Thursday, October 22, 2009

Financial Aid Expert: "We've seen an increase in demand for financial aid."

by Kaela Berry

Chris Shultz is the acting director of the University of California, Irvine’s Office of Financial Aid and Scholarship. He was the person many students spoke to on the phone when they were unable to get through the Financial Aid office this summer, due to the lack of staff because of the budget cuts. The Office of Financial Aid took one of the hardest hits from the budget cuts. I was able to get Shultz’s viewpoint on the budget cuts and how it has affected the Office of Financial Aid.

Q: So you’re the acting director for the Office of Financial Aid and Scholarship. What is that exactly?

A: Well, what happened was, about two years ago, the then director was promoted into an acting or intern role for enrollment services which is the registrar, admissions, and financial aid, and when he was put into that role for a temporary basis, he asked me to assume the role of director, in this office, on a temporary basis and it’s continued for two years.

Q: So you’re a temporary director?

A: Yeah, I’ve been temporary for the last two years.

Q: As you know, the budget cuts have been going on right now. How have they affected financial aid?

A: Well, there’s a couple of major ways. One, we’ve seen an increase in demand for financial aid. One thing that we had, an additional 900 students utilize financial aid in paying their fall fees as compared to the prior year, so that’s quite a significant jump. Seems that we’ve also experienced staffing shortages and hiring freezes at the same time. There is a significant workload deficiency there. The demand has increased as the economy has changed. We’ve seen a lot of people interested in utilizing student loans rather than, in the past there’s been a drop-off in borrowing, and what the community at large was thinking is that it was people were utilizing home equity loans or other lines of credit to finance education, which now the credit’s a little bit harder to get to. People just don’t have those options. Also if their unemployment increases people are looking more at what options they can qualify for, more of the traditional financing method.

Q: What kind of financial aid are our students using?

A: Well, there’s all variety of financial aids. There are grants, scholarships, loan, and work. The work would primarily be federal work study where students work on campus and the positions are subsidized by the federal government so the department pays 25% of the salary and the federal government pays the other 75%. There are different sources of grants. There are state grants, federal grants, and we also have a pretty unique university grant program here, where a third of all the fees that are paid are set aside for grant assistance for needy families. So every time there’s a fee increase, it actually makes available more grant dollars because a third of that additional fee increase is actually returned for additional grant support. There’s a variety of different scholarships. We have campus-based scholarships, either through endowments or scholarship funds that are through different departments where a donor may have set up a scholarship or a department may have cobbled together some of their own funds. There’s a lot of outside scholarships also like through Kuwanis or things like that where students receive. And then we also have some campus-based scholarship. Our most prestigious is the Regents Scholarship and that’s a recruitment scholarship that’s the given to the upper tier students as far as test scores and GPA. It’s similar to the campus-wide honors program.

Q: How have the budget cuts affected the types of financial aid students are using? Do the budget cuts mean less money for them?

A: Actually, as I was saying, on university grant side, when there are budget cuts that coincide with fee increase. The fee increase actually makes more grant dollars available because, say the fees were a thousand dollars, a third of that would be 333, but if the fees were doubled to two thousand dollar, then we would 666 dollars to return to us for grant dollars. Yes, it does, in a sense, water down the pool because you’re off-setting the higher fee amount, but for the needier students it actually makes more grant dollars available for them. The budget cuts are kind of different than the fee increases because the budget cut doesn’t necessarily automatically translate into a fee increase or an increase into a university grant, so budget cuts, on the state level, what we’ve seen, is pressure from the state is to change the Cal grant program which is one of our biggest state grant programs. There was a lot of pressure last year to discontinue the program because it is very costly for the state as opposed to a billion dollars for all the different Cal grants that are paid, so the governor proposed eliminating the Cal grant program. We saw in the budget compromise that it was actually funded again, but there’s still pressure from the state government to change the program.

Q: Does this mean Cal grants are getting less money?

A: Well, currently they are fully-funded, so the state did prioritize in the budget agreement to fund the Cal grant. We haven’t necessarily seen a reduction in support because of the budget situation or student financial aid. On the federal level, we’ve seen a little bit of increase because of the federal stimulus package included some extra funding, so for example, there’s extra work funding. There are also additional tax credits that were made for individuals going to school. This year there’s some additional money that’s available. Next year when the stimulus money isn’t available any longer…that money’s going to dry up and there’s going to be some pressure, because they’re running this huge deficit to start reducing some of these funding sources. We haven’t heard that they will, but there’s always that concern for us.

