When 21-year-old Hannah Hornyak received a letter from the Office of Financial Aid explaining their financial aid was denied, their heart sank.
Hornyak was told on a phone call with the financial aid office that their independent status would be approved for the year, but the letter told them that their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), an application the financial aid office encourages every student to fill out, couldn’t be processed.
“At that point, I was like, ‘OK! I can’t take this anymore,’” Hornyak said, “I’ve done everything in my power that I believe I need to do. I’ve already gotten ahold of financial aid to move forward with the process.”
Financial aid is integral to most students’ experience at the University of Montana. Most students can afford tuition with help from scholarships, FAFSA or loans. According to the Department of Education, 51% of UM students receive federal loans, and students leave UM with a median debt of $21,500 from loans. But with short staffing affecting every aspect of campus, some students’ frustrations with the financial aid office are rising.
Hornyak, a sophomore studying environmental science, ran into several roadblocks during their process of receiving aid for the 2022-2023 school year. After their father’s passing, Hornyak no longer had contact with their parents, and therefore could not use their information for FAFSA. So last year, Hornyak, originally from Jamestown, New York, filed for independent status through FAFSA so they could use their finances alone in their application.
Federal aid requires proof of independent status and how a student proves this status is different for every university. For UM, students seeking independent status must submit an appeal explaining their situation, which the financial aid office reviews. Last year Hornyak’s appeal went through. This year, however, “I submitted my completed FAFSA form and it immediately spits out, ‘You need to talk to your financial aid office,’” Hornyak said.
After a phone call with the Office of Financial Aid, Hornyak felt reassured their independent status would be processed with the information they put in their appeal. But two weeks later, the letter from the office arrived saying their FAFSA was denied.
“It has been really frustrating to have to know that this time I’ve spent dealing with financial aid, I could’ve spent doing homework or working and getting paid for my time,” Hornyak said. “But that’s not happening because the system is messed up. And it needs to change.”
Hornyak made multiple attempts to schedule a meeting with financial aid. But when they arrived at the office two weeks later for their meeting, UM Director of Financial Aid Emily Williamson was in a different all-day meeting. Hornyak had no options left.
“The only reason why I’m able to be in school right now is because I am receiving federal financial aid,” Hornyak said. “And that’s honestly why I’ve been so proactive in advocating for myself because this is literally my education hanging on the line.”
To Hornyak’s relief, however, they met with Williamson that Friday instead. Together, they let the meeting run long as they reworked the financial aid website to make it more inclusive for students filing for independent status. They also revised the FAFSA denial letter Hornyak received to make the options for resolving the process easier to understand for other students.
With such a technical and challenging process, the financial aid office is vital to helping students through scholarship transfers, FAFSA applications and holds on their accounts. But, the team is falling behind on emails and communication.
According to Mary Kreta, vice president of enrollment management and strategic initiatives, there are currently four open positions in the office. Despite the federal government granting a pay increase to the financial aid office last year, “people just aren’t applying,” Kreta said.
The federal government also created new aid requirements, including changing how funding is allocated to a student based on housing, transportation and school supplies. These changes created more work for the financial aid office.
“There’s no 40-hour work week for the financial aid employees anymore,” Kreta said. “They are the people who stay late and come in on the weekend and work.”
Senior Taylor Curry, who’s 22 and studies French and political science, also ran into problems transferring his scholarship over for his study abroad in France last year.
“Trying to figure it out is like swimming in mud,” he said.
Curry, originally from Great Falls, needed his UM scholarship to cover his tuition and expenses while he studied abroad, but his aid was withheld and he couldn’t figure out why. After emailing the financial aid office several times, Curry eventually arrived at the office himself to sort out his hold.
“The only time I ever get action is when I go into the office to ask someone sitting there if they’ll help,” Curry said. “They’re great and super helpful when I do that. But if we can’t contact them by phone or email, it feels sort of inaccessible.”
Curry said he thinks the University should be more responsible and proactive in communicating with students and hiring more employees for the office.
But without people applying to the office, Kreta said the team is looking for new avenues to make the financial aid process easier. The team has begun collaborating with Student Account Services to get aid put on tuition bills earlier. They also started outsourcing some of their work, like verifying students’ status to receive financial aid, to other departments, allowing employees to work more directly with students.
“We are looking at a myriad of ways to solve the issue of short staffing,” Kreta said. “It’s not just posting the job and crossing our fingers. It’s looking at different ways to change how we do financial aid processing.”
Kreta also recommends students dealing with financial aid issues should reach out directly to the office through email or phone calls. Kreta emphasized that if students’ phone calls aren’t being picked up, it’s usually because they have an immediate issue like getting aid put on a student’s bill that needs to be paid that day.
But while the staff works through its issues, some students are clamoring for changes in the system to be made quickly.
“There’s one more piece of this puzzle that needs to be worked out,” Hornyak said. “And that’s the internal systemic issues.”