Transparency, concrete solutions needed to improve UM’s financial aid process

The Miami Hurricane Sept. 22 cover story, “Financial aid office gives students a run for their money,” details complications University of Miami students experienced with the Office of Student Financial Assistance (OFAS). Scores of students had waited all summer to know whether they could afford to return to school in August. While some found solutions, others had to leave UM.

The news feature generated a wave of  reactions in letters to the editor, comments and social media posts. OFAS’ evasive response further illuminated the department’s oblique approach that was already exhibited during The Hurricane’s reporting.

Hurricane staffers interviewed John Haller, vice president of enrollment management, and Geoffrey Kirles, vice president for finance and treasury, on Sept. 16. They were met with a tight-lipped and somewhat defensive response, one that contradicts the university’s ostensible goal of administrative transparency.

Any financial aid delays and misplacement of documents were denied in a prepared statement that Haller read before the interview began.

Furthermore, the administrators often circumvented questions, redirecting the conversation to more flattering topics, such as OFAS meeting 99 percent of need-based aid last year.

Though The Hurricane provided specific student experiences during the interview, the responses were primarily overarching statements such as, “At the end of the day, the goal is to see them receive a college degree.”

Raymond Nault-Hix, associate dean of enrollment management and executive director of OFAS, took a similar approach when responding to student complaints in a Sept. 29 letter to the editor.

Nault-Hix implied that these issues were “challenges and complexities” intrinsic to financial aid and wrote that OFAS has taken a step forward by opening up communication with Student Government.

Unfortunately, this was the only actual improvement solution presented. The rest of the letter was filled with generic information about student responsibilities and acknowledgement of OFAS’ accomplishments, reading more like a press release than a serious response to a major university problem.

Since the story’s publication, OFAS has attempted to reach out to some students. One such student, Robert Arnold, had financial aid restored after his sister shared an open letter to President Frenk on Facebook explaining that his family lost their primary source of income when his father passed away.

However, it shouldn’t take the public pressure of a viral social media post to fix an aid package. These situations should be taken seriously and carefully considered when they are initially presented.

OFAS should also extend its efforts beyond student outreach. To create working solutions, the office must first acknowledge the problems.

Students can only tell OFAS how they want to be treated; they aren’t necessarily qualified to offer specific ideas for implementation. The office should consult other universities – especially larger ones – on how to handle financial aid and ensure that UM is well-equipped with tools such as document-management software and tracking systems.

Nault-Hix brought the possibility of a new web portal for students to use for financial aid applications and updates in an August interview. Tangible solutions and updates like these are what will safeguard many students from some of the mishaps that occurred this year; that should be apparent even without student advisory groups.

As a campus newspaper, The Hurricane communicates student concerns to the community and the administration. However, when these concerns are met with a dismissive and unforthcoming attitude, it’s difficult to take advantage of that role as a tool for improving the university.

The office may appear to be increasing transparency through its creation of a student advisory group and a financial aid forum, but the value of these initiatives can be proven only by concrete improvements to the current systems of processing and notifying about financial aid.

No department or office is perfect, especially in a bureaucracy like a university. However, financial aid and enrollment management serve as the gateway to all other UM departments, so their roles are particularly crucial.

Despite “challenges and complexities,” OFAS must recognize existing problems and demonstrate a willingness to develop solutions to effectively serve students.

Editorials represent the majority view of The Miami Hurricane editorial board.