Financial aid loophole leaves some seniors scrambling for cash

Muhlenberg College’s students risk losing financial aid if they finish their major too quickly

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Katie Behling ‘22 thought she was on track to graduate this spring semester, unaware that the registrar was expecting her to be done with her requirements this past fall. One day in October, her work study job asked if she would be returning in the spring, as they had not seen her listed for the next semester. She was shocked. She had assumed she would be working at her work study position for her final two semesters.

Behling is a media and communication major with minors in film and creative writing, and began taking the Honors Cumulative Undergraduate Experience (CUE) course for her major requirement in the fall. This is a year-long course, but on Workday it appeared to be only one semester, thus making it appear as though her major would be finished by the end of the fall semester. Regardless of her major requirements, she was still two classes short in finishing her film minor, and planned to take those in the spring as well. But because Workday indicated that  her major requirements would be complete, the office of financial aid expected her to graduate in December and she would no longer receive federal financial aid for the spring. “The financial aid office basically told me that minors didn’t matter in terms of being a graduation requirement,” explained Behling. “They said it doesn’t matter if you have classes left for a minor, you don’t need a minor to graduate.” 

“The financial aid office basically told me that minors didn’t matter in terms of being a graduation requirement.They said it doesn’t matter if you have classes left for a minor, you don’t need a minor to graduate.” 

“It was especially frustrating,” Behling says, “because over the summer I had spoken with Greg Mitton, the director of financial aid, about another issue regarding my major declaration. We had solved that issue, but he never mentioned anything about an early graduation during those several conversations in August. There was no communication about it at all until mid-October when I found out from my boss.”

Financial aid can be quite complex to navigate, which is troubling considering it can determine whether a student can afford a college education. At Muhlenberg, financial assistance is offered through merit scholarships, which can come from the school or outside parties and federal aid from the government often based on financial need. “Last year, Muhlenberg’s office of financial aid provided over $79 million in financial aid funds,” explained Meg Ryan, vice president for enrollment management. “Of this approximately $13 million comes from the federal government, $64 million from Muhlenberg and the remaining from state governments or third parties like outside scholarships.”

Muhlenberg College’s financial aid office has been praised by sources such as the New York Times which referred to the college’s guide “The Real Deal on Financial Aid” as “ought-to-be-mandatory-reading.” The College, according to the article, “has decided that there is a virtue to just telling it like it is.”

Despite this tell-it-like-it-is approach to financial aid, more students than usual have been in danger of losing their access to funding during their final semester. According to an email sent to faculty advisors, students are only eligible to receive federal financial aid while they are working on their degree, and as soon as they complete that work (they’ve taken 32 course units, completed their GARs and fulfilled their major requirements) they are no longer eligible for federal financial aid. When asked about the specific federal policy that affected Behling, Ryan notes that, “Historically, this has impacted a small handful of students— the overwhelming majority of whom were graduating early without intending to return for an additional semester. This past year, that number did increase slightly to impact six students.”

“Historically, this has impacted a small handful of students— the overwhelming majority of whom were graduating early without intending to return for an additional semester. This past year, that number did increase slightly to impact six students.”

 “If a student is still in pursuit of their degree they would continue to be eligible for federal financial aid, which for some students can include their second major,” said Ryan. This is not a college-specific policy, but one the College must comply with. Yet even for students in pursuit of their second major or one of their minors, they are still having to fight to stay for their final semester. 

I faced the same issue as a dance and media and communication double major. In attempting to pay my spring tuition, I realized my spring financial aid was not listed on the portal on Workday. Since the financial aid was posted separately for each semester last year due to COVID, I did not think much of only seeing the fall listed. That is, until there were still no updates at the beginning of spring semester. When I emailed the financial aid office, I was met with a response that I must call Greg Mitton, who suggested I either take the one required course online from home, in spite of the fact that I was already back a week early for the spring semester for a week long intensive for a dance department show. He also explained that they have to apply to the federal government with the students who would be receiving this aid, and since they thought I would graduate in the fall, they had only applied for one semester of federal financial aid for me.

Like Behling and many other students, I would not be able to attend this school without financial aid. The average financial aid package, including student loans and student employment, for a traditional student is $35,606. This is over half of the tuition price at $58,005.00 (without room and board which differs depending on the location and meal plan). Losing any financial aid can be detrimental to many students at this school, especially when aid covers so much of tuition costs for the average student.

I was told by the financial aid department that I didn’t qualify for federal aid for the spring because when they looked at my profile in the summer, I only had three classes left to finish all of my degree requirements and they figured I would graduate in December. But I ended up taking only two out of the three in the fall, saving the last class for the spring semester. It had been recommended to me by students and faculty alike to separate the CUE courses for dance and for media and communication, since both require a lot of work, so the only required course I was taking was the media and communication CUE. As a senior, I was also excited to take other classes I had been wanting to take throughout my time here, but had pushed off in order to complete my requirements. 

Had I known there would be issues with finishing too quickly, I would’ve planned differently, but I assumed that because I still had a requirement to fulfill there would be no issues. Luckily I was still able to receive aid from Muhlenberg after this conversation, however I did lose some federal aid because of the lack of communication from the financial aid office.

“Muhlenberg College’s institutional financial aid is available to students for up to eight semesters of undergraduate study even if they have met graduation requirements early,” notes Ryan. “So for those students who fell into this category, they could continue to receive Muhlenberg’s institutional financial aid, which includes merit scholarships and need-based grants, but would need to find other resources to make up any loss in federal financial aid. That includes their eligibility for federal work study, direct loans and federal Pell grants.”

As a result of the policy that Ryan describes, I was able to gain back my Muhlenberg merit scholarships and grants, but I did lose both my federal aid and my work study position very suddenly, which will definitely have an impact on my future financial status as I had to take out larger private loans.

The most frustrating part was the lack of communication between the office and the students. 

While Behling’s issue was resolved in mid-October, Behling said she was shocked to hear a liberal arts school that had encouraged her exploration of different classes, and a school that prides themselves on the well-rounded education of their students, suggest she rush to graduate. “If this is the style that Muhlenberg wants to handle financial aid in the future, where they’re almost urging students out, particularly students that receive a lot of financial aid from them, I would hope that they would tell students that are expecting an eight semester college experience that if they go too quickly through their programs of study, they might lose their financial aid,” says Behling, “which is like ludicrous to say out loud.” 

Students should double check their financial aid portal and make a plan that allows them to keep their aid for their final semester (or consider graduating early). Ryan noted that since financial aid is often so individualized, any students with questions or any students who would like more information about their aid should speak with the financial aid office.

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