Financial aid offices fall short on staff

Jody Serrano

More than two-thirds of college and university financial aid administrators faced a moderate or severe resource shortage, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

Such shortages affect universities’ abilities to provide face-to-face counseling, outreach efforts and attention to target populations, according to the study. At UT, shortages have mostly come in the form of state and federal budget cuts and limited human resources at the Office of Student Financial Services.

“If you’re trying to counsel someone about debt, it’s best to see them face-to-face,” said the office’s director Tom Melecki. “Trying to counsel people in an e-mail or on the phone is not the best way to do it.”

Currently, the office operates with a staff of 58 employees, 26 of whom are financial aid counselors. Last year, staff members received approximately 702,000 hits on the office’s website, 107,000 phone calls, 27,532 visits to the office and about 6,000 e-mails from students. On average, the office receives about 140 visits per day.

Mary Knight, associate vice president for the Budget Office, said that UT budgeted a total of $238.4 million in scholarship and financial aid funds for the 2010-2011 fiscal year.

While the office did experience the staff shortages, it did not face problems with the introduction of the year-round Pell grant and increased federal regulations discussed in the survey. Melecki said although the office verified more individual cases to determine financial aid distribution, students benefitted from the introduction of the year-round Pell grant.

The office was not affected by the recent 5-percent statewide budget cut, but Melecki said they still do not have enough staff to meet the demand of students and help them make informed decisions.

“Some of the biggest complaints we get from students are that we’re slow to answer phones and that we’re overly bureaucratic,” Melecki said.

They also cut back on the amount of student outreach, such as staffing Financial Aid Saturdays, community events the Austin Chamber of Commerce hosts that offer application support for families applying for financial aid.

Freshman Charles Graham recently visited the office after his parents divorced last December. The divorce left his mother as the only person paying for his tuition. An adviser told Graham to fill out a Special Circumstances Appeal Form and a FAFSA.

“Before, my mom and I would just do [financial aid] online,” Graham said. “This is definitely better than online. I’m going to come back and ask a lot of questions.”

For students experiencing trouble with their financial aid office, the association recommended that students be patient and persistent, check online for answers to common questions and read and comprehend all consumer information.

“The financial aid office works overtime to ensure all students get the help they need,” said Haley Chitty, a spokeswoman for the association. “Unfortunately, this can sometimes mean long lines, but students shouldn’t be discouraged. Students that are persistent will get the help they need.”