Students at the University of Montana are voicing concerns that University officials have mismanaged COVID-19 direct relief funds. Some received checks in error, while others claimed they should have received money this semester and didn’t.
The University received approximately $11 million in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act. ARPA, which passed congress in March 2021, provides direct aid to students in the form of grants to help ensure learning continues during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Financial Aid Office.
UM has so far directly awarded $4,062,450 to enrolled students as of March 18. The payments roll out within four batches a semester. Almost 9,000 students received their refund on March 21, and 500 students received a bonus at the beginning of April, according to Emily Williamson, director of Financial Aid.
Jessica Hegstrom, a former UM graduate student, received an accidental $2,000 relief check in March through Cyberbear after she withdrew from classes for a leave of absence.
Hegstrom reached out to the director of her program, Emily Weiler, who told the unenrolled student March 9 that the check might be “a nice twist of fate.” In a March 18 follow up, Weiler said the money was an error — the same problem with nine other students in the Montana Public Health Training Center, according to Weiler.
The University then placed a negative balance of $2,000 on Hegstrom’s Cyberbear account. Hegstrom said she was asked to cash the check and pay the University back for the money she was incorrectly given.
Initially, a director of the training center told students that “the checks were extremely difficult to cancel or revoke,” Hegstrom said. Yet Hegstrom noted the check said it would be void after 90 days. She said she filed a report with the U.S. Office of the Inspector General regarding the misuse of federal funds.
The Financial Aid Office said in a statement the technical error originated from a third party billing company UM uses. That mistake resulted in students receiving payments from UM and their outstanding money on students’ Cyberbear accounts reflect the payment as an outstanding balance.
According to leadership within the operations and finance departments, UM wasn’t made aware of the error until early April. The departments said UM is still working to identify why the exact error occurred.
The University guaranteed none of the 10 students this error affected will incur interest charges for the negative balance for at least the next 90 days, according to Dave Kuntz, UM’s director of strategic communication.
The Montana Public Health Training Center and Business Services are working together with the students to remedy the situation. Students impacted were given the option of returning the checks, having them canceled or voided, or students could cash them and pay UM through Cyberbear.
“Strong-arming vulnerable students with debt associated with federal funds meant to make the pandemic easier to manage is not a good look for a university receiving state and federal monies,” Hegstrom said to UM officials in an email forwarded to the Kaimin. “If the students do not have to deposit the checks into their personal accounts, why would they possibly be liable for interest charges at a later date?”
The University cleared the balance on her account April 11, Hegstrom said.
Incorrect checks are not the only problem students have reported with the grants. Other students said UM sent people with similar backgrounds different sums of money. Freshman twins Sydney and Charlie Cochlin come from the same financial background and received the same amount of financial aid for the 2021-2022 school year.
Charlie Cochlin received a $1,000 refund in March, but her sister hasn’t received anything.
Sydney Cochlin wasn’t notified she would not receive a grant until she contacted the Financial Aid Office herself. She said financial aid officials told her she had listed the incorrect address on Cyberbear, which prevented them from sending her the refund.
When the address was corrected, the Financial Aid Office didn’t follow up on the issue until Sydney Cochlin emailed the office on April 6 — two weeks later. She said the office told her she would be receiving the refund in a second round of payments, but did not clarify when that would be.
“I wish they were easier to talk to and would actually answer my questions and respond to my emails in a timely manner,” Sydney Cochlin said. “I feel like they don’t care that I need the money because they have money, so why would they care?”
Sydney Cochlin said she had to speak with three different financial aid employees to get “somewhat of an answer” about the error with her refund.
The process built into the online banner system the University uses requires students to have an accurate address that dictates the category of payments they are put in.
“If a student doesn’t have the correct address, we have to do a massive amount of clean up,” said Williamson, the director of Financial Aid.
The Financial Aid Office is currently working with 400 students who have errors on their Cyberbear accounts preventing them from receiving funding.
All students at UM were eligible to receive funding for the fall 2021 and spring 2022 semesters. Kuntz said $1.37 million remains from ARP student funding and will be awarded for the summer of 2022.