By Amy Price
Waiting for hours on end, struggling through obnoxious seat cramps while folding, unfolding and fiddling with your ticket, and anxiously waiting for that monotone bell to sound can only mean one thing at Brookhaven College — a trip to the Financial Aid Office.
Federal student aid is supposed to be a helpful tool for students to make their educational endeavors more bearable and affordable. Yet, in my own experience, and having witnessed students leave the desk in tears, shoulders dropped with looks of avid frustration, student aid sometimes seems more like a stomach-wrenching, stress-inducing nightmare than an “aid.”
And, let me be clear, my grudge is not with the actual Financial Aid Office on campus or with all of the people who work in the office, but with a specific Federal regulation — the Satisfactory Academic Progress Policy 34 CFR 668.34, or just SAP for short.
In order for students to be eligible for aid, they must complete guidelines according to their academic progress. And every college in the nation must base policies on the federal standards called for under SAP.
According to the Dallas County Community College District policy, each student must meet three measures to qualify for aid. Students must have a cumulative grade point average of 2.0 or higher on a 4.0 scale, must not exceed 150 percent of the minimum number of hours required for the student’s program of study, and the student needs a completion rate of 67 percent.
The completion rate is where my issue lies. On the surface, the policy makes perfect sense — the rule makes sure students are not taking advantage of benefits — but underneath, the policy hurts far too many students, myself included. Every student applying for financial aid has to complete two-thirds of classes attempted, for an average of 67 percent.
But what happens when returning students go back to school just to find out classes they took a decade or more ago, and did not finish for whatever personal reasons, are now stopping them from receiving aid?
Well, that is what happened to me, and many others I have spoken with in the past year. I took classes at Brookhaven eight years ago and had to drop three of them due to personal medical issues. I returned to school in Fall 2010 in Denton County, received financial aid and passed every class I attempted. I returned to Dallas County because it offered a journalism program, but was placed on financial aid suspension because of those three classes I dropped eight years ago. An employee in the Financial Aid Office told me I must complete 30 hours to receive aid again, and that my credits from Denton County would not count toward the completion rate.
My first thought was to make an appeal. However, DCCCD no longer allows appeals to be made in such cases. At the recent chancellor’s luncheon for editors and advisers of DCCCD student newspapers, Dr. Sharon Blackman, senior associate vice chancellor of educational affairs, said the district stopped allowing appeals due to an “overwhelming number.” I then asked why out-of-district classes don’t count toward the completion rate, and Blackman’s response was: “I’ll have to check into it. I would think all your courses that go toward your degree plan should count.” Another student reporter at the luncheon, who was also haunted by classes from a decade ago, asked about the issue as well.
My parents are disabled and not able to help toward my education, and I work three jobs just to pay for gas, food and school. I am now going into my third semester having to pay completely out of pocket. Being able to afford a single textbook is still an unimaginable dream for me, and I know there are others who feel the same.
If I could afford to take a fulltime load I would, but for now I have to take what I can afford. I thought about taking classes out of district, where I would be eligible for aid, but it would cost me, as well as the state, more money for out-of-district costs.
A change needs to happen to allow hardworking, re-committed students to afford college. Now, with the $7 per credit hour tuition hike, expenses are even tighter for students. Blackman said the DCCCD is looking into another appeal process that would allow students to dispute their cases. But for now, everyone damaged by the policy must struggle to meet this silly percentage.
The choices students make now will follow them throughout their college careers. Maybe the policies don’t affect your financial aid eligibility now, but that does not mean new measures will not be implemented later that may be based on your choices now.