Q: Do the budget cuts affect you as a director or just you personally in any way?

A: Director-wise, we have some significant budget cuts in the office here. Over the last year and a half, we’ve lost several positions and this last round of cuts, that we’re still dealing with, we’re losing a couple more. Fortunately, we had positions that were open or people that were leaving right as the cuts were coming, so we haven’t had to lay off anybody, but we’re not able fill the position. We’ve lost some pretty key positions. One that impacts me directly is an associate director position. That position was in charge of policy development and fallen regulations or statutory changes. Financial aid is always evolving. The federal government passes new laws. They change their regulations and we have to react to those ongoing. The position was designed to really follow all of those and make sure we’re up to date on our compliance. With that position being vacant, it’s really fallen onto me. The other ones that have affected to me are student support roles and financial aid advisors and counselors because what has ended up happening is we’ve had those positions removed. We haven’t been able to offer the level of service that we want to. For example, we recently changed our office hours. We worked nine to five, Monday through Friday. Now we’re ten to five. So we open each day at ten. During this summer, we weren’t able to respond to email messages and students weren’t able to leave voicemails on the general line because we didn’t have staff that could actually return their calls. I got a lot of disgruntled students and parents calling me because they couldn’t get through. At one time, our front staff was five people and it’s down to two. It was just impossible with the work that needed to get done to also offer the level of customer service. It’s been pretty stressful trying to think of different ways to assist our clientele with these limited resources.

Q: Have you had to work longer hours because of the lack of staff?

A: I work long hours anyway. I think it’s just the level of stress. The stress level has been much higher. I wouldn’t want to directly to stay I have personally worked longer hours, but I know some of our staff has and they’ve take on just more work. There’s a general feeling in the office that people aren’t able to perform the tasks that they have at the level they would like to, work as diligently as they like to because there isn’t enough time in the day. I’ve had a number of staff that come in on the weekend and work late, just to keep up with the work load.

Q: How much has the staff decreased since the budget cuts?

A: At the top of my head, I want to say probably seven positions.

Q: Seven positions? That have been dropped?

A: Yes, that have been eliminated, out of an office of 35. Before we were now 35 people, so it is quite a significant drop.

Q: How is the university responding?

A: Obviously, the cuts are a big way. Another way that’s affected everybody is the staff is with furlough and pay cuts. We’ve all taken staggered pay cuts and, then corresponding to that, we’re being furloughed. That’s definitely a negative for people. Although, on the other side, there are a lot people that we interact with everyday that are unemployed or their parents are unemployed, they’ve lost their homes. So I personally feel fortunate that I still have a job and benefits, you know, medical, insurance, and so on. That’s one way the university is dealing with it. The others are the series of fee increases that proposed and that have come in effect. Last year, there was a 9.3% Fee increase. The Regents are discussing a 15% midyear increase that would take place starting winter quarter and then another 15 % on top of that starting fall of 2010.

Q: So it would be a 30% increase?

A: Actually it would work out to be a little bit more than 30, because if you take 15% and you add 15% on top of that, it’s called compounded interest, so it works out to be above 30%.

Q: As you know there have been walkouts. Do you support the walkouts or have you been involved with the walkouts?

A: I haven’t been involved with the walkouts. I can see both sides of it. On one hand, I can see the point of the walkouts is to emphasize the quality of education and what the state is sacrificing…One of the problems I had with the walkouts is the fact that the students that are here are paying more than they ever paid before and I don’t really see it as being fair to them to have a day of class-cut when they are paying more for it than ever. I think there are other ways to protest it.

Q: Do you have any ideas of how to protest it?

A: There could be protests that don’t directly impact a class. There could be the same type of events, but not necessarily where you walk out of a class or you shut down an office, where you use other times that are less critical. For example, if we are open every day of the week, you could schedule some time, like we’re now closed for the first two hours of the day. If we were going to do something, that would be an opportunity where we could do something and it wouldn’t directly impact the clients, where they need assistance.

Shultz continues to give other examples of times where students and staff could have a protesting event.

I understand on the opposite side of that part of it is that without showing any pain or implications of the cuts that the rationale is that the university might continue with the cuts thinking that, “Oh well, there wasn’t really any pain so we can continue in this mode.” So it’s really demonstrating the implications.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent work! I never knew the extent of the problem untill I read your interview. I look forward to your next piece.