Enforcement of Financial Aid Increases with College’s New Online Program

By Natalie Conrad Students must carefully plan course schedules to retain their financial awards.

Wheaton's Student Financial Services Office. Photo by Sanya Holm.

The Office of the Registrar and the Student Financial Services department are currently testing a new Banner Web Services function called “Course Program of Study” (CPOS) to better track students’ course loads and determine their financial aid eligibility. However, some students who receive financial aid were caught unaware by the school’s increased monitoring of their course load. 


CPOS will be fully implemented by the 2023-24 school year and reflects the College’s desire to better align with the Department of Education’s Title IV financial aid requirements listed in the Higher Education Act of 1965 and which was amended by Congress in 2021. These federal policies regarding need-based financial aid eligibility stipulate that financial aid is available only for courses counting towards a student’s one bachelor’s degree. 


In order to qualify for need-based financial aid, a student’s course load must include at least 12 credits — equivalent to three semester-long classes — that directly count towards a student’s major requirements. Students can still take up to 6 hours of non-required courses and receive their full-time financial aid award, so long as they are enrolled in at least 12 hours of courses required for their major. Major-required courses include Christ at the Core and Thematic Core General Education requirements, as well as classes in their specific major.


“It has always been the case that federal financial aid can only be awarded for courses that go towards a student’s degree,” said Karen Belling ‘83, the Director of Student Financial Services. “However, with advances in technology, there are now greater expectations on colleges to monitor it each semester.”


The federal government’s increased monitoring has prompted the College to increase its scrutiny of courses taken by students who receive financial aid. It has also led the Registrar’s Office to develop the CPOS program. Currently in the development phase, the program, which integrates DegreeWorks with the federal aid system, will help students and faculty advisors better understand which courses qualify for aid as they pursue the 124 credits required for a bachelor’s degree.


Diane Krusemark ‘96, who has been the registrar since September 2020, explained that the service will be used by the Office of the Registrar, Academic Advising, Student Financial Services and faculty advisors. 


“Students and advisors will be able to see in DegreeWorks which courses are meeting a requirement in a student’s program of study,” said Krusemark. 


Belling explained the timeline for implementing the new program. “Our plan is to use the 2022-2023 year to train staff, faculty and students about these changes before they go into effect,” said Belling. “The good news is that we’re in the early stages of implementation and will keep students informed on its status with FAQs and periodic updates.”


Though the requirement that a student’s course load must include at least 12 credits that directly go towards their major requirements is not new, the College’s increased enforcement of the rules caught some students by surprise. 


One senior economics major was told in September of 2021 that because she had completed all the required credits for her economics bachelor’s degree, she was eligible to graduate in December. Although she had planned to finish her Bible and Theology (BITH) minor in the spring, the 12-credit hour requirement meant she would not receive any financial aid from Wheaton or the federal government for that semester.


“I was confused,” said the student, who wished to remain anonymous because she did not want her name associated with speaking negatively about Wheaton. “It felt like I was being penalized for bringing credit into Wheaton from high school classes and for taking 18 credits several times to complete my major and leave room for more classes I enjoyed outside of my major.”


The student expressed her frustration that she was not informed about the eligibility requirement until her senior year, and highlighted what she viewed as the rule’s haphazard enforcement by the College.


“If I had known about the 12 credits rule prior to this year, I would definitely have spread out my Economics major and taken my more ‘for fun’ liberal arts classes earlier in my time here,” she said. “This was especially frustrating because several of my friends were also completing their first majors before their last semester at Wheaton, yet the Advising office had not reached out to them. Some people were flying under the radar about this ‘fine print’ rule, while my account was noticed.”


The student later appealed the decision to the Academic Advising office and was able to have her minor count toward her “program of study” and receive financial aid for the spring semester. 


The current policy allows students to appeal to receive financial aid for a ninth semester or more. The student must submit an application to appeal, and Academic Advising then determines the number of credits required to graduate. Courses not required for their degree are excluded when determining their financial aid eligibility. 


Communication Associate Professor Emily Langan ‘94 said that Wheaton’s increased enforcement of aid requirements stemmed from the direction of Krusemark, the new registrar. Krusemark was the registrar at Bethel University in Saint Paul, Minn. before coming to Wheaton.


“I don’t know why was not on everybody’s radar, but I know a part of that was a switch in the registrar,” said Langan. “The new registrar implemented Title IV at the institution she was at before Wheaton, so she was familiar with how it’s done. Part of it is also that the tracking in the software programs have changed to internally track the credits and where credits are spent.”


CPOS aims to give further warning to students at risk for losing their federal aid. Currently, when SFS becomes aware that a student is taking more than 6 hours that do not go towards their one degree, SFS adjusts the aid accordingly. Once fully implemented, the system will identify situations where a student’s course load fails to meet the 12 credit hour requirement and notify them. 


“Careful planning of course sequencing is important, so students should work closely with Academic Advising,” said Belling.


Many students with financial aid still do not understand the scheduling requirements and were not formally notified of the College’s increased scrutiny of their course load. Weslie Wilkin, a freshman political science major who receives financial aid, was not aware of the importance of scheduling her classes “until I saw the interview and did research on it.”


Wilkin explained that after researching the situation, the Title IV rules have caused her a lot of stress when considering which courses to take each semester. 


“I pay for my own education,” said Wilkin. “My parents aren’t assisting with anything so financial aid is why I’m here. Having it for only one major puts a lot of strain on what I can do. It puts a lot more stress on my time here rather than being able to explore and do different things, like getting a minor or certificate.” 


Jeremy Cook, an associate professor of economics who witnessed these frustrations first-hand while advising students, said he thought the increased enforcement could have been implemented better.


Advisors and students need to be made aware of this technicality so we can prepare students as they are taking classes to account for that and maybe space out their degree requirements farther out,” said Cook.


Cook believes students that receive financial aid should be explicitly notified of the rule so they can best plan their course load.


“Students have worked pretty hard to fulfill all the requirements for their major and gen-eds so they can take classes and explore different areas and disciplines in liberal arts,” said Cook. “ puts them at a disadvantage because now the rug has been pulled out right under them in terms of what they can do.”

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