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For Some College Students, Staying Eligible For Financial Aid Can Be Tricky


January 24, 2010

Chaz Smith got a shock last week when he went to register for his spring semester at Manchester Community College: He was told it would cost him $1,600.

"I was like, that's impossible I have financial aid," said Smith, who is entering his fourth semester and can't afford college without financial help.

He knew he had been on financial aid probation because of a poor grade in the spring of 2009, but his grade-point average had come up in the fall and he thought he was performing adequately.

He trotted directly over to the financial aid office, where Ivette Rivera-Dreyer, director of financial aid, explained. Smith's grade point average was acceptable, but he had withdrawn from a class in the fall and that had made him ineligible for his federal grant for the spring semester.

"Often, the students don't understand this," Rivera-Dreyer said of the criteria they must meet to keep their aid. "Even though we tell them, they don't realize that a [withdrawal] does affect them and they do panic."

It's an issue that can affect students at any college private or state, four years or two and with the increase in the number of students applying for government financial aid, more are likely to get that unhappy surprise: Their aid is in jeopardy because of their academic performance.

At the state's community colleges, a student's record is reviewed at the end of each semester, which means some students, like Smith, learned just before the spring semester began that they were facing a financial roadblock.

Margaret Wolf, director of financial aid at Capital Community College, said students often are so focused on qualifying for aid that once they learn they are eligible, "they think they have nothing to worry about."

The federal government requires that students receiving federal grants and loans meet certain standards, though it lets the colleges set their own rules, within guidelines. For the state's community colleges, students must have a minimum grade point average of 1.5 for their first few courses, and after accumulating 15.99 credits, at least a 2.0. They also must successfully complete two-thirds of the credits they attempt.

A financial aid recipient can't "shoot only for the 4.0," said Wolf, but must consider his or her course-completion rate. "One of my favorite lines is: The government is looking at you as an academic investment," Wolf said.

And, the government wants to know that a student is making progress and will attain a degree in a timely manner.

Put On Probation

At the state's community colleges, students who have sub-standard performances in one semester are allowed to keep their aid for the next semester, but are placed on financial aid probation. If on probation they still fail to meet the standards, they are then told they have lost their financial aid. They have a chance to appeal that decision.

Tom Bradham, director of financial aid services for the Connecticut Community Colleges system, estimates that less than 10 percent of students receiving aid lose their eligibility because of poor academic performance. If students drop out, it is far more likely, Bradham said, to be the result of personal issues such as a parent losing a job, work demands, or relocation.

At Manchester Community College, Rivera-Dreyer estimates that of the 3,500 students receiving financial aid, about 20 percent are on probation this semester. About 10 percent received letters at the end of the first semester saying they had lost their financial aid because of poor academic progress, she said. Of those, about 50 or 60 students filed appeals seeking reconsideration.

"Seventy-five percent of the time they have very good reasons for not accomplishing what they set out to," Rivera-Dreyer said. "The situations we are hearing, now, this semester, are more than ever directly impacted by the economy."

At Tunxis Community College, David Welsh, director of financial aid, said not more than 10 percent of students on financial aid are on probation. He estimated that about 9 percent of the 3,854 students applying for financial aid for the current academic year were turned down because of poor academic progress.

At the University of Connecticut, the rate of students encountering financial aid problems is lower: about 5 percent a year are on financial aid probation and about 1 percent have lost their eligibility because of poor academic progress.

Welsh said he would expect fewer students at UConn to have financial aid problems. "The typical UConn student is just out of high school; going to UConn is a full time occupation," Welsh said. "Our students have more demands on them from work and family."

Students who wish to appeal their situations must be able to document extenuating circumstances. Among the situations not considered unusual enough to grant an appeal are divorce, interpersonal problems, difficulty balancing work or family responsibilities and transportation issues.

But financial aid officers are allowed to use their professional judgment in deciding whose appeals are honored.

Wolf said that she doesn't like to deny appeals, but that sometimes she has to say, "Sorry, you need to get back on track on your own dime."

She tells students to warn their friends about the possibility of losing financial aid. "Everyone just worries about the qualifying ... the need part," she said. "You do need it, you do have this award dangling in front of you, now step up."

In Chaz Smith's case, Rivera-Dreyer said, she quickly saw that his appeal had merit. His situation was related to the poor economy: His mother had lost her job in the fall, their home had gone into foreclosure and Smith himself had doubled his work hours to about 40 a week to bring in more income.

As a result, his studies suffered. Smith said he was grateful that Rivera-Dreyer granted his appeal. If he couldn't go to school, he said, "I'd be completely lost. I wouldn't know what I was going to do with myself."

Filing An Appeal

Two weeks ago Rivera-Dreyer also considered the case of Jennifer Harris. Harris had been on financial aid probation because of a GPA that narrowly missed the 2.0 cut-off last spring.

"At the time I was working full time, had my two kids, and I thought that I could go to school full time," Harris said. "I found out the hard way that I couldn't."

In the fall, she didn't work, but she encountered more problems: She was pregnant and was put on bed-rest by her doctor in November. She dropped all her classes, which put her well below the requirement that students successfully complete two-thirds of the classes they attempt.

"If I had known this would happen, I never would have signed up," said Harris, who has a 2-year-old and a 3 1/2 -year-old, along with her new baby. Harris is studying accounting and hopes to get into the field. Rivera-Dreyer granted her appeal.

Another student, Bonnie Pepin, got a letter saying that she was not making satisfactory academic progress at MCC and that her financial aid would not be offered this semester. She was baffled.

"What? I got all A's. This is not possible," Pepin, who was in the financial aid offices earlier this month, said she remembers thinking.

It was, again, the ratio of completed courses that was tripping up Pepin but from a decade ago. In 2000, she had been 18 and when she became pregnant, she had withdrawn from two classes. This past fall, she finally returned to school. She again took four courses, and withdrew from one. "Unfortunately, the past stays with you," Pepin said.

In some cases, Rivera-Dreyer said, it is better to take a low grade in a course than to drop a course because of the two-thirds ratio on course completion.

As it turned out in Pepin's case, there was a miscommunication: She wanted to take only a few courses last semester but was mistakenly told she needed to take a full load to qualify for financial aid. As a result of the glitch, she was given another chance to keep her financial aid for the spring semester.

Rivera-Dreyer is always glad when students come in to appeal their decisions. She says some don't appeal, despite letters and e-mails informing them that they can.

"The great thing about appealing," said Rivera-Dreyer, is that when students come in, "we can connect them with tutoring and the advisers. ... It's a great opportunity to meet with them."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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