life in which being poor is the norm. Tuition costs are HIGH. Textbook costs are HIGH. Add in living expenses like rent or dorm fees, food, hygiene items, other school supplies, automobile expenses – the only thing that isn’t high for college students is the amount on our paychecks.

Anyone who has ever been to college knows how the story goes. And that’s why the University of Memphis Financial Aid Office’s inability to inform students about the amount of aid they’re receiving this semester is so detrimental. (Ridiculous and pathetic also come to mind.)

I wrote about the difficulties college students from less glamorous financial backgrounds face here right before I began my first semester at the U of M. But that was before life had its way with me.

The following story is my own.

When I first started college in 2010, I was involved in a car accident on the way home to visit my grandparents for the weekend. I had to withdraw from school and go through the painful process of physical therapy for months.

Because of laws (rules? regulations?) governing federal financial aid, students must have a 67 percent completion rate (pass 67 percent of all classes taken) to continue receiving financial aid. When I withdrew, my completion rate hit zero percent.

The accident wasn’t my fault, but I’ve been cleaning up the pieces for 3.5 years. Every semester, I have had to submit an appeal with the same paperwork – copies of the accident report, my doctor’s notes, my physical therapist’s notes and reports from scans done on my back. (You’d think they could store these in my file, but…) Then I wait for it to be approved so that I can receive financial aid. It’s a very stressful, time-consuming process that I honestly don’t feel like anyone deserves to go through.

Please know that I genuinely love and care about school. I’m an honors student – I’m in one honors society and two honors programs (university-wide and department-wide). So on December 19, when my grades from the fall semester became official/final, there weren’t words to express how happy I was because my completion rate was (finally) over 67 percent.

Still, I was told I had to wait to be approved for financial aid for the spring – just one last wait, and I’d be free from all of the appeals and the paperwork that have plagued my life for years.

I waited for my financial aid to post. And then I waited. I took a nap to pass some of the time, and then I continued to wait. Christmas Eve came, and the entire university shut down for 10 days. I waited. It reopened in 2014, and I continued to wait.

When January 3 arrived and I hadn’t heard anything, I called the office (again) to inquire about it. I was told I had just then been approved to receive aid for the semester (16 days after my grades became official). The representative told me it would take another three to five business days for the amount of aid to appear on my online student portal.

My stress level skyrocketed.

You see, I lost some of my financial aid after the accident (because of the withdrawal), and while I could’ve appealed that and gotten it back, the university screwed that up for me (another story for another day). I pay a portion of my tuition out of pocket now. For the fall 2013 semester, I ended up paying about $1,000 out of pocket just for tuition. Purchasing textbooks added another $300.

Tuition is due by the close of business January 15. That’s eight days away, and I have no idea how much I owe the school – $1,000 again? The whole $5,050? I don’t know because they literally will not tell me, and those three to five additional business days are up exactly five days before the money is due.

To be fair, I should mention that the university offers students a payment plan option. When we enroll in a payment plan, we must pay a $50 enrollment fee and half of the amount owed. The remaining balance is split into two or three monthly payments. The program is designed to help students plan financially, but how does a student, who is broke almost by definition, plan financially when she has no idea how much money she needs to pay?

I understand that there’s a lot going on at the end of a semester. And there are a lot of students. And it was the holiday season. And we still haven’t decided if the chicken or the egg came first. But there has to be a better way of doing things.

For all I know, I could be receiving NO financial aid and be on the hook for over $5,000 plus additional fees, textbooks and additional supplies. Even making use of the payment plan option, there’s no way I can pay $2,500 (half of the tuition amount due) and a $50 enrollment fee and purchase $200 (minimum) worth of textbooks and a bunch of supplies – totaling close to $3,000 – WITH FIVE DAYS NOTICE.

If that happens, add “spring 2014” to the list of semesters I was unable to attend school for reasons beyond my control.

I just wonder how many of “me” there are out there.

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