Financial Aid: It’s not all their fault

No one can deny that money has long been a source of frustration for both students and faculty at FAMU.

As October ushers in midterm season, some students still have not received financial aid disbursement and some teachers have only recently received payment for working the summer semester. However, while payments seem to be in short supply, there are more than enough excuses to go around: paperwork not being processed on time, documentation not being done properly, etc. The explanation students seem to most readily accept, however, is, “Because it’s FAMU.”

Nevertheless, “because it’s an HBCU,” does not constitute a valid excuse either.

Really, one of the largest contributors to the gap is a lack of funding. HBCUs often lack the extensive alumni associations of PWIs, so donations are seldom as frequent or as liberal as those to, say, Ivy League schools. This means that the funds necessary to deal with administrative hiccups are not always readily available. It is an annoyance, but it is also a legitimate obstacle.

What is not acceptable, however, is the administration’s tendency to give students the run-around until it can come up with suitable answers. It is a common story: students go to financial aid looking for a net check, financial aid sends them to student accounts, student accounts sends them to the scholarship office, which in turn sends them back to financial aid, rinse and repeat. It is a frustrating cycle. Nevertheless, it is almost a given that administrators are as sick of hearing students complain as the students are of having to do so. It is part of the reason it takes so long to get anything done.

A small part.

The number one reason it takes half a semester to get anything done at an HBCU? Disjointedness.  For some reason, none of the university departments seem to know what the other departments are doing. In fact, they do not even seem to care. Everyone has a clear-cut definition of what his or her job is and refuses to deviate from it. Employees seem more interested in getting out of the office at 4 p.m. than anything else. This could be why bookkeeping always seems so sloppy at HBCUs. Such preoccupation is why $1.2 million can go missing and never reappear, the way it did at Alabama A&M University in Huntsville, AL. No one wants to double-check the numbers; no one wants to delve deeper; no one wants to go the extra mile.

Of course, the same can be said for students, especially those at HBCUs, who often have the idea that they are owed something; that university employees are there to serve them, fix their problems instantaneously and clean up their messes with a smile and a wave. Students have to realize that in order for the system to work properly, they have to do their part: sign the promissory note, complete entrance counseling, fill out the FAFSA on time, etc.

The financial aid office was unable to release the exact number of students who had not filled out their FASFA by the priority filing date or the number of those students who have not yet received financial aid. However, the common belief inside the office seemed to be that more often than not, the same students who complain about not receiving aid are the same ones who let the deadlines pass by without a backward look.

“If you look at the table outside, you’ll see we’re almost caught up,” said Marcia Conliffe, director of financial aid. “So if you still haven’t received disbursement, you might want to go back and check that you didn’t do something wrong.”

Then again, the school could always do a better job of keeping students informed. This year, due to budget cuts, scholarships were decreased without any prior notification to students. The school is not obligated to inform students of such changes, but it seems like it would be done as a courtesy. Most students just do not know enough about the ins and outs of the financial aid process to be prepared for the issues that can emerge. It could be argued that it is the responsibility of students to find the necessary information themselves, and there is some truth to this.

However, the students and the administration are both parts of the whole institution; it takes both parties to keep the system running smoothly, and both parties to throw a wrench in the operation. For the situation to get better, students and administrators will have to set aside their mutual frustration, stop spreading around blame, and start spreading around responsibility. No excuses. Only results.