Financial aid sees record number of appeals

Rachelle Dondrea, a freshman majoring in psychology, found herself struggling to pay for school when her Navy ROTC scholarship fell through. She hurried to submit her financial aid documents on time and ultimately had to take out a number of loans to pay her tuition.

But what Dondrea did not know is that the Financial Aid Office has a process for considering students’ extenuating circumstances.

“I didn’t know about it,” Dondrea said. “I was already a semester late paying for previous tuition. I had to rush and didn’t think I had time.”

Most of the students who were scrambling Tuesday night to file their financial aid forms will be given an aid package in July and not think about it again. But a few will find themselves back in the Financial Aid Office, appealing for more money because of changes to their families’ financial situations.

Though USC says it doesn’t set aside any money for students who unexpectedly need it, Guy Hunter, assistant dean of Financial Aid, said students who find themselves in trouble should file appeals with the financial aid office because  they could get more money.

“They’d have to submit documentation, like a loss of employment letter,” Hunter said. “Then we’d re-evaluate their financial aid. If we find that a student’s need increases, we would fund that student.”

This year, Hunter said, many students were faced with sudden changes to their financial circumstances, largely because of the economic downturn and a major increase in job losses. He said the number of financial aid appeals filed this year nearly tripled from last year, from 500 to approximately 1,500.

Appeals are considered by a committee and based on a standardized system. They are also dependant on the amount of money left to give. Though not all appeals come to fruition, Hunter said it is to a student’s advantage to apply and talk with a counselor.

“My guess is anything greater than a $3,000 difference would generate a change [in financial aid],” he said. “But it’s not a dollar-for-dollar thing. If they feel their situation has changed, we encourage students to submit an appeal.”

But some students, like Dondrea, are not aware of this opportunity.

Dondrea said, after she did not get the aid she needed, she went to the Financial Aid Office to ask what she could do. The only advice she got, however, was to apply for loans.

“I had to rush [FAFSA] and didn’t do the CSS Profile. My parents had to take private loans but were already denied because of poor credit scores,” Dondrea said.

Dondrea’s parents ended up qualifying for a Parent PLUS loan, which requires a less in-depth background check. She was then awarded $13,000 in university grants and aid but continues to struggle to find ways to pay off her accumulating debt.

“I do feel they could have done something more for me,” Dondrea said.

USC Financial Aid officials said they do what they can while being fair to all the students who are able to apply for financial aid on time.

Hunter said the amount of aid given to students who ask for more financial aid after the deadline depends mostly on how much funding is available after financial aid packages are given out.

“There’s not money we set aside; it’s really based on availability of funds,” Hunter said. “We disburse it to students who apply on time, so when there’s no money their funding might be different.”