COVID-19 has significantly impacted nearly every facet of daily life, from business to industry to academia. The University of Mississippi’s financial aid office is one of many adjusting its workflow to service students at a time when some students see financial support as even more important than it was pre-pandemic.
Laura Diven-Brown, the director of financial aid at the university, noted how unprecedented this time is for her department.
“In the 25 years I’ve been here,” she said, “I’ve seen other kinds of crises, like the Katrina hurricane and how that impacted Mississippi, but the pandemic is something completely different all together because of the fact that it impacted our operations internally — how we can do business.”
Many students may relate to Christina Staten. The senior biology major said that her typical interactions with the financial aid office have been much smoother in previous semesters. This year, though, her various documents have taken much longer to process, which, in turn, means that she is still waiting for her scholarship refund.
“I feel like maybe in the past it wouldn’t be as long since coronavirus has happened,” she said, “It’s been taking pretty long … which is understandable.”
When the university transitioned to online learning in March, financial aid operations went completely online just like classes. Overall, the office has worked as efficiently as it had before, Diven-Brown said, but she knew that the upcoming semester would be a challenge as the number of students seeking help would increase.
The university started allowing students to physically visit the office again in early August, instating typical social-distancing health and safety protocols like plexiglass, line markers and sanitizer stations.
There are also new self-service methods for students such as a collection box in the office for students to drop off important documents without having to wait to speak with someone. There is also a new online scheduling system on the financial aid website for students to set up in-person, telephone or Zoom appointments.
Diven-Brown said that even before the pandemic, the financial aid office was working on ways to do more online processing so that students can help themselves.
“The more tools like that that we have for the students and parents to use, the better it will be for us to be fast and efficient,” she said. “(This situation) does remind you that you’ve constantly got to evolve. You’ve constantly got to look for ways to do business with students that’s convenient for them and as flexible as possible.”
Because of the slowed processing time, some students who depend on financial aid from the university have found themselves in somewhat of a financial limbo.
“It’s stressful because you want to know that everything is taken care of as far as tuition, and meal plans and housing,” senior exercise science major Kyeisha Mells said. “And a lot of people are dependent on that refund; that’s how they purchase their books and stuff … How are you supposed to be successful in class?”
Although the pandemic may not affect college students’ eligibility for certain financial aid packages, students may now need more money than they would normally receive, according to reports by the Los Angeles Times.
Diven-Brown explained that financial aid administrators can also exercise professional judgment, wherein they can reevaluate a student’s financial situation so that they may qualify for more need-based aid.
The one message that she wants to emphasize to students is that, “(the financial aid office wants) students who are going through all these changes with COVID-19 who are impacted financially, to stay in contact with us.”
Those who need help with their living situation, access to the university’s food bank, book vouchers and other concerns can reach out to the financial aid office to schedule an appointment.
“You feel a huge responsibility to do right by the students to make sure that the university continues to do what we promised to do,” Diven-Brown said. “So, I do think that trying to juggle all these things is a challenge, but it is our job, and we want everyone to be able to afford their school and get their books, pay their tuition and be set up for the year.”
Diven-Brown expects the spring semester to proceed more efficiently and hopes the trial-and-error period of this semester helps improve the productivity and communication of the financial aid office.
“We’re learning every day,” Diven-Brown said, “We’re finding new resources and ways to help people, and hopefully that will keep everybody going strong all the way through the semester.”