College working hard to make financial aid easier

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Financial aid fuels Southwestern College. Said differently, this campus would be a profoundly different place without it.

About 75 percent of SWC students receive some form of financial aid. SWC‘s financial aid office receives more than 20,000 Free Applications for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) every year. Students have 18 months to apply for FAFSA and the option to apply for two academic years.

Not all students who apply for FAFSA intending to apply to SWC end up enrolling here, Larkin said. Applications are processed on a first-come, first-served basis, she said.  Students are ineligible if they already have a bachelor’s degree, more than 90 units or a GPA below 2.0.

Most impressive, perhaps, is that most SWC students report that they are very happy with the service they receive from college financial aid staff, despite some bumps and bruises along they way.

Patti Larkin, director of Financial Aid, Evaluations and Veteran Services, wants to keep it that way. Recent changes to financial aid disbursement are an effort to make the process even smoother, she said.

SWC’s Financial Affairs Office has updated its website, she said, and published a new student financial aid handbook.
“The guide is new,” she said. “We felt that we needed to put all of that information in one centralized document that was relatively easy to navigate and understand.”

Millions of students eligible for FAFSA never apply, according to U.S. Department of Education figures. More than 14 million students receive federal student aid every year, which is only 12 percent of those who are eligible.

With a staff of 12, the SWC financial aid department juggles FAFSA and DREAM Act applications starting in January, with the priority deadline for Cal Grant beginning in March. Board of Governor’s Fee Waivers (BOGW) are available in April or May.

Larkin said it is important that students understand the application process and timelines. Students intending to enroll in summer classes should have a BOGW in place before the summer, she said. Unlike FAFSA, which covers fall to summer, BOGW starts in summer and runs through to spring of the following year.

“I think one thing students need to know is that they have to apply for financial aid every academic year, not every semester,” she said.

It is wise to apply before the priority deadline, said Larkin, even if students do not plan to attend SWC because other schools can be added to the application later. That’s the good news, she said, the bad is that it needs to be consistent with other government records.

“I don’t think students understand that when they fill out their FAFSA application it runs through all sorts of federal databases,” she said. “If there are inconsistencies with what is filed through FAFSA and other federal databases, like marital status or transposed numbers, it can be a conflict and it slows awards down.”

Financial aid assistants Myrna Tucker and Rosa Carbajal agreed. They urged students to keep their addresses updated.

It is also important for students to update their declared major because federal student aid regulations require it.

“That’s the advantage of submitting an accurate application,” said Tucker. “The system will auto-package it and it is reviewed faster.”

Students should answer every single question carefully because corrections can slow down the process, said Larkin. Help screens and glossaries are available.

“Any time there is a correction, it has to be transmitted back to the Department of Education, processed and retransmitted back to us,” she said. “It takes time.”

Once the applications are corrected, some are selected for verification and need supporting documentation. Mass emails notify students to provide hard copy documents such as income statements, tax returns and proof of residency.

This document verification usually results in long lines at the financial aid counter during the fall semester. By reading emails carefully, Larkin said, students can eliminate multiple visits and waits in lines. Students are also encouraged to bring their own copies of documents to reduce waits.

After supporting documentation is reviewed, Larkin said, students are given a receipt for documents turned in and those that are still missing. She called the receipt a reminder hat the process is not yet complete.

Last year Higher One, a financial services company, was contracted to help disburse payments to students.

“The whole reason for doing this was to streamline what we do and get money into students’ hands faster,” said Larkin. “Even if they use their own bank accounts, their money is to them in less than 24 hours and it is secure. I think overall it has been really successful.”

Students can elect to use Higher One’s services to have funds deposited directly to a debit/credit card, their own bank account or still have the paper check delivered by mail.

“This is the first time students have had a choice,” said Larkin. “In the past students never had a choice on how to receive their funds.”

Larkin said Higher One is new and different, and requires students to manage transaction fees.

“I think it’s really important to clarify there are absolutely no fees at all for this process,” she said. “There’s never any money charged to disperse financial aid to anybody. There are banking fees associated with the Higher One account just as there are fees with any checking account.”

Students who open a Higher One account learn more about the process and some would much rather have the money deposited to their checking account, Larkin said. They are able to access their accounts easily and change their disbursement methods. Students only need to sign up once, but disbursement methods can be changed as often as needed.

“Not only is this a new process, but the whole banking idea is brand new for some students,” she said. “There is a learning curve on several different levels.”

Tucker said Higher One has been a positive experience for students that wanted direct deposit. Students do not have to create a Higher One account to use its disbursement services, she said.

Carbajal and Tucker both said that a lack of banking skills and failure to read instructions thoroughly has lead to some student confusion.

“We explain to (students) in a couple of weeks they are going to receive a green neon envelope and to follow the directions step-by-step,” said Carbajal. “A lot of people throw it away. They think it is a credit card from outside. They don’t have a chance to read it and realize it is something from the school that is going to help them get their money.”

Once the Higher One account is created and the funds are released, all questions of disbursement should be directed to Higher One, Tucker said. SWC is not responsible for changing disbursement options or resetting PIN numbers, she said, but most students come directly to the financial aid department expecting to correct any problems. It is the students’ responsibility to contact Higher One, she said, but many are unable to explain their problem clearly and effectively.

Tucker advised students to be patient, persistent and smart.

“A student will stand sometimes 30-45 minutes in line just to be told something they could have checked on WebAdvisor,” she said. “Don’t wait in line, go online.”

Feedback from students has shaped the financial aid process, said Larkin.

“Our students are telling us what they want, but I think the important thing to consider is we are listening and responding,” she said. “We are bringing in additional staff and making changes.”

To check the eligibility requirements for FAFSA and other financial aid programs visit http://www.swccd.edu/financialaid.

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