A mix-up between the Student Financial Services office, the Registrar’s office, and Housing Services over the summer led to the miscalculation of many fall 2020 financial aid packages, making it difficult for some students to return to campus and pay fees on time.
SFS reports costs and financial aid to students based on academic and housing data supplied by the Registrar’s Office, which documents students’ learning status, and Housing Services, which documents where students live.
The initial data relayed to SFS correctly generalized “remote students” as living “off-campus,” but did not adequately account for the various types of off-campus learning experiences students opted for in response to COVID-19.
While SFS identified the mistake for correction by the end of September, some students had no financial aid until long after the drop date for classes – even the original tuition due date.
To assess a student’s cost for attending Wheaton, the SFS budgets students’ needs as direct and indirect costs. Tuition, on-campus or approved off-campus housing expenses and board are considered direct costs, while books and personal expenses are considered indirect costs. Because remote students living at home aren’t anticipated to pay for rent or meals, they have lower direct cost projections than in-person students.
“When a student says, ‘I am going to study remotely,’ they should be charged for only tuition if they are moving back to their family home,” Chief Enrollment Management Officer Silvio Vazquez clarified. “Therefore, their financial aid should be prorated and reflect only that direct cost.”
After catching the error, SFS delayed the school’s distribution of FAFSA funds for all students so direct costs would be accurately reflected. As a result, SFS did not begin distributing aid packages until the third week of July.
“That’s a pretty suppressed timeline to get students their financial aid award before classes start in August,” Belling said. However, SFS acknowledged the impact delayed financial aid awards had on some students’ ability to pay tuition bills.
Just under 10 percent of Wheaton’s 2,234 students are studying remotely from home this fall. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, cost projections for Wheaton students living at home in 2019 were $10,630 less than students living independently on or off campus. Accounting for 219 remote students, the error accumulates to $2,327,970 in miscalculated costs.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is the primary tool for determining a college student’s need for financial aid. As an extension of the Department of Education, FAFSA collects information regarding personal and parental income, savings and assets in an attempt to equitably distribute federal funds for eligible students.
“FAFSA runs these calculations and it comes up with a number called the ‘expected family contribution,’” Student Financial Services Director Karen Belling explained. “This number stays the same whether you’re living on campus or living at home, so you take the cost of attendance minus expected family contribution—that is the student’s need.”
NCES reported that in the 2019-2020 academic year, the average undergraduate student at Wheaton received $18,259 from all kinds of aid, including college, state and federal support, totalling in $34,528,359. College Board reports indicate, however, that among the 74 percent of Wheaton’s student body who apply for need-based aid, 82 percent are offered need-based aid and 10 percent have their need fully met through a combination of loans, scholarships and work study. The average Wheaton student graduated with $29,555 in loan debt in 2019, which was slightly lower than the national average of $30,062 for college graduates that year.
In conjunction with financial uncertainties brought on by the pandemic, the delayed financial aid packages caused some students additional stress. One senior studying philosophy and ancient languages, short $18,000 when he came to campus, said that if the funds hadn’t come through, he likely would have had to withdraw and wait to finish his degree.
When SFS received the corrected data, financial aid packages were adjusted, and some students saw dramatic changes. One sophomore communications major opted to study remotely and saw a $10,000 increase in costs for the year. Projected across three more academic years, the cost would have increased by at least $30,000 above what she and her family were anticipating at the end of her freshman year.
“I’ve been a bit stressed,” another sophomore said. “My dad kept getting on me to try to email [SFS] more and [check] if they were still working on it.” The initial SFS policy called for payment for the semester by Sept. 10. She could only hope her aid would come through.
Sophomore Anna Plett, said that in previous semesters she hadn’t worried about money. “I’m a missionary kid, so it always seemed like money is the most obvious thing that God provides,” Plett said. Although she filed within the designated FAFSA application period, her financial aid was not released before classes began. Before the funds came through, Plett said she asked herself, “Do I really use my faith?”
To prevent future confusion regarding package delays and changes, Vazquez said he and others have met to discuss how to improve communications between SFS and the Registrar’s office.
“We’ve had several meetings focused on making improvements to how our systems track students as they study remotely from home or in approved off-campus housing. We strive to serve our students well and COVID-19 has tested us and given us the opportunity to make needed improvements,” said Vazquez. “I’m so proud of the resiliency of our students, faculty and staff as we’re working through all of this. It’s not perfect, but we’re trying to do the best we can.”