Written By: Maya Schubert and Gabriela Flores
As Brooklyn College remains closed due to COVID-19, services like Financial Aid advisement are no longer available in-person, leaving students and advisors struggling to contact each other remotely.
“The Financial Office is not helpful at all right now,” said Pooja Solayman.
Throughout August, Solayman, a sophomore, tried to contact Financial Aid regarding her Pell Grant, first calling and then emailing the office. When there was no reply, Solayman was unsure what to do about her missing scholarship. As deadlines approached, she gave up and paid out of pocket.
“I was at risk of losing my classes,” she said.
She admitted she had not contacted her advisor.
“I don’t even know who mine is,” she said.
After a student submits their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), it normally takes two to six weeks for their award to show on CUNYFirst, depending if additional documents are needed. The office recommends students to submit any necessary materials by March to avoid course cancellation. In some cases, however, the pandemic has extended the time frames of financial aid processing.
“If a student is still in the process of having their aid established by completing one of the required processes, we may place an indicator to prevent course cancellation since we know that those students will have adequate aid to address the balance,” said Antonio Marrero, Director of Financial Aid, Compliance & Operations. “If we are unable to determine a student’s eligibility, it is recommended that they contact a payment advisor to review their options.”
With in-person appointments unavailable, the Office’s answering machine directs students to Brooklyn College’s website for emailing. The Financial Aid page, however, doesn’t immediately provide an email address, linking only to a “Contact” page. The Contact page provides a general Financial Aid email address and directs students to BC Webcentral to make appointments with advisors. Directions for making appointments on Webcentral are linked towards the bottom of the page.
Many students may click the Financial Aid page’s linked Important Announcements page, which offers services through the general email. While the page warns that “due to working remotely and the high volume of inquiries there may be up to a five-business day turnaround time for a response” to emails, students like Solayman complain of no response.
During August, right before the beginning of Fall semester, the Office experiences their peak season. With the pandemic and move to remote advisement, advisors must handle appointments back-to-back from 9 to 5 on weekdays. Then they reply to student emails for another two hours.
“There’s freshmen, new transfers, students that are readmitting back up, and everybody from high school, so that’s when it gets the busiest. Plus we’re in a pandemic, so we’re working from home and the state agencies are working from home,” said Matthew Fitzgerald, a Student Financial Services Center for Financial Aid representative, “so all of that is sort of a fantastic conglomerate catastrophe – I’m sure one would get into that long, long wait time.”
Students can contact the financial aid call center, but they can only be assisted with general financial inquiries such as how to access the application for the NYS Tuition Assistance Program (TAP). Representatives like Fitzgerald, are usually BC students who can only access the caller’s information available on their CUNYFirst account using their EMPL ID number. For specific financial aid questions, operators cannot help much.
“There’s going to be certain things for TAP that I just can’t look at, I wish I could but, I just have access to CUNYFirst,” said Fitzgerald. “So a lot of it must go through a financial aid advisor.”
“I tried emailing my financial aid advisor countless times to no avail,” said BC student Brendan Ahmed.
Like Solayman, Ahmed needed to contact the office about his scholarship, but received no reply. Ahmed eventually switched tactics and contacted a direct representative from the Excelsior Scholarship office.
According to collegefactual.com, 81 percent of Brooklyn College students receive financial aid, and CUNY’s website states that over half of the system’s undergraduates qualify for federal and state financial aid.
“In the last academic year, some 170,000 CUNY undergraduates received a total of $770 million in need-based federal Pell grants and New York State Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) awards,” the website says. Per their 2017 to 2018 data release, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System reports that $78,497,343 in total grant aid was awarded to all BC undergraduate students.
While the Fall semester continues remotely, it is unclear when financial aid advisement and processing delays will subside.
“It’s been crazy,” said Fitzgerald. “It’s like the waves of Exodus have opened up of students.”