Overwhelming financial aid backlog

 Many students apply for financial aid with the expectation that they will be rewarded a sum of money to help them cover the cost of college. This year, for many of these students, their expectations have been met with a harsh reality.
Students waiting in line at the Financial Aid Office.
Students waiting in line at the Financial Aid Office.

Bellevue College, along with community colleges across the state, has reported a backlog in processing financial aid applications for the 2009-2010 school year.

Many factors have contributed to the delay, the most notable being the increased number in financial aid applications.

The increase in financial aid applications is not surprising. Due to the economic recession, many people are returning to school in order to improve their resumes or better secure their positions at work. More applications for financial aid are a result of more students.
According to the Higher Education Coordinating (HEC) Board, in colleges and universities across the state, the number of financial aid applications is up by 23 percent.

“[BC’s] completed applications are up by 36 percent, and the number of FAFSAs that we get, have already exceeded the total number that we got last year,” said Sherri Ballantyne, the Assistant Dean of Financial Aid and Veterans at BC.

Another issue that has slowed down the processing cycle for financial aid applications has been the switch to a new software system. Community colleges across the state have adopted the new system in order to meet regulation.

“Not to totally say that [the software is] useless or worthless, but I think with time, it’s something that will become something that’s really user friendly, but right now it’s clumsy or clunky compared to what we had before,” said Ballantyne.

Numerous Washington state community colleges have reported issues with the software.

According to Nick Perry of the Seattle Times, the system “cost[s] about 500,000 dollars—plus an additional 150,000 dollars a year in annual licensing fees.”

The financial aid office currently has approximately six to eight months of financial aid applications left to process, and they have gone through a little over half of all of the applications.

Applications are processed on a rolling basis, so students may be awarded aid, but not in time to pay for tuition, leaving them feeling helpless. 

“I would roughly estimate there was probably 200, maybe 300 students that didn’t get in fall quarter that I would have liked to have gotten in…we’re just wrapping up [applications submitted in July] and I think last year we were actually through August by the time the quarter started,” said Ballantyne.

The cost to attend a Washington state community college is 2,925 dollars a year. For those students who have not been rewarded financial aid because their application hasn’t been processed, or they didn’t qualify for financial aid, paying tuition out of their own pockets may be difficult, especially if they have to pay for other living expenses.

BC fortunately has different options for students who are having difficulty paying for tuition. They offer the Step program, which is a three-payment plan. There are also many different scholarships and student loans, which are cheaper than credit cards.

BC also offers the Multi Cultural Services (MCS) emergency loan which is typically a non-need base program. The emergency loan is a pot of money allocated from financial aid that assists both MCS and the financial aid office in helping students.

The school used to have a waiver, in which tuition would be waived for certain students; however, there is not any more money left for the BC waiver this year.

Furthermore, BC’s staff has tried different methods in order to speed up processing of applications. The staff in the financial aid office has worked approximately 350 to 360 hours of overtime. Part time hourly employees have been making phone calls to students to ensure that their applications are complete in order to save time.

Despite the backlog, Ballantyne encourages all students to apply for financial aid. Even if your application is caught in the delay, once it is processed, the chance of receiving help to pay for tuition is a golden opportunity.