Feature: Financial Aid Counselors Help Students Understand Assistance

Financial Aid is the most popular office in the Western Oregon University Lieuallen Administration building this week, with students lining up to talk with counselors about their aid packets and to hammer out lingering details. The office staff is primed to help students as efficiently as possible. On Monday alone, the group served 104 students between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. On Tuesday, a student sat in the waiting area before the doors even opened.

Scholarship Officer and Financial Aid Counselor Natasha Roman ’14 said New Student Week and the first week of classes are the office’s busiest times of the year, especially with the Sept. 29 due date for partial payments on the horizon.

“Students want to know what their financial aid package means,” Roman said. “Many of them are on their own as adults for the first time, and they need some guidance. A lot of them are trying to figure out if they have enough paid on their account to meet the one-third requirement by Friday.”

Turning confusing government-speak into understandable, actionable terms is one of the primary priorities for the Financial Aid staff, which includes Director Kella Helyer, Assistant Director Robert Hoffman, Roman, three other counselors—two are bilingual—and a collection of administrative support workers who keep things running smoothly. Most of the action revolves around the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

“Basically what we do is interpret federal regulation for students,” Roman explained. “We take all that confusing federal lingo and put it into regular terms. There are so many different variables that go into a financial aid package. We make sure a regular student can understand what is happening on their FAFSA, especially if they are selected for verification.”

Verification is an extra layer of required documentation that proves a student’s reported information is accurate, sort of like an audit for financial assistance recipients. About a third of FAFSA applicants are randomly selected by the government for verification, and it can slow down the disbursement process, frustrating students and parents in the process. It’s just one of the complications that the Financial Aid staff is equipped to help students navigate.

Another is the billing process. Financial Aid as a department doesn’t hand out any funds, issue refunds or accept payments. That’s all done at the Business Office, and a lot of new students aren’t familiar with the distinction. Questions about this process are the most common calls the Financial Aid staff fields.

“We can talk to students about their bill, as far as explaining the aid they can get,” Roman said. “We can explain the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized loans. We tell them how work study works. We let students know what they are eligible for, and we let the Business Office know how much money they have. The Business Office gives them a refund if they are eligible for one.”

If the process seems confusing, Financial Aid works hard to make sure students have access to a lot of informational resources. During the summer, Roman reworked the scholarships webpage to boost clarity and utility. She added a frequently asked questions section and made other improvements. The Financial Aid website is chock-full of helpful tools, as well, from the tuition calculator to the estimated cost of attendance to details about Satisfactory Academic Progress. Roman said the “Paying for College” tab covers just about everything a student would want to know about financial assistance in all its forms.

The education process for informing students about funding options starts even before students arrive on campus. Roman and other members of the department make presentations to high school students both on and off campus, helping them fill out the FAFSA—throwing in a plug or two for WOU—and explaining how scholarships work. Any admitted student can apply for the wide range of scholarships WOU offers, as long as they keep their eye on a few key deadlines.

“The priority deadline for filing the FAFSA is Feb. 1,” Roman said. “The filing period opens Oct. 1, so they have four months. Anyone who qualifies for need-based aid absolutely has to have their FAFSA in by the deadline. The other important date is March 1, when our general scholarship application is due. The vast majority of WOU scholarships are not based on financial need, but everyone has to have their application in by that day or they won’t qualify.”

Roman said Financial Aid sends reminders to students about upcoming deadlines, but she’s not sure how many people are opening and reading the messages. The department is trying to make the emails more visually appealing in an attempt to get students’ attention before it is too late.

“No one wants to read a huge block of text,” said Roman, who got her undergraduate degree at WOU before joining the staff. “I know when I was a student, I never opened them. And I missed out on some deadlines because of that. But students should understand this: The Financial Aid office doesn’t send out extraneous emails. We only send out emails when it’s important and when it pertains to you.”

If students are unclear about what an email means, there is a simple way to get clarification. They can make an appointment online with a financial aid counselor using the WCS link on their student portal. The appointment may be done on the phone or in person, and students can choose a preferred counselor if they like. For basic questions, the support staff members who work the phones in Financial Aid can offer assistance.

“Most of the students who come into our office are just overwhelmed,” Roman said. “We are happy to talk to those students. The Financial Aid office is not a mean, scary place. There are a whole bunch of counselors here who are more than happy to take the time to talk to students and help them feel like they’ve gotten the answers they need. We want students to be successful as far as financial aid goes. We do have limitations. We can’t make funds appear for students. But we are going to do our best to make sure that students have the information they need to get as much financial aid as possible.”

Roman said another sticking point for students and parents alike is Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) regulations. The federal law restricts the information about student accounts that can be shared with others, including parents. This barrier often is jarring for parents or other people who are helping students because they aren’t automatically privy to account information. In those circumstances, students can fill out a Release of Information waiver, a form found online or in the Financial Aid office.

In fact, parental involvement can be tricky when it comes to financial aid, Roman said. Many students want and need their parents’ guidance on money matters. But it’s often better if parents can step back and allow the student to drive the process. That way, students gain the financial savvy they will need after graduation and there won’t be any surprises about debt load later down the road.

Basically, Roman said, the Financial Aid staff wants students to feel welcome and supported in the office, even if there are bumps in the path. Everyone on the staff wants students to succeed at the university and after they graduate, she said.

“All roads lead to Financial Aid eventually,” she said. “There are a lot of emotions in this office. It’s just what happens any time financial issues are involved. But we just explain what students need to know. We are very easy to talk to. The financial aid office is on their side.”

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