Lifting the Veil on Financial Aid

Christina Kelso

Between scholarships, loans and grants, 95 percent of Jacksonville University students come into contact with the Financial Aid Department at some point throughout the academic year, a percent encompassing approximately 2,900 students for the fall 2011 semester, under the jurisdiction of only five counselors. This presents a daunting task.

In the past month, the door of the financial aid office has been in a state of seemingly constant motion. Lines of students file in and out of a daily flurry of financial questions. Madeline Shaffer, a first semester freshman, is one of these students.

“Five days before I had to make a payment, I received an updated FASFA letter reporting that my Pell Grant was $1500 less than I was originally told. The office had this information for five months before I finally found out I had to make up the money,” Shaffer said.  “The staff was friendly and apologized for the problem but they could not do anything about it.”

The most common problems encountered in the financial aid office are and echo of this, involving either miscommunication, a lack of information and determining what to do if they fall short on money. Mistakes happen, while this is unavoidable in any setting, it is much easier to prevent a problem than to correct it. The best way for students to avoid this type of issue is simply to be proactive.

“The most important thing for students to realize is that they have to be their own advocates,” said Breanne Simkin, Director of Financial Aid. “They have full access to their financial aid status on Web Adviser. They should check it frequently and if there is a problem call and investigate.”

With a financial report at his or her fingertips on Web Adviser, any student can see how much they owe, what financial aid was updated, what documents have been turned in and which are missing. This is helpful because often the high turnover time for financial aid updates because of information that has to be verified or has not yet been turned in by the student.

The early set up of this program leaves a large gap of time for students to get all paperwork submitted. It is important to get papers in as quickly as possible and to do the extra work for outside scholarship money and student loans before the year starts. Once the semester begins, meeting the gap becomes much more problematic.

“Students live in a culture where they don’t feel comfortable asking questions, but this is their money,” said Simkin. “Nothing is a secret and they should be as informed as possible. Part of college is learning how to have financial success.”

Additionally, knowing and building a relationship with their financial aid counselor is a great help to students in keeping up to date on their financial aid status. They are there to help and serve as a knowledgeable resource to both preventing and solving financial problems.

“We have recently reorganized our staff to get information out faster and give better customer service to students,” said Simkin. “It has been a slow change but the office has improved in the past year and I hope it continues to get better.”

On the office side of the spectrum, the Financial Aid Department is in pursuit of improvement. Recently reorganizing their staff to manage the university’s increasing number of students, the office is optimistic and determined to meet the demand.