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Community College Students Outraged Over Financial Aid

22 November 2008 No Comment

By Adelaide Chen  
Thousands of East Bay community college students attending Laney, Berkeley City, Merritt, and College of Alameda still have not received financial checks for the semester.

With a week left before Thanksgiving, over 2700 students still do not know the status of their financial aid offer and thousands more may not be aware that there are problems with their application.

The students demanded accountability at the Peralta Community College District’s Board of Trustees meeting on Nov. 18.

“How much more do I have to wait to see a dime,” said Toni Baker, 25, at the podium during public comment.  Baker, a full-time Theatre Arts student at Laney College said she has no one to depend on financially because she is a foster child.

“We’re working diligently to resolve this issue,” said Chancellor Elihu Harris at the meeting. “We certainly understand and apologize to the students.  It’s not their fault.”

A new software system, custom designed to integrate separate financial aid databases from the four colleges has caused major headaches for administrators and students.

But Chancellor Harris said many of the students had conflicting documents in which the paperwork submitted differed from what was stated on the application.

Over 75 percent of the applications have been reviewed.  Of those, he said, 55 percent have conflicting or missing documents.

Community college students have seven or eight checklist items when applying for financial aid.  That’s more than other students in higher education, said Jeff Heyman, spokesperson for the district.  The students are considered more “financially at-risk.”

The district acknowledges more than 2,737 applications have yet to be reviewed.  More than half of the unread applications are from students at Laney College, the largest of the four schools.

Students who turned in their application before August 31 may receive their check before the end of the year, said Donald Saotome Moore, vice president of Laney College.

But with no aid until the end of the year, some students may drop out this semester and try to recover their financial losses.

Eryka Nadreau, 26, said she already gave up her apartment and is staying with a friend.  She came to campus on a recent Tuesday, waiting in line until she reached the financial aid window, but didn’t come away with any answers.  She said she has never received any notification of the status of her financial aid application.

“They say, ‘We’re working on it.  We’ll let you know,’” she said, who described the college counselors as “scarce.”  Nadreau, working towards a two-year degree in Media Arts, said she was thinking of returning to Los Angeles and moving in with her family.

Terri Rodgers, 33, has been through the financial aid process many times.  She said she has left three months of phone messages with a counselor. She is still waiting for a call back.  She filed her application in May, and again in August.

During public comment at the district trustees meeting, Rodgers said she could have graduated with two degrees this semester had she taken a full-time course load.  But without any indication of when she would see a check, she dropped to part-time, below 12 units.  Each course unit costs $20 at the four community colleges.

Now eligible for less financial aid, she said, “My check isn’t that big.  It’s not going to make or break me.  It’s the audacity of (Peralta District) not having a back-up plan.”

Eliza Chan, a spokeswoman for Laney College said “to ease the pain”, a number of students have received emergency loans, including vouchers for books, and a number of textbooks have been purchased and put on reserve in the library.

Laney College received about 2700 applications for aid this semester, she said, and 1050 students have received funding so far as of Nov 13.

Ambree Hewitt, 24, is entering college for the first time since finishing high school five years ago.  She doesn’t want to drop out this semester, but has missed classes at Laney to pick up her 6-year-old daughter from school.  Without financial aid, Hewitt said she can’t afford childcare.

“I hardly even have resources to come to school,” she said.  Among other things, Hewitt said she has pared down her cell phone expenses to pay-per-minute instead of using a monthly plan.

Hewitt, an aspiring psychologist, said she continues to hang in there.  What kind of role model would I be for my daughter if I dropped out, she said.

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