USC fails to address financial aid changes

With all the flowery language used to identify a traditional university — “an institution of higher learning,” “a place for complex educational thought” or “the breeding ground for tomorrow’s brightest leaders” — it’s sometimes easy to forget that USC is something more than a place where people go to learn.

If you consider other factors, such as the $1.92 billion budget the university will operate on for 2009-10, the $53,708 total estimated cost for undergraduates this upcoming academic year or the $77 million worth of university grants that will be received by continuing students, the school begins to sound like a Fortune 500 company.

At the root of it all, USC is more than a school. It is a business and we, the more than 34,000 undergraduate and graduate students, are the paying customers, shelling out thousands of dollars for our college educations. In today’s economy, just making it out with our diplomas with no more than a couple grand to pay back in debt is becoming less and less common, especially for aid-dependent students already living on tight budgets.

For some, however, the task of paying back loans, given drastic changes to their individual financial aid packages, isn’t just inconvenient — it’s impossible. With their tuition bill suddenly no longer in the realm of manageability, students are sadly faced with no other option but to withdraw.

“We didn’t see it coming but we also should have been told,” said Janet Panen, a junior majoring in public relations. “Some of us signed leases or took out loans thinking we’d be okay. Then when we finally got our [financial aid] packages, just a month before school starts, and it was like panic mode because there was nowhere to turn and we couldn’t afford it anymore.”

Confused students like Panen piled in with their appeals this summer only to find the financial aid department plagued with numerous communication challenges: a website lacking important information, a telephone service so backed up that if callers were lucky enough to get through to an actual human, they had to endure more than half-hour wait time (during some parts of the day, a recorded message told callers they couldn’t be put on hold at all) and finally, delayed responses to e-mails and mishandled document replies.

USC’s failure to communicate sensitively and efficiently with both students and their families resembled a huge corporation being apathetic to customer complaints. Students felt cheated and helpless against an insurmountable, highly bureaucratized system.

“We’re not numbers or formulas,” said Melanie Hoyt, a graduate student studying communication management. “You just can’t treat people this way.”

Among the wave of ambiguity and some anger, the Facebook group “USC Students Face Financial Aid Uncertainty” sprouted, collecting more than 200 members in its first few days. A week later membership rose to nearly 1,500.

The group faulted the university for its lack of transparency with a few changes to aid policies and calculation protocol, putting the burden of ample notification on USC. Others felt the university waited too long to release information.

“Some students were in summer school in the middle of finals when [financial aid] awards finally came out,” Hoyt said. “How could you even concentrate or study for a final when you have to worry about whether or not you can come back next year? It’s a hell of way to go to school.”

But with the effects of the economic recession now reaching all walks of life, is it safe to say that students receiving aid should have rightfully anticipated the possibility of financial aid package decreases?

Well, the answer is: not exactly.

Back in January, the Daily Trojan reported the school’s decision to raise the financial aid budget in an effort to minimize the economic impact on students (the pool increased by 8 percent, or roughly $14 million). While this preemptive move by the university should be applauded, what was unforeseen at the time was the 9 percent rise in continuing student applications for financial aid or the 15 percent increase in the number of continuing undergraduates they would later provide aid to, as cited in a letter to the Facebook administrators from the Office of Admission and Financial Aid.

Not such a shocker is the fact that the economy is the reason behind the jump in demand. And though USC’s $3.7 billion endowment suffered a 1.2 percent decrease in value last year, financial aid was not affected because of it, contrary to popular belief.

To make things clear, USC, a school with the now troublesome reputation of commanding huge wealth, never once intended to keep any deserved funds from its students in need. In fact, officials allocated more money than ever to bolster their financial support.

Still, despite the university’s continued commitment to helping its students, the message and explanation never hit home. As a result, the business relationship between students and management has been bruised, mostly due to the students’ heightened demand for answers and an unprepared department’s resistance and inability to give them.

“After explaining my story, I was told [by a aid counselor] to do what I had to do,” Panen said.

On Aug. 12, in a letter addressed to the Facebook group administrators that was posted on the group’s site, Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Katharine Harrington took the first step toward healing, offering help to students, clarifying previously unmentioned material and apologizing for “some serious service issues.”

At this point, it will be up to officials to continuously provide complete information to combat financial uncertainty for USC families and provide more time for them to take action in future. Plans are in place for the department to hold multiple comprehensive surveys and work with students to help Harrington and others better “understand students’ experiences.”

But it simply won’t be enough to update the website or publish a letter. Active and thorough notification should be provided to students well in advance and often. Aid officials must begin leading an interactive dialogue, and never stop.

Harrington has been making an effort in this aspect, as she recently sent an e-mail to students regarding the financial aid snafus, with a pledge to keep the student body informed.

This is one step in the right direction though, as it looks to be the first of many promising steps needed to correct a flawed infrastructure. Group administrator Merisenda Bills felt the Facebook group was an effective way for the top to finally take a closer look at the financial circumstances of people and “notice what the students are actually going through.”

So, while the university may be a business and we may be its customers, USC is also school and we are the students, people who help make this institution what it is — a simple detail which should never be forgotten.

Christopher Agutos is a junior majoring in public relations and political science.