Five Weeks Into School Year, University Says Financial Aid Awards Should Be Resolved

Administrator commits that situation will not repeat itself.

By Feng Ye

More than five weeks into fall quarter, a University spokesperson told The Maroon that all students should have received their financial aid awards. Some students say they are still struggling to fund their time at the University.

The Office of College Aid attributed the delays to staff departures and training related to its switch to a new payment system.

On Sunday evening, second-year Trenton Crawford sent out a collective complaint form to John “Jay” Ellison, dean of students in the College, and Jim Nondorf, dean of College admissions and financial aid. The e-mail attached a total of 66 student narratives about students’ difficulties with financial aid.

On Monday, both Ellison and Nondorf replied to Crawford’s letter. According to Crawford, Nondorf said in his reply that staff from the Office of College Aid, the Office of the Dean of Students, and the Office of the Dean of the College would meet within the next few weeks to create a plan to address demands listed in the original letter, including hiring an adequate number of properly trained staff members and releasing a statement to the College community explaining the delays in financial aid decisions. 

Crawford has also been invited to meet for lunch with Nondorf to share his thoughts, once the deans’ discussions are in progress. Ellison said that he would meet with Nondorf and others to make sure experiences reflected in Crawford’s letter not happen again, Crawford told The Maroon.

A coalition of campus activists has secured a meeting with Provost Daniel Diermeier on Friday. Fair Budget UChicago, an activist group under the umbrella of the coalition UChicago Student Action (UCSA), said in a statement that it is demanding that the University make staffing in the financial aid office a priority and that it commit to firm, public deadlines for issuing financial aid awards. 

The group is also asking that the University refrain from cutting aid packages after making an initial offer, create a committee for financial aid oversight with representatives from Student Government, and pay late fees to the students whose aid packages were delayed.

“Especially for a university that is so well-known for giving the financial aid packages…it contradicts that image that [the College] puts forward,” third-year Anna Wood, one of the co-coordinators at Fair Budget UChicago, said.

An e-mail to the UCSA listhost in advance of the meeting said that UCSA is “collecting stories about how the administration has screwed people over.” The e-mail includes student employment and financial aid on the list of topics. 

Several students who experienced delays told The Maroon they are facing looming student debt. All of these students whom The Maroon successfully re-contacted had received a financial aid package since they spoke to The Maroon.

Crawford, who received his financial aid two weeks after the quarter started, told The Maroon that the financial aid office suggested that he take out an emergency loan. According to Crawford, such a loan is commonly referred to as an “advance” by the Office of College Aid, but is actually a student loan given by The Maroon Financial Credit Union. Typically, these loans need to be repaid within a few weeks, and can be as large as $500. 

“[It] has become almost a common practice in the Financial Aid Office. For anyone who has issues, their solution for them is just go and take out a loan…being in debt is terrifying, especially when you have no savings to pay off that debt…I think it goes against everything that the No Barriers Program stands for, because this is a barrier, and the financial aid office is creating it and perpetuating it,” Crawford said.

Crawford took out an emergency loan to cover short-term costs before he received his financial aid, from which he eventually drew money to pay back the loan. “The Office of College Aid has made access to aid even more difficult and less transparent,” he wrote in an e-mail. 

Not awarded financial aid as a first-year, second-year Hanna Pfeiffer said she submitted new financial documents this year significantly different from what she submitted the previous year. She said she had received a package that contains only her National Merit Scholarship, and added that she might have to take out federal loans in the future.

“I feel that UChicago through its No Barriers Program has promised each and every student the fact that they will cover enough tuition so that the student doesn’t have to take on loans…I just wish the program applies to everyone. I don’t see why they are selective about it,” Pfeiffer said.

No Barriers is the University’s program to increase accessibility to the College and supposedly enable students to graduate with no loans.

Another second-year who was only willing to speak on the condition of anonymity expressed dismay with the idea of emergency loans. She said that even though she received confirmation on multiple occasions over the summer that all her financial documents were received, she was notified around second week that one of her documents had not been submitted.

Before she communicated with the financial aid office and ultimately received her package, she said College Aid offered the option of emergency loans on two different occasions. 

“[The College] takes students who come from difficult backgrounds to try to help them move forward, and [the College] is still treating them like second-class students,” the student said.

Second-year Maura Lynch said last Tuesday that she still had not received her financial aid package for this year. For the first week and a half of the quarter, she said she could not register for classes due to financial issues with the school. 

Lynch said she experienced delays with the financial aid office last year too. Her struggle with the financial aid office lasted for her entire first year. She has had to take out external loans to cover her tuition.

After being admitted to the College two years ago, Lynch said she was awarded full financial aid. After taking a gap year, however, she received an e-mail in November of her first quarter last year telling her that she had a bursar restriction because one of her documents was missing.

“It was a logistical error on their part that my documents weren’t processed, but they refused to [lift the restriction], and they said we have to pay the full amount [of my first quarter tuition] before my financial aid comes in,” Lynch said. 

Because of problems with her aid package, Lynch received e-mails from College Housing during winter quarter last year saying she had a few days to move out of her dorm. “It was very emotionally abusing, especially to a first-year student coming from a low-income family, that they were telling me that I was going to be kicked out of school…that I may have to take a ‘voluntary leave of absence’ when nothing about it was voluntary, all because of a logistical error on their part,” Lynch said. 

Lynch’s family took a total of three external loans to cover the cost of her school last year, she said. On Friday of finals week last year, Lynch went into the Office of College Aid to sign a contract for a loan that would cover her outstanding balance. The loan, however, was never applied to her account. When Lynch called College Aid during the summer to ask why she still wasn’t able to register for classes, she was told that her paperwork might have been lost. 

“Not only is this cycle starting again, I also lost the money I was supposed to be granted from that loan,” Lynch said.

Lynch and her family were still working with the financial aid office to figure out what happened to the contract, Lynch told The Maroon last Tuesday.

University spokesperson Marielle Sainvilus said in a statement, “Any student with remaining questions about their specific financial aid award can contact College Aid to work with an officer directly.” Director of the Office of College Aid Tina Baskin did not reply to The Maroon’s request for comment.