Meron Begashaw had found a school she loved.
And thanks to a $16,000 financial aid package, she attended USC last year as a freshman with a major in health promotion and disease prevention.
“I’m just blessed to have spent my freshman year at a school that I love,” Begashaw said.
But this summer, Begashaw looked at her financial aid package to discover she was only receiving $3,000 — a $13,000 cut that came at the same time her dad’s income dropped 20 percent.
She appealed to financial aid — stood in lines, made phone calls, sent letters.
In the end, though, Begashaw decided the process wasn’t worth it.
She left USC for a year at community college, and hopes to transfer to a UC next year.
“It was hard for me to come to that decision,” she said. “I felt like I was going to regress in my education, but I think I did the right thing.”
Begashaw wasn’t the only USC student faced with tough decisions this summer.
The financial aid office changed its formula for calculating aid this year — increasing the maximum loan amount and adjusting the expected student contribution based on the current minimum wage.
Those changes, though not drastic for most, went unannounced. Many students received an unpleasant surprise when their financial aid packages were posted and, when they tried to discover the root cause, found it hard to get through to the financial aid office, creating unrest throughout the student body.
Katharine Harrington, dean of admission and financial aid, admitted this year’s changes, combined with poor document handling, created a perfect storm for the financial aid office and students looking for aid.
Harrington described the problems as a “snowball effect.” Phone lines were tied up, she said, because so many students called about misplaced documents, so when others called, they found themselves on hold for long periods of time.
“My customer service operation was swamped, and it went from there and it just kind of got worse,” Harrington said. “We also shot ourselves in the foot with some very poor document handling.”
Jon Willbanks, a junior majoring in business administration (cinema-television), found himself a victim of both the changed formula and the imperfect customer service.
“Financial aid … really made it possible for me to come to USC,” Willbanks said. “But because of some small income from a summer internship, it altered the way our numbers plugged into their formula … which raised the amount of money we owe by a much larger amount than the extra income.”
Though Willbanks is still attending USC, he found himself looking for extra sources of income at the last minute. Adding to the frustration, Willbanks said he has not been able to get an answer from USC as to why his aid dropped, despite multiple phone calls, emails and faxes.
Students like Merisenda Bills, the administrator for the Facebook group “USC Students Face Financial Aid Uncertainty,” didn’t receive their packages on time, and were told their documents had never been received, though the error was often on the part of the financial aid office itself, Harrington said.
It was the fact that so many students ran into problems with the financial aid office that prompted Bills, a junior majoring in broadcast journalism, to form the Facebook group in July. The group quickly skyrocketed to 1,500 members.
Problems faced by the group members run the gamut — from not receiving enough money to not receiving financial aid packages until midsummer to claims of missing documents to complaints about the lack of prior notice.
Harrington, who met with the administrators of the group soon after its inception, said she recognized the problems students on financial aid have faced this summer. She said the financial aid office has worked to correct the problems, and will be doing even more work as the year goes on.
“I apologize for it and we are working very, very hard to make it better,” Harrington said. “It’s a real problem.”
For fear that students might leave USC — as Begashaw did — because of frustration with this year’s financial aid process, Harrington said her staff personally reached out to all the continuing students who were on financial aid and had not reregistered. Based on those phone calls, Harrington said, it appears that few students have had to withdraw. She said, however, even a few leaving the school is too many.
“For the majority of students, we did get it right, but it’s not OK with me if we mess it up for even one, and we messed it up for more than one,” Harrington said.
Harrington said most problems arose not from the changes — made after a comprehensive review to financial aid policies — but from poor execution.
After meeting with the administrators of the Facebook group, Harrington said she learned how crucial communication is to the successful operation of the financial aid office. Should changes to the financial aid calculation process be made again, Harrington said her annual letter to parents will detail these changes. She will also be meeting with students to determine the best methods of communication.
Bills said increased communication was a key concern for many students.
“A lot of it was things that may seem clear to them don’t seem clear to us,” Bills said. “… I think if they would’ve been clear, students would feel less angry.”
Other, bigger changes are also on the way, Harrington said. All financial aid documents will be handled by processing, the department that currently handles admissions documents, so students will never have to deal with their papers being lost.
Financial aid is also planning to remodel Hubbard Hall and hire a call center manager to streamline the phone customer service.
Administrators of the Facebook group — which students said seemed to bring the problem to the attention of the university — said they were pleased with the outcome of the meeting with Harrington, but still disappointed the problem occurred at all.
“We had to have a group of 1,500 people before they put [the changes] on the website,” said Jayson Davies, an administrator of the group and a junior majoring in occupational
Harrington said the financial aid office is working to correct its mistakes and that it appreciates input from students.
“It hurts me personally when we find ourselves in these kind of situations,” Harrington said. “Our university commitment to you all is unwavering and all of what I do is very, very important to me to be done well — it’s the work of my heart.”