Financial aid restructured to help students

The Office of Financial Aid has been gutted and reconstructed — both in its physical appearance and its structural organization — in an attempt to combat the customer service issues that plagued the financial aid office last summer.

Waiting room · Students wait to meet with financial aid officers in the department’s recently redesigned office. The office was renovated after complains were raised this summer. - Mike Lee | Daily Trojan

When financial aid packages were released this summer, many students took issue with their aid awards and went to the financial aid office with questions and complaints. But students and parents trying to find answers were met with long lines and inefficient customer service, something Katharine Harrington, dean of admission and financial aid, sought to change.

“We have completely redone our lobby, but it is much more than a physical reconstruction,” Harrington said.

The changes, which began last semester, were aimed at redesigning customer service and the experience at the financial aid office. The office has implemented new technologies and strategies to ensure a more streamlined process for students and parents who have questions about their aid packages.

“We have private meeting rooms, two financial aid counselors in semi-private areas who can sit and meet with students, computerized queue systems and six computerized self-service stations,” Harrington said.

Last semester’s problems, she said, were part of a “snowball effect.” Documents were lost because of technical problems so students didn’t always get their aid packages on time or at all. When they went looking for answers, students encountered even more problems.

“Essentially, our system was overwhelmed, and that was shown in the problems that arose,” Harrington said of the prior system.

To avoid future mishandling of documents, the office is now handling paperwork electronically, and students will be able to scan their documents into the system.

“We are putting much more technology behind document handling so that way when students submit the documents they will get into files more quickly and more efficiently,” Harrington said.

To address the customer service issues, the financial aid office hired an outside consultant to reconstruct the phone system. The goal, Harrington said, is to get callers in contact with live representatives more quickly.

“It’s going to take a few months, but the phone system will be much speedier and will get students and family to a real person to talk to faster. My belief will be that the entire process will be much easier for families to navigate,” Harrington said.

Jonathan Willbanks, a junior majoring in business administration-cinema television, recently visited the new office and said he was pleased with the efficient process, but still had issues with phone service.

“I think the changes are a step in the right direction,” he said. “However, yesterday I tried to call and I got the standard voicemail that there were so many people in front of me and then they disconnected me. I think that the telephone support is lacking. E-mail works well.”

Tim McNally, a junior majoring in international relations, said he is excited by the changes to the financial aid office.

“They fall apart on customer service, and I think this step is awesome,” McNally said. “It sounds like the changes are absolutely critical.”

With these changes and the impending allotment of financial aid awards for the incoming freshman class starting in February, the financial aid office is looking forward to a smooth process devoid of the problems experienced last semester.

In spite of the changes, some students still worry about the size of their aid packages.

“As reassuring as the changes are, I am worried they are not going to address the larger problems of financial availability,” Willbanks said.

1 reply
  1. SL
    SL says:

    It’s an encouraging step in the right direction. I hope they’ll now tackle the problem they have estimating the true cost of attendance. By their consistently underestimating by about $8000 a year, they’re doing a terrible disservice to each and every student and their families, who have to struggle to cover the gap when money runs out midway through each semester.

    USC is not the only university trying to improve its attractiveness by understating its cost of attendance, but an accurate estimate is critical to every family’s ability to budget through the college years and beyond. Even if a bank is willing to lend you the money you know you need, the school can only certify the amount it says you need. If that amount is off, the money runs out too soon, and the financial and emotional impact on the families can be devastating. $8000 a year is a huge gap to fill.

    If the school were honest up front, we wouldn’t take up so much of their time trying to find creative ways to request and justify one-time “budget increases.” Just think how much shorter the wait time would be!

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