Financial Aid at SCSU by Carl Castro

NEW HAVEN, Conn.—The letter finally arrived at the home of Megan Lynch, liberal studies major at Southern. It was a letter from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA as it’s commonly known as. She said what she hoped was going to be uplifting news, turned out to be nothing but disappointment.

“We got the letter and we didn’t get anything, it was sad,” Lynch said. “My family is basically paying out of pocket now.”

With her father also helping her brother pay through college, Lynch said the family questioned why she received financial aid when attending Sacred Heart University, but received nothing for attending Southern.

Gennaro DeAngelis is president of the Connecticut Association of Professional Financial Aid Administrators, an organization that helps in the professional development for its members, as well as mentoring young adults who are interested in a career in financial aid. He said the confusion among students and their families regarding financial aid award letters is common.

“This has been an issue within the financial aid industry for years now,” said DeAngelis. “They’ve been talking about standardizing financial aid award letters, which I think is a great idea.”

In June 2013, Democratic Sen. Al Franken of MN introduced the Understanding the True Cost of College Act to Congress. The bipartisan bill was designed to create a universal financial aid award letter. It would create standard financial terms for all schools to use and clarify the amount of financial aid families will receive from each school.

DeAngelis said the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet, created by the Obama Administration in 2012, is very similar to what Franken is proposing and is in use today. It shows the cost of attending the school minus any grants and scholarships that are available to the student, representing a net cost in the difference. It also provides the amount of loan money a student can borrow that can help pay for the difference.  But there’s one problem—not every school uses it.

“At this point it’s voluntary for schools,” said DeAngelis. “The Connecticut General Assembly passed a bill last year that makes the use of the shopping sheet mandatory for Connecticut schools starting July 2014.”

Gloria Lee, director of financial aid at Southern, said grants, government loans and work-study programs are the three forms of financial aid students can receive. When a student fills out a FAFSA form, FAFSA takes that information and notifies the schools on how much financial aid a student is eligible for based on the information given. But the amount of money schools can give is limited.

“Because we’re a state school we get a limited amount of money,” said Lee. “The federal government gives me a tentative allocation (of money), which means they can change the amount. In July, after I award the students the money, they’ll give me a final amount.”

The state government also gives her an amount of money for financial aid, but Lee said she has to take estimates from last year’s contribution because the state doesn’t give out the exact total right away. She also said it’s difficult to distribute the financial aid students need with limited funds being cut every year.

“Student financial need is defined as cost of attendance minus expected family contributions,” Lee said. “We try to satisfy their need through financial aid as funding is available. Unfortunately, funds do run out. $200,000 for 11,000 students isn’t a lot of money.”

Lee said that the government needs to stand by education and that schools need more funding to keep students in the classroom. With the lack of funds, Lee said students rely more on loans and less on grants. She also added the FAFSA estimation of the expected family contribution is construed.

“I understand the family’s frustrations because the (estimate of) expected family contribution is unrealistic,” said Lee. “They only take in account income and assets but not debt; it’s not an accurate reflection of a person’s situation.”

According to the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, a government agency responsible for consumer protection in the financial sector, student loan debt is over one trillion dollars. That’s a combination of both students in school and out of school. In 2011, students borrowed $117 billion dollars in federal student loans.

“They don’t have enough grant money for everyone and I don’t like seeing students borrowing too much money” said Lee. “But the government needs to keep interest rates low and give the students more time to pay back the loan. Right now students start paying after six months leaving school. With this economy, some students can’t find jobs within those six months.”

Traveling to middle schools and high schools all over Connecticut, Lee said she’s been trying her best in spreading awareness to students and their parents about college financing. Her and her colleagues are also looking to create a financial advisory department for students at Southern.

“Parents need to sit down with their kids and really look at the yearly cost of going to that school,” said Lee. “More and more students are graduating in six years rather than four.”

But there are ways for students to decrease their debt drastically Lee said, before adding the fact that students don’t take advantage of the scholarships that are available.

“I try to encourage students to apply for scholarships, so they don’t have to borrow all that money,” Lee said. “But they don’t want to. They say they don’t have the time or they don’t want to write an essay, it’s just an excuse I can’t accept.”