During The Financial Aid Process, Students Should Receive Individualized Attention
The GW Hatchet
June 9, 2015

By Jonah Lewis

Once a year, after the worries of finals fade from my mind, I have to deal with another mind-bogglingly stressful time: reapplying for financial aid.

Each spring, I submit my Free Application for Federal Student Aid - a form required in order to get federal or GW aid. But because my family is considered low-income, I have to go through a long process to verify my family's income and assets, and to prove my income level. Without fail, this process is always slow, repetitive and confusing.

Every year throughout this process, I have to send countless emails to different representatives from the Office of Student Financial Assistance. I often ask them to waive requirements, clarify information, or to confirm they have forms - all to ensure that I continue to get the aid that I need.

To smooth out the kinks like this in the financial aid process, GW should implement a new system. Each student should be assigned a specific financial aid counselor who is responsible for that student's aid, and can be their point of contact for all financial aid issues.

Students and parents can ask financial aid questions online, through an email, on the phone or in-person at Colonial Central, University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar explained in an email.

"Students and or parents who have a relationship with a particular counselor or staff member should feel free to request or contact the counselor whom they have previously worked with," Csellar said.

But that just isn't the same as having a personal counselor, since not every student will form a relationship with someone in the financial aid office.

GW's current budget crunch would make adding additional staff roles in the financial aid office difficult, but these hires are crucial because they would underline officials' commitment to affordability. Administrators will show they want students of all income levels to come to GW by making it easier for them to complete the steps needed to receive aid.

Adding these positions would also bring GW in line with our competitor schools - Duke, Georgetown and Boston universities. Staff at those schools did not immediately return requests for comment.

Counselors could answer questions ranging from available scholarship opportunities, how to apply for a federal-work study job to how to fill out a form requesting federal aid.

And for freshmen new to the process, counselors could help walk them through step by step. Personal counselors would be especially helpful for freshmen during the summer months, when new students have no idea who to talk to about signing loan promissory notes or receiving their Pell Grants.

Financial aid questions are often complex and ongoing. Constantly communicating with different people in the same office doesn't help students. Instead, it leaves them with the constant regurgitation of basic information, seemingly endless time spent waiting or on hold and a sense that meeting financial aid requirements is nearly impossible.

But if each student had one specific counselor to contact, they would be able to forge a relationship and have consistent problem-solving with any issues regarding aid.

While counselors would likely have very large student caseloads, many students do not receive aid or have very simple aid packages. That means students with more complex issues or with the highest financial need could be a priority.

Assigning counselors to each student would especially benefit low-income students because it's "another way to create more essential touch points for students," said Steve Goodman, an educational consultant with Top Colleges.

On average, the University meets 87 percent of student need and has continually increased the financial aid pool in recent years.

But the way students access that aid is equally important. If students receiving financial aid have to spend hours on hold or in long email exchanges that don't get anything solved, they might not feel as if the University really cares about them or their time.

If GW wants to go from good to great in our support for our low-income students, the University needs to learn from its peer schools. We need to personalize the financial aid bureaucracy by providing holistic support to all students who wish to access financial aid from every source possible.

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