Half-staffed financial aid office restructures scholarships for incoming freshmen | News





New students at the University of Montana will have a different set of scholarship offers after the Financial Aid Office took a look at how much money it has and ways to make distribution more equitable.

A big change affects Western Undergraduate Exchange students. A full WUE offer will now require high school students have a 3.95 GPA or above. Below that, there’s a new tiered method for deciding amounts.

Financial aid director Emily Williamson is working with Mary Kreta, vice president of enrollment management since September 2020. They are reallocating funds and analyzing the past five years of financial aid data in with outside company RNL Advanced FinAid Solutions.

“We have limited resources, so we need to figure out what students are not getting the awards they should be in order to make access to higher education and reassess our limited resources to bridge that gap,” Williamson said.

Williamson and Kreta then worked with the company to set up new scholarship offers using a more refined cost-of-attendance estimate for different students. The estimates accounted for expenses like housing and groceries on top of tuition and fees, and were further categorized with metrics like home states, GPAs and credit loads.

“We want to give as much money to as many students as possible, and if that is giving them cash in hand and covering more than their tuition, that’s awesome,” Kreta said. “The best way to get more students access to higher education is to create a strategy where we’re helping as many students as possible get the right amount of money they need to attend.”

The scholarship adjustments went into effect in October 2021 to serve incoming freshmen for the fall 2022 semester. The University previously dished out more than 1,000 WUE scholarships to students in fall 2021, a 36% increase from fall 2020. A full WUE award is nearly $19,000.

The Financial Aid Office adjusted its scholarship offers while working with only nine full-time staff members, half of what the office’s organizational chart calls for.

Kari Neal, a former financial aid employee from February 2019 to March 2022, supported the office in hiring a third party for data analysis due to the office’s severe understaffing. Neal’s main reason for leaving her position was the heavy workload.

She was also concerned about Williamson’s ability to train new employees on top of the job’s many other demands when Neal left.

“Everyone that works there is very kind. I just found the work to be frustrating because the office is perpetually understaffed, overworked and underpaid,” Neal said. “We really have to be trained when you come in, which made it unfortunate when I left. I was there for two years, and I have knowledge and the ability to do more stuff than someone that’s been there for six months. [Williamson] does everything and a lot more, and if she left it would be devastating to students.”

Neal became most frustrated with the office’s understaffing when students complained that scholarship processing and refunds were taking too long. She said she had to direct students to food banks and other low-income resources while they waited for refunds to be processed multiple times.

Neal said there is a complex approval system for federal aid, which involves individual steps in the financial aid office, Department of Education and UM’s business office. In her time, Neal said the business office would only issue refunds on Tuesdays and Fridays, which would bog down refunds by days or even weeks at a time.

Neal said parts of UM’s operations were obsolete, like how all private loans from banks had to be processed through physical checks rather than electronically. Williamson said it updated their check processing system to accept electronic payments from banks last semester.

“To me, it seems like a really antiquated system. Is there any way we as an institution can spend money to upgrade the system? It seems pretty outdated,” Neal said.

Many financial aid awards rely on student FAFSA applications, which determine eligibility for federal money for school and is often required for scholarship applications. UM saw a drop in FAFSA filings at the outset of the pandemic.

FAFSA applications for UM students then increased by 38% in 2022. Williamson encouraged students to look into the FAFSA appeals process to seek more accurate expected family contribution estimates for their financial aid applications.

Williamson presented the expanded data analysis to Terry Payne, founder of the PayneWest insurance group and alumnus of UM. Payne previously proposed a $5 million donation for a scholarship fund serving middle income students outside of Pell Grant eligibility. After Williamson’s presentation, Payne increased the donation to $7.5 million to create the Payne Family Impact Scholarship. First-year students can apply in fall 2022, as long as they have also filed a FAFSA.

FAFSA requires income reporting from two years prior to the application, which could be more complicated for people with drastic changes in income and not reflective of employment changes from the pandemic. Appealing to reassess financial aid eligibility was also a frequent process following the 2008 recession.

Financial aid and enrollment are seeking further changes to expedite reward giving, like using the campus-wide scholarship portal for all departments over the next couple of years. Williamson said there are about 10 departments that have not yet transitioned to the University-wide system.

The Department of Education is transitioning to a new “student aid index” system rather than expected family contributions, which Williamson anticipated will be more reflective of financial need and reduce last-minute adjustments on student registration bills. The changes would not affect colleges until at least 2024 and could better accommodate middle income students that cannot qualify for many major federal rewards like the Pell Grant.

“I’m intrigued and excited to see what the student aid index does because I feel like it will give us a much broader range of need, and it could drastically change what we consider middle student income,” Williamson said.

Kreta said she recognized student complaints in the Financial Aid Office and that she is targeting the issues with pushes to hire more people to the office.

“A huge misconception is financial aid is all about spreadsheets and federal regulations, but the reality is there is not a department on campus that has more of an impact on the student’s ability to come to college than financial aid,” Kreta said. “The amount of impact [Williamson] has had on this state is far greater than almost anyone I know, and I hope more people can contribute to that work.”

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