Students' financial aid caught in massive backlog
Scores of students who planned to attend community colleges this fall may be drifting away because they can't get the money they're entitled to receive. Colleges across the state are reporting backlogs of up to four months in processing financial aid applications.
Seattle Times higher education reporter
Hundreds of students who planned to attend community college this fall haven't yet received the financial aid they need for tuition and expenses.
Colleges across the state are reporting backlogs of up to four months in processing financial-aid applications. That's because the number of students applying for aid has spiked due to the poor economy, software problems have slowed processing times, and colleges have fewer administrative staff following state budget cuts.
The state Higher Education Coordinating (HEC) Board reported Friday that financial-aid applications at the state's community colleges and universities are up 23 percent overall this year compared with the same period last year. Some schools have twice as many students applying for aid, the board noted.
The aid includes both grants based on need and loans.
The backlog is particularly acute at the state's community colleges, which tend to serve more lower-income students than the universities.
Bellevue College, the state's largest community college, has seen aid applications soar 36 percent this year and is working through a 90-day backlog, said spokesman Bob Adams. About 900 students who are waiting for their paperwork to be processed have been given preliminary approval to attend fall classes, Adams said, even though their tuition bills remain unpaid.
That still leaves 200 students who weren't helped at all before classes started Sept. 21, Adams said. A few of those may be paying tuition out of their own pockets, he said, while others will wait until the winter quarter to start classes or may give up altogether.
It costs $2,925 a year in tuition and fees to attend a state community college full time.
Many of the affected Bellevue students put in late applications after losing jobs over the summer, Adams said. But even some students who applied by the college's July 1 deadline — which is supposed to ensure that students will get their aid by fall — weren't processed in time. Staff members have put in 300 hours overtime trying to address the problem, Adams said.
Statewide, students received $1.62 billion in aid in 2007-08, according to the HEC Board. About 61 percent of that came from the federal government, 14 percent from state programs and 25 percent from colleges or private sources.
At Bellevue College, about one-quarter of the 12,800 students receive some kind of financial aid.
The HEC Board also noted that, although the academic year has just begun, most institutions are already running low on their limited allocations of state aid. More than 20 colleges have suspended handing out State Need Grants.
"Students are expressing greater urgency, anxiety, desperation," one financial-aid director told the HEC Board, according to its report.
At community colleges, the problems have been exacerbated by a new software system that went online at the start of the year. Officials from colleges across the state say it's had numerous problems. Some complain that even when it's running well, the system remains less efficient than the 30-year-old system it replaced.
Centralia College President Jim Walton, who's been helping to oversee installation of the new system, said colleges were forced to switch software after their vendor ended technical support for the old system. It's too early to evaluate whether the new system is going to work long term, he added.
"There were software glitches in the beginning," he said. "Things are getting better with it all the time. But there are massive numbers of students applying, so it still takes a long time."
The new software system, which serves all of the state's 34 community and technical colleges, cost about $500,000 — plus an additional $150,000 a year in annual licensing fees.
At Tacoma Community College, staff are now processing aid applications that were submitted at the beginning of June — a four-month delay, said Kim Matison, the director of financial-aid services. Aid applications are up by more than one-third this year, she added.
Jack Oharah, president of Edmonds Community College, said financial-aid staff have worked the past four or five weekends in a row attempting to tackle the backlog.
"We are getting hammered pretty hard," Oharah said. "It's been a real challenge for our staff, and I give them all the credit."
Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or email@example.com
UPDATE - 10:51 PM
Seattle Public Schools name interim financial officer