by Kyla Becker and Tobey Veenstra
Enrollment for the 2010 spring term at Central Oregon Community College has increased almost 20 percent compared to the same term last year.
And as of mid-May 3,762 COCC students received financial aid, according to Kevin Multop, COCC director of financial aid.
This is a 40 percent increase in students receiving financial aid compared to 2009, and a 119 percent increase since 2008, said Multop.
Managing phone calls, emails and walk-ins from this mass amount of students in need of financial aid has left the department’s staff stretched thin with little time to introduce students formally to the financial aid services available.
Students say that they want to hear more about the services offered so that they can weigh options for funding a higher education. Without that knowledge students run the risk of over-extending themselves financially and possibly finding themselves in debt.
By not being informed, students lacking the motivation to actively seek out answers could potentially put their education at risk by not staying on top of their student accounts and payments needed before registering for the next term.
“If I’m not informed about my financial aid and I do something wrong, that jeopardizes my financial aid,” said Matthew Murphy, a COCC student.
“I can get my financial aid suspended.” Multop said the department has made significant efforts to step up its services in the wake of the enrollment growth.
“We hired an extra parttime staff in August 2009 to help with phone and walkins,” said Multop. “We have also started handling documents electronically which is easier for students and takes less work for staff.”
The college has also authorized overtime for staff during peak season in order to keep up on processing, and the department has gone to a model of providing regular FAFSA workshops to help students complete their aid application, he said.
However, according to an independent survey conducted by an investigative reporting class at COCC, students say it’s not enough.
What the Students Say
In the survey, students were asked to answer three questions about COCC’s financial aid: what financial aid services the student received, what services they were made aware of by the financial aid department, and what comments or suggestions they had for the department.
Comments from the survey show that the financial aid department should “be less confusing,” and that “it would be nice if they (the financial aid department) made students more aware of scholarship opportunities.”
The most consistent complaint was the lack of information presented and the lack of face time with the department’s staff.
On the survey, 113 out of 140 students marked that they had been made aware of only one or two of the seven main services provided by the COCC financial aid department. In addition, 77 marked one or fewer, and 31 did not mark even one box for services known.
“The financial aid department should try and communicate with the students more,” wrote Matt Blanton, a COCC student, on the survey.
A problem with a lack of communication is that it leads to students not knowing what to ask for or where to look for answers because of a lack of knowledge about the offered services.
On the survey, students were first asked if they received financial aid from COCC. Although a majority of these students answered that they did, many did not know what type of financial aid they were receiving.
“I think they should advertise more,” said Murphy. “Maybe have workshops that help explain what they (the financial aid department) are about.”
COCC does offer FAFSA workshops with available financial aid staff members to help with the FAFSA application process, according to the COCC website.
“I did not know that,” said Murphy when informed about the workshops. “It sounds more confusing than it is.”
The Department’s Response
The department’s staff said that it knows financial aid can be difficult to understand and it is up to the student to take charge of the funding of their education.
Students must actively seek out the information on their own if they wish to track down options to fund their higher education.
Breana Sylwester, COCC’s financial aid advisor, encourages students to be pro-active and to “always come and ask” if they have any questions.
“Financial aid can be confusing,” said Sylwester. “If a student isn’t proactive, it can impact their situation.” For instance, if a potential student is a veteran or active military-classified and indicates this on their COCC enrollment application, the Veterans Service department will not automatically contact the student.
The potential student must contact Lynn McKoy, the Veterans Coordinator, to discuss the veteran’s educational benefits available to them. If the student doesn’t take the initiative, they could miss out on a substantial amount of funding.
In response to the question of why Veteran Services does not automatically contact a potential veteran student, McKoy explained that “some veterans don’t even qualify for veterans educational benefits.
They have ten years after their discharge date to use the benefits. After that length of time … they don’t have veteran’s education benefits.”
Enrolling at COCC as a veteran was “a completely different experience,” said Tyler Nichols, a former military, COCC student.
“I met with the staff in Boyle, then my advisor. The advisors and VA are not exactly connected; they are slightly off,” said Nichols. “So that was a problem. But really, when you find out their little political tricks, then it is really easy. Every system has its quirks.”
The Future of Financial Aid
Miscommunications have lead to a lack of knowledge about the services available through the financial aid department.
These miscommunications can largely affect a student’s education and have inspired ideas to free up staff to help students understand and complete the financial aid process.
Multop said he would like to see the school move towards the electronic transfer of financial aid refunds to students. Approximately 3,300 financial aid refund checks went out this spring term, and when they are processing refunds, the Financial Aid Department is as busy as a beehive.
When it comes time to send out refunds, no hand is overlooked to pitch in on getting all of the checks cut, copied, stuffed, stamped, collected and sent out, said Multop.
This process is time consuming and takes away from the face time students need with the staff, he said.
The idea of getting refunds on a direct deposit system is something the Financial Aid office has looked into, but they unfortunately have not received the student support they need to push forward.
“Everything is electronic until we send out that paper check,” said Multop. “I hope that students will be more vocal about the changes they want made because I think it (electronic transfers) would be a good thing for them and a good thing for the school.”
Multop said everybody in the Financial Aid department is committed to serving the student body as best they can. Just being able to answer the phone when a student calls would be a change that both students and the financial aid department would like to make.
“Everyone would be affected by it (electronic transfers),” said Multop. “All departments would have to be on board. But it would free us up to do the stuff that we love to do: help students.”
Bethany Fouste contributed to this article. You may contact these staff writers at firstname.lastname@example.org.