FVSU coping with financial aid delays

Nearly two weeks after the start of classes, financial aid delays at Fort Valley State University still are preventing students from officially enrolling in the school.

Officials say there are a number of factors leading to delays in financial aid processing at the university, including increased enrollment, statewide budget cuts and an influx of students who did not file financial aid paperwork on time.

Fort Valley State has seen explosive growth in the past year, increasing to nearly 4,000 students from last year’s 3,106, making the university one of the fastest growing colleges in the University System of Georgia, said Terrance Smith, vice president of student affairs. Budgets cuts throughout the university system also have affected the school’s staff size, including in the financial aid office, he said.

The university has hired a team of four consultants to help process the high volume of financial aid documents, Smith said. However, given current student demands on financial aid staff, Fort Valley State could use the services of at least two more employees to handle the school’s increased enrollment, he said.

“We are servicing more students with less resources with the mandated budget cuts,” Smith said.

Staff members are working weekends to help expedite financial aid processing, Smith said. Currently, the financial aid office sees about 100 to 200 students every day.

Students waiting for their financial aid to be processed could face up to $200 in late enrollment and reinstatement fees. Smith said the fees may be waived or remain in place, based on individual evaluation.

“We remain committed to ensuring that we work with each student on a case-by-case basis to receive the maximum amount of financial aid, while we adhere to Board of Regents policies and state and federal regulations,” Smith said in a news release.

He did not have an estimate Wednesday as to when the financial aid delays will be resolved. Classes started Aug. 17 at Fort Valley State.

The processing delays also are in part due to a surge in students who have filled out late paperwork in the last two weeks, well past national deadlines for Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms. During the past school year, Fort Valley State had urged students to begin financial aid applications in January to meet FAFSA’s spring deadlines, Smith said.

“It’s an ongoing challenge to ensure students complete the forms by the April 15 deadline,” he said.

In the summer, the school held pre-orientation sessions, where financial aid applications were addressed, Smith said. About 1,300 new students attended pre-orientation. Throughout the school year, Fort Valley State also holds financial aid workshops and seminars to assist parents and students.

These measures are critical, Smith said, because many students are first-generation college students who may not be familiar with financial aid procedures.

Fort Valley State also has seen an increase in students who have decided to enroll at the eleventh hour as a result of a poor economy.

“More individuals want to go to college, and many are making that decision at the last minute,” Smith said.

Many students still are waiting to get their financial aid documents processed.

Arther Brewer, 19, a sophomore criminal justice major from Dublin, said he has been waiting for his financial aid to be processed for two weeks. He said he completed his paperwork in April and was asked to resubmit documentation this week.

Without a dorm room or a parking permit, Brewer parks his car at the school’s visitor center and commutes from home to campus every day.

“It’s disrupting me with having to drive back and forth so far,” said Brewer, who said he now will look for off-campus housing.

Antonio Little, 31, a first-year graduate student in public health from Fort Valley who also attended the university as an undergraduate, said he’s been waiting to meet with financial aid staff for about three hours every day since Aug. 17.

While waiting for a financial aid appointment has not interrupted class time — many of his classes take place in the evening or on weekends — he said students have not been treated well in the process.

“I have never seen a fiasco like this before,” Little said.

Other Middle Georgia colleges also are seeing increases in financial aid applications from students.

Macon State College is experiencing a 4 percent enrollment increase from last fall, said Dee Minter, associate vice president for enrollment services. The school also saw a student enrollment increase during the summer, and more students are seeking financial aid after the start of the term after losing jobs.

Last year, the college encouraged students through e-mails, yard signs and direct mail to start filling out FAFSA forms in December. By April 15, the school received 3,929 student aid reports, versus 2,524 in 2008.

Despite being short staffed during the summer’s financial aid influx, Macon State’s financial aid staff has worked nights and weekends to make sure all of the students who had completed forms had their paperwork processed before the school’s drop-add deadline of Aug. 20.

“We really have done our best to minimize delays, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been any,” Minter said.

Meanwhile, while more families have applied for financial aid at Mercer University this year, the school has not experienced a delay in processing, said Brian Dalton, senior vice president for enrollment management.

Mercer has seen an 8 percent increase in families who completed FAFSA forms for the school year.

In anticipation of the economic downturn, Dalton said, Mercer pushed its students and applicants to fill out FAFSA documents as early as last summer. The university encouraged all families to do so, including those who did not think they would qualify for aid.

“It’s a credit to the planning we undertook as early as last summer, when the clouds were forming on the horizon,” Dalton said.

Georgia College & State University has seen a 13 percent increase in financial aid applications this year, said Cathy Crawley, the school’s director of financial aid and scholarships.

Financial aid applications that receive special consideration — in circumstances such as a job loss — have skyrocketed to 100.

Typically, the school receives about a dozen of those applications in any given school year.

In addition, federal and state loan applications have increased 30 percent at Georgia College over the same time last year. While the financial aid staff has been busier than usual during the past six weeks, staff members have put in longer hours and staff from the university’s enrollment management division have been moved temporarily to help push financial aid applications through.

“There’s been an increase of applications all through the year, but as people are losing jobs or changing income, they’re more apt to apply,” Crawley said.

To contact writer Andrea Castillo, call 256-9751.