Financial aid is a significant factor that makes or breaks whether many students can attend college at the University of Montana. Yet, the office that supports students in finding aid has been short-staffed for years, and it’s causing problems with our finances.

This week, students shared with the Kaimin how they had to reach out numerous times to the office when their scholarships had been improperly withheld or denied. Even when the office encourages students to reach out via phone and email, many have to go into the office in person to see any action.

Publicly, the admissions department has prided itself on affordability. Just this semester, the University launched a tuition waiver program called the Grizzly Promise for Montana students with families making less than $50,000 a year. It’s great that UM is making affordability a priority for incoming students, and it has hopeful implications for enrollment. 

However, when students get here, we continue to drop the ball on their financial aid support. Students should not have to make multiple efforts to hear from the financial aid office, nor should they have to suffer based on its procedural errors. 

Whether it be large scholarships, filing a FAFSA or awarding COVID relief funds, any of the office’s missteps could negatively affect someone’s future. 

The lack of staffing is not a new problem, either. The Kaimin reported almost a year ago that the financial aid office was half staffed. Kari Neal, a former employee in the office, told the Kaimin in April 2022 that the office is “perpetually understaffed, overworked and underpaid.”

On its face, the University says financial aid is integral to running the school.

“Arguably one of the most important offices at the University of Montana is that of Financial Aid,” the financial aid application says. “That’s because it’s the primary office where dreams become reality and people seek support to make (the) largest investment of their life.”

The Kaimin agrees that financial aid employees are doing one of the most important jobs on campus. They ensure our students can continue their education, and, in turn, cement the University’s legacy of uplifting intelligent and capable students — no matter their family’s wealth. 

However, that same financial aid counselor application says the position pays $18.72 per hour. That adds up to less than $40,000 a year. For such a student-centered organization, this pay should be bumped higher — especially when 51% of UM students use federal loans, according to Kaimin reporting. 

A similar job at Montana State University pays $21.10 an hour. It is only about a $2.50 difference, but for such a demanding job, we should be scraping as much as possible out of our budget to be competitive with our in-state counterpart.  

Since we make our UM staff members work long hours and students bombard them each day with enrollment-altering financial aid decisions, it’s urgent for us to make financial aid a higher priority. 

Having a functioning financial aid office is more important than ever. College is getting more expensive across the country, and the UM has been losing first generation students and Pell Grant recipients for almost half a decade, with a 9.4% decrease in first gen students this year. 

The University can pride itself on having a high number of students returning to their second year of college, but it tends to forget that less than half of its enrollees actually leave Missoula with a degree. 

To be a successful university, we have to build from the bottom up, and one of the most important foundations we can create is ensuring that students’ financial aid is handled swiftly and properly.