By Kaela Berry and Angelo Florendo
The time is 2:10 in the afternoon at the Office of Financial Aid and Scholarship. From previous interviews with the staff, it is around time when traffic is at its peak. However, there is hardly anyone present in the office. Approximately two people are present. One of the two people is a man wanting to change his financial aid account. Four minutes later, two people wait in line. Traffic is slowly building up. One student is inquiring about scholarship money. Among all of this, there is soft rock music is subtly playing in the background. The staff, though slow, is still semi-enthusiastically pacing around, helping students, checking files, or researching certain things. Most students ask about loans. Students show variations of emotion: anxiety and indifference, but boredom mostly.
The flow of traffic in financial aid may have been like this at the current moment. Four months ago, it wasn’t at all like this. Due to the budget cuts, the financial aid office is starting to feel the heat of the cutbacks. This affected the staff as much as the students especially during the beginning of the fall quarter. The budget cuts have gotten to the point where the members of the staff; this in turn affected the students causing confusion and frustration due to the many students and short-staffed office. So far, it appears to take around two minutes for a student to be helped. This is a vast change from only three months ago, during the summer, when the line of students were zipping out the doorway and both Financial Aid counselors and advisors were working on Saturday nights, unpaid, just to get ahead of work. “It was pretty busy…crazy,” Financial Aid counselor Sokhea Nou said. “We were short-staffed, up in the front and the counseling area, so we had to deal with a large workload.” The busy summer and lack of staff member were results of the budget cuts. The Office of Financial Aid and Scholarship had to make some changes on normal work responsibilities in order to compensate for the lack of advisors working. Nou explained: This summer we were down by one counselor and then four advisors. So we only had two advisors. One advisor was on maternity leave and the other one left…[The counselors’] main responsibility, on a normal day, if we’re fully-staffed, is to work on the phones and, of course, work the front desks…they had to input all the verification documents that came in, all the taxes that were submitted. Because we were so behind, we had them just input for most of the summer and the counselors covered the phones and the front and everything else.”
The purpose of financial aid, basically, is to help students pay for school; leaning more towards the students who cannot afford to go. And through financial aid, there are many different ways to receive financial aid, like grants, loans, scholarships, etc. Financial aid determines who is eligible for aid via FAFSA form. What a FAFSA (Free Application for
Federal Student Aid) form does is ask a family their background both financially as well as personally (i.e. family size, how many children attend college).
We managed to get Daniela Harris as well as several members of the financial aid staff to take time out of our schedule to speak with us about the workings of financial aid, as well as how the budget cuts are affecting the office as well as the personal lives of the staff as well as the students. Daniela Harris is a financial aid advisor; the frontline. The advisors have the most direct contact with the families of students. According to Harris a lot of the initial, starting points for anything: applying and paperwork is all done through the advisors.
Q. How do you determine the people who get grants, loans, etc?
A. All families who want to get, at the very least, loans or any type of financial aid through the school have to complete a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form. They all go into the website and they put in their income, their household size, what their assets are, how many of their children are attending college, etc. The Federal Government: Department of Education calculate based on all those factors, what that family should be able to afford for their child to go to school, for the year. That’s called the Estimated Family Contribution. When financial aid gets that number to our office, we tell the family, (were the student a full time California resident, living on campus), the student might pay $25,000 for the year, but based on FAFSA information, the family might be able to pay a smaller amount, out of pocket. The trouble with that though is that they might have a high car payment, they might be living in an expensive place, etc. So they might not have the money out of pocket, so we do cover that portion with non-need based loans, but we take that number and get the difference between what you can afford and what it costs to attend, that’s where put in the grants and the need-based loans.
Q. What exactly is non-need based loans?
A. Non-need based loans are higher interest rate loans. The difference between Stafford loans: you have a subsidized loan and an unsubsidized loan; a subsidized loan is a lower interest rate and has no interest while the student is in school. A student with financial need will get a subsidized loan and some unsubsidized loans. A student with no financial need will get all unsubsidized loans.
Harris is only one of the two Financial Aid advisors still working at UCI’s Office of Financial Aid and Scholarship. Over the summer, the Office of Financial Aid and Scholarship had to make some changes on normal work responsibilities in order to compensate for the lack of advisors working.
Sohkea Nou, a Financial Aid counselor, explained:
“This summer we were down by one counselor and then four advisors. So we only had two advisors. One advisor was on maternity leave and the other one left… [The counselors’] main responsibility, on a normal day, if we’re fully-staffed, is to work on the phones and, of course, work the front desks…they had to input all the verification documents that came in, all the taxes that were submitted. Because we were so behind, we had them just input for most of the summer and the counselors covered the phones and the front and everything else.”
Q. How much does the average student receive in financial aid?
A. That’s a hard question to answer because financial aid [could be in the form of] loans, grants, scholarships. It’s anything of use to pay for school. A student will get up to the cost of attendance in financial aid.
