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U., Department of Education's $10,000 term bill mishap recently rectified

Adrienne Baker, a graduate student at Mason Gross School of the Arts, recently received a grant from the University to cover her term bill after her $10,000 loan was revoked after she had used the funds. – Photo by Courtesy of Jim Stapleton

In an interview with The Daily Targum, a doctoral candidate in the Mason Gross School of the Arts recounted her experience with Rutgers—New Brunswick's Office of Financial Aid after it mistakenly loaned her approximately $10,000 and asked for it back.

Adrienne Baker, a doctoral student of Musical Arts in Performance at Mason Gross, said the cost of her education was covered by scholarship and fellowship funds, which concluded with the completion of her Spring 2022 semester.

She said the financial burden has since been resolved through a grant provided by the University. But, after finishing her academic work, many new issues arose.

Baker said without the University's financial support, she began working on the side to pay for her food, housing and medical expenses. Taking out a loan was a last resort, she said.

"I was trying to avoid taking out another loan through (financial aid), but ultimately decided that I needed the cushion," Baker said. "I have a lot of debt, and when I think too hard about it, it is crippling. And I was willing to accept taking on another loan because I really, really needed it."

Baker said the collective weight of her job, academic advising, medical commitments and financial struggles drove her to reach out for help to her graduate advisor, Robert Grohman, an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Music. She said she spoke with her advisor about taking a leave of absence before applying for the loan.

Obtaining the loan required weeks of waiting until Baker submitted a complaint to the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs in early November. She said Lisa Sanon-Jules, the assistant dean for Advising and Student Success, then expedited her request, and she received the loan in December.

She said months after she was given the funds to assist her financial situation, her term bill seemingly requested approximately $12,000 instead of the previous $2,000. The University had apparently incorrectly given her a $10,000 loan and then requested those funds back due to its mistake.

In response, an advisor at One Stop Student Services (One Stop) apologized for the error and acknowledged the nature of the situation, according to email correspondence obtained from Baker between her and the University.

"I am deeply sorry that this happened to you," said the One Stop advisor. "It is, unfortunately, something that does occur at times due to delays in the Department of Education reporting loan balance totals with our financial aid systems. We, as well as the Office of Financial Aid, recognize this is not ideal."

The One Stop advisor said Baker had reached a lifetime limit to the amount she could borrow as a graduate student.

Sherrell Watson-Hall, the director of the Office of Financial Aid, said Rutgers' financial aid policy states the University will only reject already disbursed funds at a student's request or if the Department of Education (DOE) notes that the student is ineligible for financial aid.

She said the DOE caps how much an individual can federally borrow loans during their academic career and tracks this data through the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS). Students can access this information from their Student Aid Report once they fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, Watson-Hall said.

"During the 2022-2023 academic year, NSLDS was offline for a significant period, and the University did not receive updates until the spring semester. When that information was received, it was necessary to reduce or cancel some student loans that had already (been) disbursed. This was required by federal regulation," Watson-Hall said.

Watson-Hall said when incorrect funds are disbursed to students, they cannot receive any new federal aid until their previous funds are repaid. She said any student facing a loan reduction should contact the Office of Financial Aid and read the DOE's federal student aid website on loan eligibility.

Baker said during this entire process, some of the individuals she spoke with would not reply to multiple follow-up emails, stagnating communication and escalating this issue.

She said this situation was only recently rectified when she went into the financial aid office and spoke with a representative who encouraged her to apply for a private loan covering a portion of the amount.

Baker said with the support of a colleague sitting in on the meeting, she requested and received a grant in the full amount of her approximately $12,000 balance, after which she felt relieved to have ended her financial issues with the University.

At the time of Baker's interview with the Targum, she said if everything goes well, she will register for her coursework this semester.

She said her degree would allow her to teach high-level performance-based courses, but she wondered what she would do if one of her future students came to her with the problem she faced.

"I want to get a job in the very field that has shown me they don't care about me and that they don't care about other students," Baker said. "And that troubles me a lot."

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