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PREVIOUS COVERAGE | SCF notifies 4,600 students they’ve lost financial aid

BRADENTON -- State College of Florida has notified an estimated 4,600 students that they have lost their financial aid eligibility under federal guidelines -- more than twice as many as last year.

This comes just weeks after SCF officials acknowledged the school must reimburse $3,178,253 to the U.S. Department of Education after significant deficiencies were found in its handling of financial aid disbursements to students.

In an audit, the federal agency found that SCF had awarded federal financial aid to 1,948 ineligible students during the 2008-09 year.

The SCF website outlines the three measures that must be met for continued eligibility: minimum cumulative GPA, the required hours that must be completed and the maximum time frame allowed for those hours to be completed.

Student aid was being awarded on a more liberal and overly generous way than allowed by those federal guidelines, reiterated Katherine Walker, director of SCF public affairs and marketing.

As a result, the entire financial aid services department is being revamped, and 12 new or redefined positions have been posted, Walker said. The department’s director is also being replaced.

Existing staff members are being allowed to apply for the redefined positions, she said.

“All have not been filled yet,” Walker said, including that of the financial aid director, who retired in September.

SCF President Lars Hafner last month told the board of trustees that, within four days of learning they were out of compliance, all the necessary fixes were in place. He said at the time the financial aid department would undergo a “total redesign.”

New procedures were instituted in late 2009 to correct the deficiencies, Walker said. SCF is now running reports after each graduating term instead of annually, she wrote in an e-mail to the Bradenton Herald this week.

“This allows us to let students know before the next term starts if they have lost eligibility (due to no longer meeting the Department of Education’s standards of academic progress criteria) to receive financial aid, thus giving them time to make other payment arrangements or bring in additional documentation to support an appeal,” Walker wrote.

Students who received notice are also allowed to appeal the process.

“Last year when the report was run after December 2009, about 2,000 of the 15,000 students receiving aid were notified that they lost their eligibility to receive aid for spring 2010,” Walker wrote. “They were given information about how to appeal. About 500 of those had successful appeals and their eligibility to receive financial aid was reinstated.”

Still, some SCF students who were notified say they are confused about how to get back on track financially and academically.

Kelley Wilson, 42, of Bradenton, said she learned over winter break via the e-mail that she was no longer eligible for financial aid because she had accumulated too many credit hours. She was dropped from her classes for nonpayment, she said.

When she asked school officials about it, they replied, “‘It’s in the student handbook,’” she said.

As part of the redesign of financial aid, staff and consultants worked during the winter break and sent out notices to about 4,600 students Dec. 22, days after the term ended Dec. 17, Walker wrote.

“As of Jan. 7, about 200 had successfully appealed. Classes started just last week, Jan. 10, and more appeals are coming in every day. Our usual appeal success rate is about 25 percent. Since the appeals can be made throughout the semester, we don’t know if that will hold this time,” Walker wrote.

Wilson said she appealed, but her appeals were denied.

Without aid, Wilson didn’t have the money to pay for classes, and has dropped out for now, she said.

“The eligibility standards are set by the Department of Education and the college is responsible for implementing them. We want to see every student who is eligible for financial aid receive it. Please keep in mind that sometimes a student will qualify for a loan if not a grant,” Walker wrote.

Federal regulations require that all students who receive financial aid demonstrate they are moving through their academic program at a reasonable rate, or are making progress toward their degree, SCF’s website notes.

Another student who has been caught up in the financial aid changes is Joshua Baumgard, 30, of Bradenton, who ran a flooring repair business until the economy tanked a couple of years ago. He decided he would go back to school in nursing.

He, too, has been notified he is ineligible for federal financial aid because he has accumulated too many credit hours.

He appealed, but so far hasn’t heard anything back.

“I haven’t gotten a response yet, I’m assuming they’re just swamped because so many people are writing appeals,” Baumgard said.

He took out a loan for $4,500 and signed a promissory note, but the funds won’t be dispensed to him because he doesn’t qualify, he said.

He is still in school, having borrowed money from a relative to pay $1,274 for classes and another $800 for books.

He plans to apply for scholarship money to finish.

“The perception out there is that we are not awarding financial aid any more,” Walker said. “We have plenty of financial aid to award. The problem is whether the student qualifies.”

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