A fund-amental issue

About 30 students had to wait three weeks for financial aid awards after Financial Aid staff failed to notify their director that two of its accounts had run out of money. One hour after being informed of the problem by The Oracle on Friday, the office’s director reallocated money to pay the awards.

In the three weeks following drop-add week, Financial Aid staff told students querying their missing financial aid that the accounts were empty and that they did not know when, or even if, the money would be paid. One student was told award letters said “estimated amount” and that he might not receive any more money. The student was still due 50 percent of his annual award.

After an Oracle reporter informed Financial Aid Director Leonard Gude of the problem Friday morning, $18,660 was transferred from next year’s grant money to fund the awards. Gude had been unaware that students had not received their awards.

Despite the lack of communication, Gude declined to criticize how his staff had dealt with the problem, which he said was the result of an unusually high number of awards this year.

“I’m concerned that I wasn’t fully aware of this issue earlier,” Gude said. “In the past we’ve never been right up against the total authorization as tightly as we are this year.”

The two aid programs affected by the problem are the USF Grant and the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, or SEOG. Both programs are designed to help students from low-income families attend the university.

Gude said his office has procedures to monitor its accounts and that he did not know why no action had been taken to correct the shortfall. Universities are permitted to carry funds over or borrow from next year’s funds, he said.

“We try to keep up with it; I don’t know why we didn’t make those adjustments earlier,” Gude said. “We’ve been trying to monitor it on a weekly basis.”

Senior Donald Byrd was due to receive a total of $900 from SEOG and USF Grant awards this semester. When the senior went to Financial Aid’s office on Jan. 18 to ask why his award had not been paid, he was told there was no money in the accounts and that he would have to make an appointment to speak to a counselor.

When Byrd turned up for the appointment on Jan. 20, the counselor simply relayed the same information.

“I’ve never heard of Financial Aid running out of money,” he said. “That’s like running out of water.”

Worried that he could not afford to pay his rent or purchase a textbook needed for a class, Byrd made several visits to Financial Aid over the next two weeks to see if the situation had changed.

According to Byrd, during one visit a Financial Aid employee recommended that he borrow money from a friend or relative.

“Unlike some people, I can’t just call home for money,” Byrd said.

On another occasion, Byrd said he was told that the wording on award letters had been amended to “estimated amount” rather than “total amount,” and that meant he should not count on receiving the full amount on his letter.

Award amounts are listed as estimates because they are dependent on students meeting award criteria and are pro-rated based on number of credit hours, Gude said. According to Byrd’s OASIS account, he was due $900, the same amount he received in the fall.

“We depend on this money,” he said. “They’re saying, ‘at least your schooling is paid for.’ That’s nice, but how am I going to live?”

Financial Aid automated programs pay students in a random order, Gude said. He added that some of the affected students would not have received their payments immediately after drop-add week due to administrative issues like missing documents or an outstanding appeal about their academic standing.

“When they cleared that situation, the system said, ‘Oh, I don’t have any money to pay you now,'” Gude said.

With an annual SEOG fund of $1 million and a USF Grant fund of about $3 million, borrowing $18,000 from next year’s fund is unlikely to cause problems, Gude said.