Sam Houston State University will now enforce a federal regulation regarding financial aid with which it was previously unable to comply.
At the 2018 SHSU Advisors Meeting, Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management Scot Mertz explained the procedural changes that advisors and students will have to make before next semester.
College students who complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA) and are eligible for its benefits receive grants, loans and work-study funds for college or career schools. Previously, SHSU students who received financial aid were allowed to apply the benefits to any college course that they registered for, whether or not the course applied to their degree plan. However, it has been federal regulation that financial aid only covers the cost of courses that directly apply to a student’s degree plan.
According to the 2015-2016 FSA Handbook, if a student is enrolled in courses that do not count toward their degree, certificate, or other recognized credential, they cannot be used to determine enrollment status unless they are eligible remedial courses. This means you cannot award the student aid for classes that do not count toward their degree, certificate, or other recognized credential.
This is a federal regulation, and the financial aid offices of every university are required to comply with this law.
“It is not a new rule,” Financial Aid Director Lydia Hall said. “This is a federal regulation that has been around for several years, we just didn’t have the capability to comply with this regulation due to software limitations.”
Course Program of Study is a program that SHSU recently obtained that helps advisors identify if students are taking classes that do not apply to their degree plan.
According to Mertz, a few years ago during an annual audit by the Department of Education, a Florida and Colorado University were found liable for 5 and 8 million dollars of wrongly applied financial aid.
“We do not want that to happen here,” Mertz said. “When the two universities got audited, it really caught everyone’s attention, and it caught the software makers’ attention to develop a product to monitor this. Now that we have this process, we need to monitor this.”
Several changes are in store for this upcoming semester.
As a part of financial aid’s Direct Loan Policy, a student can only receive a loan when they are enrolled in at least six credit hours. Direct Loans are through the federal government, and this is the main form of federal aid available to students. It is available to all students (regardless of their financial situation) who have Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP). It requires that both undergraduate and graduate students be enrolled in six credit hours at minimum to be eligible. This is because the policy requires that students be enrolled in at least half-time—half of a full-time course load.
Now that financial aid will no longer cover courses that do not apply to degree plans, this may affect some students’ class loads.
For example, if a student receiving direct loans is enrolled in one three-hour course that applies to their degree plan, and another three-hour course that does not apply to their degree plan, they are no longer eligible for that loan; this is because all hours must apply directly to that student’s degree plan.
According to Mertz, in the case that a graduate student only has three credit hours remaining to complete their degree, there is a way they can get around that and still receive the loan. This is possible if they take that course during the summer, because summer classes are considered half-semesters and, therefore, is half of a full course load. However, this only applies to graduate students, and undergraduates still need to at least six hours.
Students receiving Pell Grants may also be affected in the instance that they need to retake a course. Pell Grants pay by credits hours, and apply to all undergraduates in increments of three credits hour at a time: 12 credit hours being the maximum benefit of the grant.
“30 percent of our undergraduate students are on Pell Grants,” Mertz said.
When a student passes a course in their curriculum with a “D”, financial aid will not cover the cost to retake it for a better grade. However, financial aid will cover the cost to retake a course that you fail, but it counts that toward your completion rate on your academic transcript.
“Unless it is in a course load of 15 hours, because 12 hours is the highest financial aid Pell Grants will pay per semester, and in that case they have already paid the maximum,” Mertz said. “So if your students need to retake a class, advise them to take it as their fifteenth hour.”
Students eligible for financial aid will now be required to declare a major in order to receive the financial benefits. Now students are allowed to switch majors no matter their GPA. The point of this is to make sure that students receiving financial aid benefits have a declared a major when attending college (and are not just taking random courses that do not apply to a specific degree plan).
“When you look at the numbers right now, 30 percent of students on financial aid, which is about 7,000 students, are going to have problems with this so we have to clean it up,” Mertz said.
The office of Student Enrollment is focusing on preparing all advisors on how to address these issues with students during Fall 2018 registration.
“We are not only going to be targeting students on financial aid, but we will make sure all students are aware of which courses do not apply to their degree plan,” Mertz said. “We have students come into the Registrars’ office every year that say ‘I just realized this course doesn’t apply to my degree plan,’ and it’s November and now we’re in trouble. So are we are going to treat every student the same.”
SHSU will start enforcing these regulations in full effect Fall 2018.
“What this really does is clean things up, makes things more transparent and makes it a more direct path to graduation,” Mertz said.
According to Mertz, now that they have the software, they will be sending out further information regarding these changes once they have determined an efficient communication plan that will best inform students and faculty.
“We are going to load the data, stress the system and develop our communications plans based on what we see,” Mertz said.
Not all Texas universities are able to comply with these regulations yet due to software limitations.