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USU financial aid staff swamped

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Posted: Sunday, August 29, 2010 12:00 am | Updated: 8:33 am, Mon May 4, 2015.

The phones in Utah State University’s financial aid office weren’t made to handle times like these.

With up to 1,000 calls coming in a day, the entire system has crashed a few times, according to Director Steve Sharp, who has never seen it this busy in 17 years at USU.

“We are earning our paychecks,” said Sharp, who added that during the past month and a half, many of his staff have been coming in on weekends to keep up with everything.

So what’s driving the insanity?

To put it in bullet points, enrollment is high, jobs are scarce and many students are curious about new federal loan rules.

The first two have been the case since the economy tanked, as recessions always bring people back to school and trouble finding work naturally turns into trouble paying tuition — but the latter is new and put the office into record-breaking territory.

“These are major changes that affect every student,” Sharp said of the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which passed in March along with President Barack Obama’s health care bill.

The legislation essentially makes the government the sole provider of federal loans, taking private lenders out of the picture.

In the past, banks and credit unions received subsidies to issue the loans, but now that money will go to other efforts, including a boost to the Pell Grant program and funding for community colleges and historically black institutions.

In a few years, low-income people will also get easier loan repayment terms.

While the act is sweeping, most students probably won’t notice many differences, said David Feitz, executive director of the Utah Higher Education Assistance Authority, a state agency that serviced loans under the old system.

UHEAA hopes to continue in this role by securing a federal contract, which would make the transition more or less completely seamless.

“There are advantages to keeping the loan service local because we have close ties to the universities,” Feitz said. “It takes a lot of expertise to service these loans because for many people, it’s their first experience with credit.”

At USU, the financial aid office is tackling some additional paperwork and helping students who apply for federal loans sign new promissory notes.

Financial aid information specialist Ashli Mason said that many Aggies have contacted her to make sure they’ve filled things out properly, though a few people have read the entire act and have more detailed questions.

“It seems like upperclassmen are more informed about it,” she added. “They’re concerned about how it will affect them when they graduate.”

For undeclared freshman Maria Guadarrama, the bill seemed to be a small detail in the big picture.

Lately, the aspiring businesswoman’s biggest concern has been just finding enough money, regardless of its source.

On Friday, she visited the financial aid office hoping to take out a second loan to help with books, parking fees and some of her tuition.

“Hopefully I won’t have to do much more,” said Guadarrama, who works as a waitress and already has a Pell grant and about $10,000 in debt.

Other students also seemed focused on practical issues rather than the philosophy behind Congress’s decisions.

Stuart Smith was busy filling out the paperwork for his first Pell Grant and said that the process was giving him a headache.

“My brain is about to explode,” said the junior in sustainable agriculture who had not heard anything about the new rules. “I just want to into get my classes.”

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kburgess@hjnews.com

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