Financial Aid Wait Times Increased Amid Pandemic

In a popular post in the Hunter College Students Facebook group, a student posted a meme: “A gun to your head and you have one phone call,” it said. “If they answer, you die. If they don’t, you’re free. Who you calling?”

“The financial aid office,” read the caption. Skull emoji.

That was back in February, before the financial aid office began operating remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, the problem with wait times for students hoping to speak with Hunter’s financial aid counselors has worsened. 

“In the past, students could visit the Financial Aid Office to complete and submit documents with an adviser looking on to ensure forms are completed accurately,” Hunter College spokesperson Bob de Luna explained in a statement to The Envoy. “In a virtual world, we depend on technology and Internet access for such review, which is more labor intensive and may require additional time.”

The financial aid office, which now only communicates with students by phone, Zoom and email, has told the Undergraduate Student Government that “there is usually only one financial aid counselor on the line per hour” and that “there are only 23 people to respond to 1,000+ emails a day,” according to USG September meeting minutes. De Luna said that the financial aid office is looking to add more staff to the phone operation. For now, though, students are still struggling to reach them. 

That means that during a recession, when students are facing historic levels of unemployment and general financial stress because of the pandemic, some still don’t know whether they will be getting financial aid this semester, and if so, how much.

While the financial aid department is trying to increase student awareness of financial aid requirements to increase the efficiency of the process, students still report waiting weeks to hear back by email about their financial aid.

As a new student, CT, who requested his full name not be used, is just now feeling how some Hunter students have felt for several months: “I feel like there is no urgency from the financial aid department, like no one really cares,” he said. An email he sent on Sep. 13, for example, was not addressed until Oct. 13.

Seniors Srija Rai and Andrew Shkreli have also been communicating with the financial aid office primarily by email. Rai said she first tried calling them, but then found that “it’s very, very difficult to reach them through call. One time I almost waited for 45 minutes” before someone picked up, she said.

Shkreli hasn’t bothered calling them because he said it “would take too long.” An email he sent on Sep. 10 got no response until the 23rd. Though he’s gotten his financial aid issues straightened out, he said not knowing his financial aid status “was a very vulnerable position.”

This image shows a distraught cartoon man tangled up in curly phone wires. A quote next to him reads, "It's very, very difficult to reach them through call. One time I almost waited for 45 minutes."
Illustration by Vasila Abdumuminova

Financial aid recently set up a “virtual front desk” on Zoom where students who register beforehand can speak to financial aid counselors one-on-one, but the cap on the number of students who can attend is very limited. The office has also held financial wellness sessions and is planning more targeted Zoom workshops, according to de Luna. 

In the meantime, the financial aid office is also emphasizing self-service and asking students to seek information about financial aid online. “We are partnering with Undergraduate Student Government to create FAQs for students, as well as a series of ‘how to’ videos on critical financial aid topics, such as verifications and Excelsior,” de Luna said.

In Rai’s case, she only got a response from financial aid once her advisor connected her to a counselor’s individual email address rather than the general email address for financial aid.

When CT finally heard back from financial aid in mid-October, they told him he needed to submit an additional document. After he sent it, he was told to wait up to 20 business days for a response. As of this writing, he still doesn’t know how much financial aid he’ll be getting, if any, and he needs to know soon, he said. 

“I can’t make any plans until I know the decision,” said CT, who was laid off from his job because of the pandemic. “I need to know if I get approved and if I will have to pay for this myself.”

CT said that if he doesn’t get financial aid to cover his tuition, he “could put it on my credit card and pay for it in small portions.” Although he’s stressed about the whole situation, he still has faith in his own ability to work things out. “I alway have a plan B, C, D,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly characterized the nature of financial aid’s communications with students. The financial aid office communicates with students by phone, Zoom and email, not just phone and email. The story has been updated to reflect this correction. The Envoy apologizes for this error.

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