This Meliora Weekend, students could be found across campus with cardboard signs and shirts featuring mysterious numbers next to a dollar sign. Were they part of a new secret society or money-based fraternity? No. They were members of the financial aid protest group that has sprung up with questions about the system, as it stands, at UR. They wonder how students can see a sudden, unexpected, doubling of their tuition rates from freshman to sophomore year, or how it is possible that financial aid packages are released just as transfer deadlines expire. These students are supported by a passionate base who have faced, are facing, or merely sympathize with the pain of financial aid decreases. So the question becomes, how did problems with financial aid end up boiling to the surface? Was this caused by a sudden change in financial aid procedure, or has this been on a slow burn over the course of the last some years? Jonathan Burdick, the head of financial aid since 2003, appeared before the SA senate to address the issue on Oct. 20
While many problems came to light over the course of his testimony, one problem in particular stood out as both solvable and the most debilitating. The connection between students and the financial aid counselors has been facing a crisis for several years. This year, for example, almost one in five students will have a different financial aid counselor than they had last September. That’s a good year for office turnover. A former employee of the financial aid office told us that, one year, four different financial aid counselors left over the course of seven months. Another student volunteered that she had a stunning five different counselors over the course of her time at the University. This is certainly a dangerous proposition.
A financial aid counselor serves three roles, all of them important, and all of them suffer when inconsistency is the rule, not the exception. The first and obvious one is that they are the connection between the financial aid system and the students that rely on it. They are the ones to talk to when you first get your package, when you need to discuss changes in your situation, when you need to appeal a decision, or any of the other rudimentary interactions one might have with the system. That’s why when there’s a revolving door of financial aid advisors, the system can understandably come under strain. When the office is being staffed, not by experienced professionals but continually by novices to the position, there can be little question as to whether quality of service will drop. At the same time, when a student can expect, correctly, that their financial aid counselor won’t be around by the time their next package is due, trust in the system will rightly begin to fall. Dean Burdick stated during his testimony that student trust in the system has fallen, but concedes he is not exactly sure what has gone wrong. We argue that this extreme loss in trust stems directly from the lack of counselor consistency, and addressing this issue has to be the first step in gaining back lost trust and reestablishing legitimacy.
Secondly, by having financial aid counselors changing constantly, Burdick is losing a valuable source of knowledge on these core financial aid issues. Now of course, the financial aid office has a wide variety of staff members who are working with the Dean on diagnosing issues and making the system better. However, financial aid counselors serve on the frontline of these issues and are a direct conduit between the back-office and the students. Their experiences are valuable, too valuable for us to constantly lose their insight on the problems of the system. Burdick has called these counselors experts in their field, so losing these “experts” year after year cannot be healthy for a system that has already been shown to have cracks.
Finally, these counselors have to act as the eyes and ears of the Dean of Financial Aid, warning him of potential problems before they begin to overwhelm the system. As Burdick stated, these problems took him by surprise, which should NOT happen. Burdick has been head of Financial Aid for 12 years, so the idea that he was unaware of these problems means that there must have been some fundamental disconnect between the Dean and the financial aid counselors who should be briefing him on these issues. Having a steady staff of counselors is clearly a necessity to ensure this kind of knowledge gap doesn’t rear its ugly head again.
Burdick discussed that he has been focusing on the problem of financial aid counselor turnover, among others, in his effort to reform the system. But this problem has clearly been systemic for a number of the years that Burdick has been head of the system, which means perhaps it is time to more than just redouble the current efforts, but to think outside the box on this issue. Whether that requires better pay, changing the culture, or bringing in an outside consultant; this problem – perhaps above all others – needs to be addressed, not in the future or the near future, but now.