Financial aid changes catch some unaware

By ANDREW PAXTON  and COLE POTWARDOWSKI

Each year, Pima Community College students like April May Ramey use financial aid to pay for tuition, books and other expenses, but many are unaware of the annual fiscal changes that take place every July 1.

Ramey is entering her final semester at Pima. She is currently the president of Student Government at Downtown Campus, and an officer with Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society.

She applied for financial aid in April, around the time recommended by college officials.

Even though Ramey applied months before the deadline, she was still purged from her classes because her financial aid funds had not yet been released.

“I was shocked when I was dropped from my classes,” she said. “I had to set up a payment plan and hope like hell I could get the same classes.”

This year, the college shifted its financial aid disbursement date to Aug. 28, the first day of classes, because of changes administered by the Department of Education for the 2013-14 fiscal year.

Until this year, funds were disbursed 10 days before the course start date, according to financial aid advisers.

Receiving funds before classes began allowed students to take care of their expenses in advance.

“I depend on financial aid to pay for my books and classes,” Ramey said.

But the early disbursement of funds didn’t always make things easier for students, according to Anna Reese, executive director of financial aid for Pima.

“Funds were disbursed before the course start date but there were instances where students dropped classes or switched schedules and in some cases had to owe money back to the federal aid program,” Reese said. “Most were not able to pay the money back.”

To remedy this, funds are now disbursed at the start of or after the enrollment date.

“This helps so we can make sure everyone’s secured their class schedule,” Reese said.

In order to combat increasing fraud, the government and the college have tightened up many of the regulations and methods related to the Pell Grant and Stafford Loan programs.

Norma Navarro-Castellanos, acting director for financial aid at Pima, noted an increase in financial aid verification paperwork among the recent changes.

“Verification is very specific to the student,” she said.

Students who apply for a Free Application for Federal Student Aid online typically complete verification paperwork as their next step.  There are several categories of verification required by the government, and often students must submit multiple forms.

“They were trying in their efforts to simplify it for the students,” Reese said. “The more documentation they can submit, the more at ease they can be.”

Verification enhances the accuracy of FAFSAs but takes four to six weeks to process. In some scenarios, this can delay the disbursement of financial aid rewards to students.

Officials said the key to getting aid disbursed on time is filling out the FAFSA as early as possible, so all documentation can be collected before the deadline.

“Any documentation processed before July 1 is processed fairly quickly,” Navarro-Castellanos said. “Students are highly encouraged to apply before July 1.”

Students can apply for financial aid year-round and the college reminds students via email to submit their FAFSAs as early as April of each year, according to officials.

Ramey received her confirmation letter from the financial aid office on April 17, but still had to set up payments in order to register for classes.

“I was able to make arrangements, but most students do not have that ability,” Ramey said.

Many students interviewed for this story had no recollection of an email reminding them to apply for aid. Several students, including Aztec Press staff members, retroactively checked their Pima email accounts and also found no trace of this notice.

“I did not receive an email stating that I should be aware of this issue,” Ramey said. “That is the disheartening part.”

The plethora of rules and changes associated with financial aid can be confusing to students. Many feel the college needs to do more to make students aware of deadlines and other restrictions that may impact their ability to succeed at the college.

“Pima is about the students and the college should have taken measures to circumvent this,” Ramey said.

 

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Financial aid problems costs taxpayers thousands

By ANDREW PAXTON

Student veterans have been incorrectly paid at least $67,000 because Pima Community College failed to report that they were no longer eligible for financial aid.

Veteran’s Administration officials are now in the process of recovering funds through their debt-collection process.

The VA has also threatened to limit its programs at the college if changes were not made to better accommodate the needs of veterans seeking an education at Pima.

Of 2,875 veterans in courses at PCC between 2010 and 2012, at least 767 had errors in their files, according to a statement from Pima to the VA.

College officials say the problems have mostly been addressed and they have added more employees to help keep track of veteran’s files. The VA has said it will continue to monitor PCC to make sure the college is compliant.

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