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PA budget deadlock hits students in the wallet

By Phillip Poupore, Point Park News Service:

Point Park University senior Brittany Lauffer has had to pick up additional work this fall because of the Pennsylvania budget impasse.

The broadcast journalism major moved off campus over the summer only because she expected a $3,634 refund check from the school. But there was a problem: She received just $1,824.

Because Pennsylvania has not yet passed an annual budget, the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA) has not provided Lauffer’s grant money to Point Park, so she only received about half of the refund check. Already pushing herself to the limits with school and work, the 21-year-old increased her freelancing workload and added a part-time job to cover the missing grant money.

Point Park University senior Brittany Lauffer, 21, waits tables as a part-time job on top of her studies due to the Pennsylvania budget impasse, which has put a deadlock on state grants. Photo courtesy of Kristina Serafini, Trib Total Media.
Point Park University senior Brittany Lauffer, 21, waits tables as a part-time job on top of her studies due to the Pennsylvania budget impasse, which has put a deadlock on state grants. Photo courtesy of Kristina Serafini, Trib Total Media.

“It’s pretty miserable,” Lauffer said. “I haven’t enjoyed this semester much at all. I don’t even have time to spend with my family or friends because I have to work.”

The state budget impasse has left 153,585 college students waiting to receive PHEAA grants, which has forced many of those students to reach into their savings or work more hours to make ends meet.

Keith New, PHEAA spokesperson, explained that there is nothing the agency can do until the state passes a budget.

“Like everyone, we’re just spectators,” New said. “We’re watching the process. We’re waiting for the budget to be released, but right now we’re just trying to be prepared for the moment that happens.”

Gov. Tom Wolf recommended the state provide level funding for PHEAA at $344.8 million, New said. The agency itself has set aside an additional $75 million from its own funds to go toward the PHEAA grants. New explained that the state puts tax dollars toward the $344.8 million, but PHEAA itself is not supported by tax dollars, so instead it uses money the agency has earned.

Every dollar of that $419.8 million total will end up in the students’ hands, New said.

Taking the full amount and dividing it by the total number of students projected to receive the grant leaves an average missing amount of just over $2,733 per student. New explained that each student is assessed differently on a variety of factors, so the award total per student is different; however, he did say that the maximum amount a student could receive was $4,340.

Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher for Edvisors.com, a website that provides insight to families trying to pay for college, noted this isn’t the first time delays in state aid have caused issues for students.

There have also been cases in which individual colleges experienced delays because of administrative issues, Kantrowitz said. These kinds of issues affected Florida universities in 2013 and a community college in Alabama last year. He said some students in these situations were so impacted by the delays that they were forced to drop out.

“Sometimes colleges accommodate the students if they know the aid is coming but may be delayed,” Kantrowitz said. “They will not seek payment from the student for the delayed aid, but the schools will not issue a refund that students need to buy books until the state aid actually becomes available.”

According to George Santucci, director of financial aid at Point Park, that is how the school is handling the situation. Since the money will eventually be released, Point Park is not expecting students to cover the cost of the grants. However, some students who were due refunds either did not get them or received only a portion.

Santucci said the school has pre-calculated the amount of money each student has received in scholarships, grants, federal loans and alternative loans. This total award amount is then used to cover all university-related fees, including tuition, technology fees and on-campus housing. If there is money left after the fees are paid, the student receives the money in a refund check.

This is where the problem with the refund check arises. The school has not been paid for the grant as that money is essentially frozen in a student’s account. The school cannot issue a full refund check, or one at all, because the money isn’t there.

In Lauffer’s case, she was projected to receive an estimated $1,810 PHEAA grant. She was owed $3,634 after paying Point Park for its various fees, but she received only half in a refund check. By subtracting what she received from what she expected, the total comes to $1,810, the exact amount of the PHEAA grant.

The budget impasse has Lauffer missing out on money she was planning on putting toward rent and other supplies.

“The money I was using for credit card payments and other bills I now have to put toward rent because I didn’t get the whole refund,” Lauffer said.

She now spends her weekends going back and forth between jobs in order to make ends meet.

“I’m able to make payments,” she said. “It’s just frustrating to work as hard as I do because the state can’t pass a budget.”

Santucci said 950 Point Park students are in line to receive a PHEAA grant, and out of those students, 500 would have a credit on their account to get refunded. The school is projected to receive a total of $1.5 million from PHEAA grants.

The refund checks for these students range from $1 to thousands of dollars.

“There’s no doubt I feel bad for students,” Santucci said. “This is the first time from what I can remember that the money has come in this late. Of course I feel bad and we’ll do what we can to get that money in the hands of the students as soon as we can.”

Once the budget is passed and the school receives the grant money, the refund process would begin. First the student’s account is credited with the grant money, and once the account balance is confirmed, the refund check will be sent out. He said the process takes seven to 14 business days.

Some schools across the state that have the capability to forward the grant money to students anyway. Financial aid secretaries at Slippery Rock University and Edinboro University confirmed that the schools awarded the students the grant money.

For Slippery Rock senior Matthew DeVries, 22, this payment made all the difference. Slippery Rock paid forward the $1,177 he was due to receive in the PHEAA grant, which allowed him to receive $530 in a refund check.

“I definitely benefited from getting that money,” DeVries said. “I would have had to take out extra money from my parents or a private loan if I didn’t get it.”

He used the refund check to help with rent payments on his off-campus apartment, as well as to pay for textbooks for classes.

The same instance occurred for Edinboro University senior Ashley Olinger, 21. She received her full refund because the school paid forward her $1,840 grant. She acknowledged that receiving the refund was critical because she was relying on that money for off-campus housing and art studio supplies.

Point Park junior Matt Kruth, 21, said that he is slated to receive two grants from PHEAA. One is the traditional state grant, and the other is a special circumstance grant. The state grant is estimated at $2,500 and the special circumstance grant is estimated at $2,000. His refund check was estimated at $6,500, but he received only $2,000.

“Thankfully I’m only using the refund for rent on an off-campus apartment,” Kruth said. “The concern I have is that I have money saved, but it wasn’t supposed to be put toward paying rent. If something else were to happen like with my car or another emergency I would have to take that money from my savings for rent.”

He added that he only has enough money in his savings to make it to February paying rent. He said the budget impasse has drastically influenced how he’s spent his money recently.

“It’s frustrating certainly,” Kruth said. “I get both sides and I can see how they find it worth holding up the budget, but the longer it goes on the longer it affects me. It’s getting to the point where the issues can wait two more years until I’m out of school. I don’t want to be selfish, but I need that money.”

This story was published by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

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