By Sheena Jones
As the middle of the Fall semester approaches, a number of SIPA students still have not received Graduate Plus Loan Disbursements. With no annual limits and low interest, the federally administrated Graduate Plus Loan is a major source of funding for many American graduate students. After tuition and fees are paid, the remainder of the loan is normally disbursed to students for rent, textbooks and other personal expenses. At SIPA, disbursement is supposed to occur every semester on the final day to add or drop classes. This semester, that day was September 17 – a day that’s passed with SIPA’s Graduate Plus Loan recipients still waiting to receive disbursement.
SIPA’s Office of Admissions and Financial Aid did not provide details on the exact number of students who are waiting for the loan disbursement. SIPA’s domestic students make up 44% of the student body, according to a staff member of the office, who preferred to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the subject. According to the anonymous staffer, it was “typical” for MIA, MPA and MDP students take on Grad Plus loans.
“My financial planning depends on the disbursement coming in at a certain date. I’m sitting here with a huge tuition bill from the university that I’m unable to pay,” said a second-year MIA student who preferred to remain anonymous.
Second-year MIA student Christopher Bodington, a resident of International House, is concerned about paying his rent. “I’ve already asked [International House] for an extension [on the rent payment]. I just called today to get another extension so hopefully I won’t get locked out of my room tonight,” he said.
The delays are a result of a number of changes in the loan administration process this year, according to the anonymous staff member at the SIPA financial aid office. The movement of money from the U.S. Department of Education to Columbia University is purportedly the origin of the delays; Federal verification of student aid reports and inaccuracies in the reports have taken the summer to correct and are still in process.
Procedural changes within Columbia University may have also compounded these delays. The university became a direct lending institution this year, meaning students receive federal educational loans directly from the Department of Education rather than from a bank or educational lender. In addition, Columbia University is implementing a new financial aid information system in order to alleviate past glitches whereby automatic refunds would, at times, be issued to students twice or not at all.
Last week, students were unable to access information online about their loans because of the university-wide change in information systems. Frustration was expressed by students who that this information has not been properly communicated.
“I realize that it’s the student’s responsibility to go on SSOL and manage the status of their own loans,” said second-year MIA student Meredith Hutchinson, “But if there’s a glitch in the system, there needs to be proactive communication from the school. The fact that there’s been zero communication is very disappointing.”
“When they don’t say something, it seems like things are out of control,” said another second-year MIA student.
The financial aid office said they were working to bridge the communication gaps. “We’ve tried to be transparent and provide information to students,” said the anonymous staff member. For the office, the challenge was in discovering information just as quickly as the students were.
Before online financial administration, the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid manually identified all students who had been affected, checking their credit to discern who is eligible for refund and the amount to be refunded. The office said that plans were underway to send emails out to the affected students but that these checks were very time-consuming.
When asked what students awaiting disbursement should do, the financial aid office suggested that students make sure they have a valid, domestic address on SSOL. Students should also check to see if their loan request forms have been processed, as well as the Plus Loan Master Promissory Note and Entrance Counseling.
“If there’s immediate need for money, come see us in the office. Don’t suffer in silence. We are aware of the problems and would like to hear to from students vocally to see if there’s anything that can done to make sure all problems have been isolated and resolved,” said the anonymous office staff member, who indicated that the disbursement issues would be resolved within 5 to 10 business days. For the dozens of affected students, let’s hope this happens within the projected timeframe.
Sheena Jones is a second-year Master of International Affairs Student and World Affairs Editor at Communiqué.