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University of Montana Financial Aid Office difficult for students; UM vows improvement

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Ryan Payne received his law degree in December and will finish a master's in business administration this spring. Payne been struggling with UM's financial aide system for the majority of his college career. "I want more transparency in financial aid," Payne said. " ... It's supposed to be a supporting unit, not a hurdle to overcome."

Ryan Payne is a University of Montana student who has been chasing two degrees at once, but he said his academic challenges are a breeze compared to navigating the Financial Aid Administration.

"The financial aid (office) feels like a DMV," said Payne, who got his law degree in December and will finish a master's in business administration this spring. "Everyone is crabby. Nothing is running well. You don't know what is happening."

The determinations made in that office affect the lives of many students. The Financial Aid Administration estimates that 70 percent of the UM population gets aid.

"Their decisions have very real consequences for a lot of students," Payne said.

Last fall, former President Royce Engstrom said in his state of the university address that UM needed to improve its customer service for students. At the time, he said, "I'll be honest with you, we have considerable work to do in this area."

Current President Sheila Stearns said she, too, expects excellent customer service. In an email, she said financial aid is a "lifesaver for many students," and the dedicated staff affects likely more students than any service besides teaching and advising and aims for 100 percent satisfaction.

"Yet scholarships, grants, and waivers are limited and have legal boundaries," Stearns said. "I don’t doubt that sometimes a staff member could be more responsive. Occasionally a student expects we can help in a way that federal regulations simply don’t permit.

"Regardless, I expect every employee to be forthright, helpful, and as prompt as possible for each student in every encounter."

This week, vice president for enrollment Thomas Crady shared some of the work he's doing behind the scenes to advocate for students and improve the processes for them, including their appeals of financial aid suspensions.

"The goal there is to make it a more user-friendly process," said Crady, who came on board last summer.

He also noted one challenge of overseeing financial aid after gross abuses were reported around the country. In the past, students elsewhere used federal loans to buy things like sports cars instead of textbooks, and the government is clamping down on regulation.

"And if we don't comply with it, we can place our federal funding at risk," Crady said.

***

Payne attended the University of South Carolina as an undergraduate, and he joked that his "study abroad" time was in Montana.

He graduated in 2006 and wanted to pursue a law degree, but before doing so, he rode his bike across the country, completed other "bucket list" items, and also helped care for his mom, who died of cancer.

He wanted to return to Montana, and in 2011, he was accepted into the UM law school. In 2012, he was accepted into the MBA program. He needed financial aid, and he said it isn't one of the selling points at UM.

"Almost everything I've done involving financial aid has been so difficult," he said, noting help from Crady as an exception.

At one point, he said, the office overcharged him and other JD/MBA students, although it refunded them once Payne discovered the error on his documentation.

At another juncture, grade requirements for aid weren't up to date on the website, and grade point averages are calculated differently depending on who is counting and for what reason.

Tardy financial aid isn't helpful for buying books on time, and Payne said he had to delay taking the bar exam earlier this year because he wasn't sure if he would get loans this semester. So he chose to work rather than study for the test.

Payne, who has appealed the denial of financial aid several times, also said the process for doing so is anything but clear. Students have no insight into how their appeals get approved or denied, they don't know the criteria used, and they don't know the identity or number of committee members who review the requests.

"I want more transparency in financial aid," Payne said. " ... It's supposed to be a supporting unit, not a hurdle to overcome."

***

Kent McGowan, director of the Financial Aid Administration, said UM has a clear process in place that's been scrutinized by the U.S. Department of Education and is up to date and deemed to be in compliance.

"It's not cloudy at all. Ryan has his ax to grind, and because he's taking two different programs, the MBA and the law, he doesn't think it's clear," McGowan said.

But he said UM's policies are available to students, and he also said UM protects students in how it handles appeals, an opportunity the university isn't required to offer.

"You don't even have to entertain appeals at all," McGowan said.

One challenge is a staffing shortage, with three positions cut in the last year, he said.

McGowan estimated 200 to 300 students "are running afoul of the process," but he said they have a semester to get out of trouble before they even have to appeal. He also said some students "self select" against appealing at all.

"They have not done well academically because they are not academically motivated, so they are not motivated to appeal," McGowan said.

He agreed that not all the details of the appeals process are available to students, but he believes the result is that students come talk with him directly and have a greater chance to remedy their situation.

"It's really an attempt to try to help them through the process," McGowan said.

The number of committee members isn't available to students either, but McGowan said the members are people who work for him and can quickly, fairly and consistently review appeals. And he doesn't want students "lobbying" committee members.

The letter telling students their appeal was approved or denied doesn't state a reason, but McGowan said a rationale isn't required. Rather than note a reason in a letter, McGowan wants students to visit with him about it so he can help.

"They're more likely to be assisted if they're not told and forced to have the conversation," he said.

McGowan also said federal regulations aren't black and white, and he aims to assist students.

"My philosophy is if there is room for interpretation, and (with) a lot of the regulations there are, we basically interpret in favor of the student where we can," he said.

***

Vice president Crady is relatively new at UM, and he's said he's pleased it has an appeals process in place for students.

"I think it is helpful. I think the manner in which it's designed can always be improved," Crady said.

The staffing level is one impediment to customer service, he said, but nonetheless, he's working on improvements. He's getting in touch with former colleagues at other universities where he's worked to compare notes on procedures, and Crady said he'll pose the question on a listserv as well.

He's also advocated for students himself, but the director of financial aid is a representative of the federal government, and Crady doesn't have the authority to dismiss a suspension.

On the other hand, he wants to remove the frustration from the equation for students at UM where he can. Crady recently removed more than 60 holds at UM to make it easier for students to register.

"We just need to make it easier for students to navigate everything," he said.

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