It depends on their status; if they are full-time, part-time, if they are California resident, non-California resident. It’s just different factors, if they are living on campus, or off campus, or if they are living with their parents, they’re going to have a different budget than other students. A dependent student who’s living off campus, who is a California resident, going full-time, will be getting around $25,000 a year. We will give that student $25,000 in financial aid. It could be loans, it could be grants, and it could be scholarships. We will give them, up till the cost of attendance. There are few students whom we cannot give up to the cost of attendance, but most students get up to what we estimate the average student, in their situation would have to pay to attend UCI, including housing, books, parking, fees, everything.
A program has been put into effect last year to help those in financial need, known as the Blue and Gold Program. It is a fairly new program where students from families with incomes of $60,000 or lower and qualify for financial aid can attend a UC and not pay for the fees. Those who are applicable for the Blue and Gold program will receive minimum grant aid to cover their fees and those who are at higher need for aid will receive more grants to pay for room and board, books, etc. The program cost 3.1 million dollars and is paid by federal stimulus dollars.
Q. How has the office of financial aid adapted to the budget cuts that have been happening at UCI?
A. In the amount of aid that has been given out, we have always been strict on our institutional funding. When completing the FAFSA, it is a federal application; you are applying for federal loans and grants. They get that information; they send it to the state that the student plans to attend school within. For California, that would be the California Student Aid Commission for Cal Grant. They would also send the information to UCI, and we determine what type of institutional aid we can give: what type of loans UCI can offer and what type of grants UCI can offer. The amount of grant money we can offer depends on how much money we are getting, which depends on how much UCI gets from the state to spend and help students. It also affects [financial aid] because of the Cal Grant situation. Cal grants have been in jeopardy for a while and we were thinking if we were going to give that or not for next quarter. Cal Grants are trying to keep up with the amount of fees that are charged by the UC system. Now we are trying to find out what the fee increase is going to do. And if we will, we might have to help cover it with UCI funds versus state funds. It has really made a lot of students weary of what their situation is, but it also leaves us where we cannot help students out right now because we don’t know what to tell them, because at this point we know as much as the student does at this point.
According to UCI’s Office of Financial Aid and Scholarship website, there are three types of grants: The Cal Grant, Pell Grant, and UCI Grant. All three are awarded to students who demonstrate great financial need. On May
26, 2009, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed to eliminate the Cal Grant, but the proposal was turned down by the legislative committee on June 5, 2009. The Cal Grant normally awards students $7,788 for the year, but with the budget cuts, this is could easily change.
Q. Have the budget cuts affect aid to the students?
A. Not at this point. The Cal grants are still there, and those students are still getting that, which is fortunate. If those students were not getting those Cal grants, UCI wouldn’t be able to help those students make it with our funds. That would be too much money to help those students out. If that programs were to be cut or anything that would really affect the students. We have to always watch our budget and how much grant money we have before we can do certain things. One thing we do in this office is: a student will report on their FAFSA for this school year, 2008 income tax information. If they lose their job, which is happening a lot more with the economy, they can come into our office and let us know, “hey our parent is no longer working, and our income is not what we reported on our FAFSA, can you re-evaluate things for us”? And that is what we will do. We have actually had a lot more students sending these requests into our office lately. We have a certain amount of money set aside to help those students who have situation changes, and there are so many students turning these in, we are not sure if we can accommodate all those families. So now we have to be stricter with our deadlines for turning that in. Last year for summer, we had to shorten the deadline of students turning in certain documents because students who turn in documents by a due date, they get an institutional funding also known as priority funding. Anybody could get federal money whether they are late or not because it is federal money. But UCI restricts our money to what we have to give and we restrict by people who are turning things in by the deadline. So for the summer, we shortened the deadline. It was a limited time period where the students could apply for summer, 2008. So this year, we have to be case by case on students turning things in by a certain time to see if we get students turning things in. One certain form, the Sibling Verification Form. That was the latest document due, and it had a deadline. For students to turn in the form after the deadline, we have to go case by case to see if we have funding left to help this student. If not, we have to tell the students who are late to turn in the form, “Sorry, but this is the situation. We can’t fund you anymore…”
Q. What was the name of that document again?
A. The Sibling Verification Form. It was to verify that they do have a sibling attending college, because that affects what their family is expected to contribute over the year.
UCI’s Associate Director of Financial Aid, Penny Harrel, went into detail on how the budget cuts worked and who they affect when it comes to Financial Aid. She said:
“On our campus, what happens is the cuts go up to the chancellor’s office and then to the budget office and then everybody looks at them and they look at our whole campus… they are the ones that deal with huge cuts on the campus and then each unit takes its cut and then you have to manage it and see how you are going to do…There’s two sides to this: one is federal
money and the federal money is increasing. Obama is increasing Pell Grants, he’s increasing loans…The Pell Grant goes to families that have no contribution, they can’t help put their child through school at all and that’s going up and up and that goes to our neediest students. So they’re getting an increase, they’re not getting a cut. The state grant is in question mark, the Cal Grant. That one is in trouble with the state and they keep cutting back, cutting back. So far they are tracking along and even when we’re going to get mid-year fee increase here for winter, they are going to cover that. So people that have Cal Grants will not feel that
pinch, but the other students will.”
Q. If there were any more budget cuts made in the future, what do you think will happen in the future? What do you see the future of financial aid going into?
