Students line up to ask questions regarding their financial aid at the financial aid office at L114 on Wednesday, March 3. Many students have expressed their concerns and frustrations wtih the financial aid office and the lack of consistency regarding financial aid information.
Students have expressed frustration about the financial aid filing and disbursement process ranging from lengthy wait times to receiving refunds, inconsistent information from counselors and not fully understanding the process. PCC’s new financial aid director, Manuel Cerda, hopes to remedy most if not all of these issues during his tenure.
Eva Williams, a student in her second semester, still has not received a refund check from the fall 2015 semester and has become frustrated with the process and lack of information.
“I had to appeal, that was something strange for me because I never understood the process I had to go through for the appeal, I had to get so much paperwork because I had so many units,” she said. “I didn’t find out I had an issue until coming and standing in line, I never got any emails or communication that I had to appeal.”
As the deadline approaches to begin the financial aid applications for the fall 2016 term, students have a new financial aid director to help them through the process. As of fall 2015, Manuel Cerda was hired as the new director of financial aid and has many plans to streamline the process for students.
Cerda hopes to address many of Williams’s issues with big plans and changes for the financial aid office.
“One point of emphasis is technology, understanding technology and not only the regulatory component but also for students,” Cerda said. “I’m heavy on the customer service part so one of my goals here is to change that around, to be able to use modern technology like portal information, communication via email and eventually use text communication to provide more frequent up to date statuses because the technology is there we just need to use it and embrace it.”
Part of embracing this technology means that students will be expected and encouraged to utilize the online portals to check for updates to their application process, receive alerts for any paperwork they need to submit and keep track of where they are in the process.
“What I was able to implement in my previous position is what’s called push targeted communication, meaning that if it’s been a certain period of time, we send you an email, what I call a nudge,” Cerda explained. “If you’ve been stalled in there for two weeks, then you know you need to go check in and see what’s going on. Even no news is news, and if you’re not moving forward then you need to take action.”
Another point of contention with the process is the 30-day wait times to begin processing loan applications, regardless of whether a student is a new or experienced borrower.
Associate Vice President of Student Affairs Cynthia Olivo explained the justification for the 30-day wait times.
“The reason we wait to issue loans is because we want to make sure there is not a situation called return to Title IV where if you as a student make changes to your enrollment, if you drop a class or take less units than you were expected to be in, you will have gotten a loan and have to return it and we don’t want you to be impacted,” Olivo said.
Though Cerda plans to discourage students from taking out student loans at the community college level, he also has plans to implement changes to that process to reduce the wait times for experienced borrowers and process their applications faster.
“Our goal here is to be able to really discourage the use of student loans because of the Department of Education limitations and to educate students to save their loan eligibility for a four-year or professional degree,” he said. “As for the delay of the loans, one of the things is we make it a requirement for first time borrowers to wait 30 days, but there is a method where I’m going to be able to expedite that process for existing borrowers who are clear on their path to their goals.”
Easily one of the biggest frustrations for students, including Williams, is the time it takes from disbursement of funds to receive the paper refund check. The current window for that, according to the office of fiscal services, is two and a half weeks from cutting the check to the student receiving it in the mail.
“It has affected me extremely because for last semester I didn’t have anything and I had to do what I could on my own,” Williams said. “I’m disabled and on disability so I have limited funds and it’s kinda hard for me but I’m trying not to give up.”
Olivo and Cerda both confirmed that PCC is in the process of finding a debit card similar to what other colleges use as a disbursement option for students.
“Last time when we were exploring the idea of implementing the debit card, we thought since we’re gonna have to issue new IDs to students we might as well explore a debit card option,” Olivo said. “We could look at the existing expenses that are invested in generating paper checks, mailing them to students and paying people to stuff them in envelopes so it may be a wise investment.”
Cerda said that whatever option or company the school chooses to utilize, that he would like to have that company come to campus and do a presentation to educate the students on how to use the card, how to register the card, explain any fees and make the process less daunting for the students who choose to use the debit card.
“Card implementation is approximately a year away,” Cerda said. “That’s the timeline to study all companies available and find which one fits the students’ needs best and not the school operation.”
Student input is the main goal for Cerda and Olivo in choosing the right card, they said. They’ve been working with the Associated Students to create a committee and get student input on whatever decision will be made.
“The institution is considering implementing what we call a method to expedite the refunds of student’s financial aid money and there are a lot of options such as ATMs on campus, branding a card for the student, or paper checks,” Cerda said. “The Department of Education is very clear that we have to provide options for students to get their refunds and not just one option.”
Olivo concurred with the idea of letting students be involved in the decision-making.
“It’s very important to get the student buy-in at the front of the process,” she said.
Cerda hopes that with his new position as the financial aid director that his ideas will make the financial aid process easier and more technologically advanced while getting refunds to students faster so they can concentrate on their studies and graduating.
“Right now, with federal regulations it makes us have to verify each file, but I want to implement a model where we can guarantee students their first payment, if eligible, the first week of school if their documents are submitted and their files are verified by a certain date in the summer,” he said.
Communications would be sent to students starting as early as April for the fall semester reminding students to submit financial aid documents, with future reminders sent every 20 days. The day that a student registers for classes would also trigger a reminder to students as well, what Cerda likes to call “nudges.”
“I want to educate students to use that system and the number one thing is to really rely on it and really trust it,” Cerda said. “My goals are to use technology and targeted communications to remove that bottleneck that we get in the beginning of each semester and be able to award students their money in the first week of school.”
The free application for federal student aid (FAFSA) for the 2016-2017 school year is currently available to be completed and the priority deadline for processing is May 1, 2016.