The Financial Aid office on the West Windsor campus was packed during the first week of the 2012 fall semester. Students fill every chair in the office while others stood, some even outside in the hallway, waiting to be seen. One of these students was Alexa-Rae Martinez, a liberal arts major.
According to Martinez, she was given three choices by Mercer after missing the tuition deadline of Aug. 17 due to a miscommunication over documents. She could either pay in full, start a payment plan, or re-register for next semester. Martinez opted for the payment plan while she waits for her financial aid to finish processing. Though she is supposed to be reimbursed for the classes, she is still worried the financial aid money won’t come in time.
“I hope it comes through soon because I can’t make many more payments,” said Martinez.
For the previous three semesters she’s attended Mercer, Martinez hasn’t had a problem with financial aid. This semester is different. Martinez said that the financial aid office has taken over a month to finish processing her paperwork.
Martinez is not the only student who has had financial aid related difficulties. The VOICE conducted a poll of 30 MCCC students who receive financial aid. Of these students, 53 percent said they experienced problems with financial aid. Many students like these are waiting for their financial aid to finish processing before they can pay their tuition.
According to Financial Aid Director, Jason Taylor, Mercer received a record-high 10,000 financial aid forms in the fall of 2011, and he believes this year the college will receive even more.
In an effort to get students’ paperwork processed faster, Taylor said he is working to develop a weekly process that will allow the financial aid staff to handle this scale of students more consistently. His plan involves delegating certain duties to individual staff members rather than having everyone responsible to everything. Taylor is hoping this change will get things accomplished around the office a lot faster and in a more efficient manner.
Taylor also advised students to solve their issues with financial aid before registering for their classes. “This will help prevent them from getting their classes dropped,” he said.
In a follow up interview, Martinez said she visited the Financial Aid office on Sept. 10 and was told by staff that her financial aid still wasn’t verified.
“I’m even more worried now because my next payment for tuition is on Oct. 1,” said Martinez.
While some students have found the financial aid process stressful, others, like Lawrence Brinnius, a new media major, reported that the process was “relatively painless” despite the wait. Brinnius managed to get an extra extension on his tuition deadline to avoid having his classes dropped.
“[Martha Gunning, within Counseling Services], helped me push my deadline to September 5,” said Brinnius. He then added that he benefited from seeing a counselor rather than handling the situation on his own.
However, not all students were able to get their deadline pushed back. Culinary arts major William Reyes said he was informed that his paperwork may not be processed until October.
When asked about the delay, Taylor said it takes at least 4-6 weeks to process a student’s forms if there are no corrections needed. He continued, “We encourage students to apply early if they want us to process their forms on time.”
Martinez and Brinnius both admitted to handing in paperwork either immediately before or later than the August 17 deadline.
The VOICE also spoke with digital media arts major, Stacy Olschewski, who felt like the Financial Aid staff wasn’t very helpful or sensitive to her situation. Olschewski is emancipated from her parents. She was told by the staff that without getting information from from her parents needed to complete her form, she would have to pay her tuition out of pocket.
According to Taylor, the state of New Jersey doesn’t honor emancipation. “We have to abide by the law,” he said.
According to Taylor, another way students may lose or not receive financial aid is if they don’t attend their classes, which will then result in a bill from Mercer.
However, Taylor said, “If a student shows potential and shows they want to be here, then we will help them.”