Student Financial Services is working to fix a number of issues this semester.
After taking a year off of school while living in Philadelphia, Jane Sorensen was accepted to Temple this year. Although a Student Financial Services representative told her that she would be considered a Pennsylvania resident and receive in-state tuition, she was later told otherwise, she said.
Before the fall semester even began, Sorensen received an email explaining she was now considered an out-of-state student because her mother, who resides in New Jersey, claimed her as a dependent, the senior communications major said.
“I’ve appealed this numerous times,” Sorensen said. “But there is fine print about residency that I didn’t know would apply to me.”
About a month later, Sorenson said she went to the SFS office, where an adviser said her account had a balance of $19,000 and that she was barred from class registration until she paid. She said the office did not mention that one of Sorensen’s loans simply had not processed yet.
Now she shares a predicament common among students: accounts are being placed on hold pending the approval of their financial aid, barring them from selecting courses for the upcoming spring semester.
Sorensen is one of 8,000 students with their accounts on hold, according to university officials.
Director of Student Financial Services Jim F. Morris said that holds are “nothing new,” adding that this semester’s 8,000 holds are less than the 9,700 holds from last fall.
Morris assured that if a student’s financial aid package will cover their tuition payments, their hold and late fee would be waived.
Morris is retiring in May, and a university-wide search committee will begin national advertisement of the new director position this week.
Jodi Levine Laufgraben, vice provost for academic affairs and assessment, said that SFS gave students as much time as they could to finish their financial aid requirements.
“We did give students a week and a half longer this year to pay their bill before the hold process went up,” Laufgraben said. “We waited right until, literally, 11:30 [Oct. 25], and priority registration opened up for the first category eligible [Oct. 26].”
But some students said they were unaware of missing requirements before their holds went up, and felt that service at SFS was rushed and unhelpful.
Megan Edwards, a senior English and history major, said she would never have known to fill out particular missing forms if she hadn’t gone and visited the SFS office herself. She said that her experience with the facility this year was more difficult than in prior years.
“I felt like I was expected to have already filled out this form,” Edwards said. “I looked everywhere and I couldn’t find it. It’s not like they emailed me or anything saying ‘This is an outstanding requirement you have that you haven’t fulfilled.’ Then, I would’ve just printed it out and brought it in.”
Kimberly Benns, associate director of Student Financial Services, said through an email that student satisfaction is a challenging task for SFS staff due to an increased complexity in students’ fiscal circumstances.
“Rushing students through the process is never our intent but many students come to the office expecting instant resolutions or answers to their problems,” Benns said. “When dealing with federal regulations, and university policies, it is impossible sometimes to give instant answers without research, extensive in some cases.”
Those regulations and policies, along with the 1,500 plus students applying for aid on time, were elements in what Laufgraben described as “the perfect storm.”
“We had, sort of, new sets of requirements we had to follow, a new system, the economy and more students needing aid or students who had aid needing more aid,” Laufgraben said. “And that really all hit to create the experience students are having this semester, which is very atypical for us.”
The new system that Laufgraben mentioned is Self-Service Banner, which replaced Owlnet last year, in phases. Last March was the first time students registered classes in SSB.
In the summer, teaching faculty began using the system for grading and financial aid was handled through it for the first time, Laufgraben said.
The banner system was implemented in pieces to slowly acclimate staff and students to its settings. But Morris said he believes that both groups still seem to struggle with the change.
“I think there’s a lot of frustration on our staff’s part and on students’ part, because students don’t understand the new processes and our staffs are learning the new processes,” Morris said.
The SFS office currently consists of 45 full-time employees and six vacancies, with three new hires to begin training on Nov. 7, Benns said.
This year, an all-time high of 35,141 undergraduates applied for financial aid, Benns said. Last year, 32,065 applied.
This semester, SFS has also chosen not to answer phone calls during certain hours, in an attempt to process financial aid requests.
Benns said the office’s phones were put on an automatic message during peak volumes of activity so students don’t have to be put on hold.
Laufgraben said there has been an increase of people answering phones, but most cases require students to visit an adviser.
SFS closes after 1 p.m. on Fridays to dedicate more time toward processing student financial aid, Benns said.
Employees continue to work until after 5 p.m. on Mondays through Thursdays, and also on Saturdays, in which they are “compensated in accordance with their respective contracts,” Benns said.
However, Laufgraben said that SFS is conscious of student dissatisfaction, and that a series of debriefing meetings have gone underway to solve issues with its service.
“We are very, very aware that we are not providing a level of service that students expect, need or deserve,” Laufgraben said. “So we’ve already had one very extensive meeting to begin putting together a list of things [we’re] focusing on.”
A meeting will be held this week, with more throughout the semester, and a student, whose identity is not made public, will be participating in the meetings, Laufgraben said.
Although SFS is working toward fixing its service by simplifying language on SSB or by considering open labs and training sessions, Sorensen, who said she would consider transferring if it wasn’t her senior year, remains skeptical when entering the SFS office.
“I have to get emotionally prepared for the [next] visit,” Sorensen said. “Whenever I deal with financial services at Temple, I hope for the best and expect the worst.”
Payne Schroeder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.