A. There will always be federal funding, if not always, there would be that to fall back on for students. If we, the institution couldn’t give out money, and also if anything ever happened to state funding, but it pretty much if we run out of funding, that’s just less money we can give. That’s really hard to say overall what would happen because then that would be a decision that we would have to, with the numbers that the management would have to take into account whether, “how much money are we getting, and how much money can we give out to students.” With the unemployment rates being so high, there are more families who are needy, and so there’s a certain amount of money that needs to be spread over more families. If the budget cuts decrease the amount of money we get, that would mean more money a parent would have to take out to help cover those costs for their students, but unfortunately
if families are not doing so well, it puts them into a situation where [they may not even be eligible to get a loan]. It affects a lot of different things.
The UC’s have developed a fundraiser in order to help remedy the situation known as Project You Can. It is a system-wide fundraiser where all ten campuses are attempting to raise one billion dollars in four years. The billion dollars will help keep the UC schools affordable and available.
Q. You mention the Cal Grants are in jeopardy, are the Cal grants still in jeopardy right now?
A. Earlier in the quarter, we were not sure if students were going to be able to get that money for winter quarter, but right now, they will be able to get it. But before we could not even tell students, and it was in the news that Schwarzenegger was still deciding on those things.
Q. What demographic of students are suffering from the budget cuts?
A. With students though, there are students really all over the place. They say that the middle income people are the ones, who get affected the most because they make too much for things, but they are not able to cover some their child’s education. It is hard to tell those students that FAFSA is expecting them to contribute all this money to their cost of attendance, and then for those students to explain that their family is experiencing hard times, and they can’t fulfill FAFSA’s requirements. But I haven’t really noticed a trend in what students are affected. If the students are in financial need, they get the money. If they do not have the need, they get all loans. I personally think FAFSA is pretty fair, and sometimes it’s not for the students whose parents refuse to help them out. But we are required to take the parent information in anyway. To evaluate a family’s ability to afford school, I think it is pretty fair most of the time.
Q. Has the financial crisis with the budget cuts personally affected you in any way?
A. With the UC System budget cuts, yes, because now staff is furloughed, and a salary pay cut. I think it affects everyone working. And for students they are expected to contribute so much to school based on their income and assets etc. But if you have a certain lifestyle that you are maintaining, like budgeting a car payment on this amount of income, or a house payment, etc. Then all of a sudden there is a new bill coming in because you have a son or daughter who is going to school, and that is something you might have been expecting, but really cannot account for, and you can’t just change things so suddenly to meet a lower income. Not that the individual has a lower income, but to spread out your income over another bill. For students, it is hard for them to look at FAFSA and say that they have to pay $10,000 out of their pocket a year for school, but their family is using all their income and their resources for certain expenses so far, and to change things around to be able to fit $3,000 per quarter for just fees to attend. That’s really difficult, that’s $1,000 more a month. So for someone who is working, like me, and you work and live within your mean a certain income, and then because of the budget, they are going to have to reduce everyone’s pay. That is when the staff is going to have to switch things around so we can still live within means, like having to move, get a different car, just like anyone who has to deal with a pay decrease or anything like that.
In his letter, on October 16, 2009, Mark Yudof proposed fee increases starting January 2010. Undergraduate resident fees will be raised $585, nonresident fees will be raised $633. Graduate resident fees will be raised somewhere between $579 and $654, nonresident fees will be raised somewhere between $579 and $681. For the 2010-2011 year, undergraduate
resident fees will increase $1,344 per year, nonresident fees will increase $1,458. Graduate resident fees will increase somewhere between $1,332 and $1,506 per year, nonresident fees will increase somewhere between $1,332 and $1,566.
the committee has agreed to raise the UC fees by 32%. Now resident undergraduates must pay $6,851 for the next winter and spring semesters, nonresident undergraduates must pay $22,011. Residents graduates will have to $8,009 for the next two semesters and nonresident graduates will pay $18,039. However, those who applied for financial aid and have received the Pell Grant or the Cal Grant will receive more money for their aid in order to pay their fees. UCI’s Associate Director of Financial Aid, Penny Harrel, explains: “There’s two sides to this: one is federal money and the federal money is increasing. Obama is increasing Pell Grants, he’s
increasing loans…The Pell Grant goes to families that have no contribution, they can’ t help put their child through school at all and that’s going up and up and that goes to our neediest students. So they’re getting an increase, they’re not getting a cut. The state grant is in question mark, the Cal Grant. That one is in trouble with the state and they keep cutting back, cutting back. So far they are tracking along and even when we’re going to get mid-year fee increase here for winter, they are going to cover that. So people that have Cal Grants will not feel that pinch, but the other students will.”
This is because of the program Yudof put into effect last year to help those in financial need, known as the Blue and Gold Program. It is a fairly new program where students from families with incomes of $60,000 or lower and qualify for financial aid can attend a UC and not pay for the fees. Those who are applicable for the Blue and Gold program will receive minimum grant aid to cover their fees and those who are at higher need for aid will receive more grants to pay for room and board, books, etc. The program cost 3.1 million dollars and is paid by federal stimulus dollars.