Two weeks ago I checked my Sierra Nevada University SNCSIS portal to look at my financial aid reward. The site, which easily separates the charges placed on a student’s account from the payments made from various entities, including FAFSA rewards and out-of-pocket, is available to view anytime.
At first glance, I thought I was receiving around $650 in refunds, which would have been put towards my supplies for school and my living situation so I could continue attending on-ground classes. But after a trip to the financial aid office, to my surprise I was informed I actually owed that money back to the school.
The reasoning was that my Expected Family Contribution had gone up after filing for the 2019 tax season, and I had just barely met the threshold for my Pell Grant to be reduced by almost $4,000.
The amount of financial aid awarded to each student is determined by a simple formula that takes the overall cost of attendance for a school, and subtracts a student’s EFC in order to come up with an award package.
So after finding out I was getting my financial aid cut, it felt important to understand why and how much of a role SNU played in the process.
Maia Rowland, Director of Student Financial Services, explained SNU’s role in the financial aid decision and distribution process.
“Annually, the board [of Trustees] approves the financial plan for the university and within this plan, there is SNU institutional aid approved,” she said via email. “SNU institutional aid includes merit scholarships and a financial award matrix that calculates award packages in conjunction with the FAFSA. This allows all on-ground undergraduate students to receive a balanced package.”
The only change within this process is the new social distancing rules that change how the financial aid department is able to communicate and work with students.
“The biggest challenge is the personalized counseling that would normally take place in person. Due to the social distancing and campus being closed for an extended amount of time did not allow for those in-person consultations,” Rowland said.
Beholden to FAFSA
After offering a one-time COVID relief fund in 2020, as well as COVID grants to students in fall of 2020, the school was left to help students who were still struggling to pay their tuition, such as myself. But one of my biggest downfalls was misunderstanding the website. After talking in person with a financial aid staff member, I was able to deduce what had happened to the fact that, on paper, my family made more money, so therefore, I didn’t need a better award package. But was that necessarily SNU’s fault?
Rowland explained that while the students are awarded with merit-based scholarships upon being accepted to the school, the rest of the package is dictated by FAFSA, and can fluctuate depending on the application every year.
“There is a difference between being unhappy with your package and having a change in circumstance that makes paying for your education a challenge,” Rowland said. “We have more students and families concerned with the ability to pay the out-of-pocket balance on their account. This is the group we work with the most to find solutions to bridge the gap.”
On average, a student who attends SNU will pay $25,000 a year in tuition after financial aid. Those expenses are usually paid through outside scholarships, out-of-pocket payment from families, or outside loans. There are many students who receive financial aid but still feel the remaining balance is still too high.
Senior Matt Schulz is one of them.
“I definitely feel that the price of education at SNU does not reflect the quality of education whatsoever,” Schulz said.
After spending three years working closely with Christina Frederick in the psychology program, Schulz was shocked when she was suddenly gone, along with many other humanities professors, including Provost Shannon Beets and Vice Provost Dan O’Brien. This changed his perspective on the value of education at SNU.
“Many students were left lost needing information on classes and how to register for them,” Schulz said. “Not only did this leave multiple classes without a teacher, but multiple students in the middle of senior projects with no guidance.”
After talking with Schulz more in depth, I realized that I wasn’t the only person on campus struggling to understand the financial aid awards in a time when it feels like SNU could be doing more for its students.
“I think SNU could have handled their resources and financial aid better by helping themselves fund classes and projects I had been promised since freshman year,” Schulz said. “I have not felt any ease in communication with the school. For a school so desperate for students, they should take better care of the ones they have.”
According to SNU’s website, students will graduate with “… job-ready skills and financial security.” After reading this a few times, I am left wondering whether or not I am the only student that does not fully believe in that statement.