Chancellor Reed places hold on grant awards for graduate students

As continuing students eagerly began checking their student aid award offers this week, graduate students at SF State were stunned to find that any mention of a State University Grant, a much-needed supplement to student loans, was nowhere to be found.

The grant award offers have been placed on hold at the request of California State University Chancellor Charles B. Reed, pending the outcome of a closed meeting of Reed and the campus presidents next week in Long Beach.

Undergraduate SUG awards are not affected.

The decision to hold the grants was made late last week, according to University spokeswoman Ellen Griffin, which is why students were not given any warning.

Students simply noticed the lack of an expected award, rather than an official notification from either the CSU or the University.

“Nobody said anything,” said graduate student Arielle Smith, 25. “My roommate’s like, ‘Is it just me? Will you check yours? I don’t know, maybe it’s just us.’ And so we started calling around and nobody had gotten the grant. It wasn’t until we went to financial aid the next day that we got word.”

In the 2011-12 academic year, 1,375 of the 4,057 graduate students at SF State were awarded a SUG as part of their financial aid, according to Jo Volkert, associate vice president of enrollment management.

According to Miles Nevin, executive director of the California State Student Association, the hold will affect approximately 16,000 graduate students across the CSU system that were expected to divvy up an estimated $90 million in grant money.

“Right now, we have very little information,” said Nevin. “We’re saying, ‘Let’s wait and see what they do and then take a stand.’”

But the lack of information about the missing awards and the fear that they may be cut altogether leaves some students dreading the thought of how to pay for the rest of their education.

“Unlike undergrads, we’re not eligible for Cal Grants, Pell Grants, our only form of financial aid is the SUGs and looking for our own scholarships and now since we’re not eligible for subsidized loans anymore, we can only rely on unsubsidized and private loans,” said Hayley Leventhal, 25, who is, like Smith, a graduate student in the Counseling Department at SF State.

Last year, graduate students became ineligible for subsidized loans.

CSU spokesman Mike Uhlenkamp emphasized that no decision has been made and that the hold does not mean a total cut of SUG funding for graduate students. “We are reviewing the policy for SUGs for graduate students. This is a wide-ranging conversation,” he said.

Uhlenkamp also noted that each of the CSU campuses has different time frames for financial aid award notifications and that SF State’s is earlier than most, so a decision may be made on the future of the funding before most students are aware of the review. He also emphasized that no decision has been made about the grants, and there may be no cause for alarm.

While the discussion about the grants is slated to take place during a closed meeting, Diana Fuentes-Michel, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission, which is responsible for the disbursement of Cal Grants, among other aid, said that changes to public funding should be open to public scrutiny.

“There needs to be an explanation,” Fuentes-Michel said. “If they are resetting priorities, if undergraduates are going to be their focus, then they need to say so.” She referred to last year’s changes to the Cal Grant process, and the public meetings and readily available information that was provided during the process, as an example.

The primary difference between the Cal Grant funds and the SUG funding is that while the Cal Grants come from state and federal funding, student fees help to fund SUGs.

SF State students affected by the hold are expected to receive more information today, according to Volkert.

“We will send out an email clarification as soon as we have a final statement from the CSU.  We regret the confusion and anxiety this uncertainty may cause our graduate students, and will send an email to them today to apologize for the confusion,” she said in an email statement.

While they wait for that final statement from the CSUs, Leventhal and Smith are both considering their options if the grants are cut, and fighting to make sure they aren’t. They started an online petition, urging the chancellor to maintain funding for these grants to graduate students, and plan to continue to try to raise awareness of the effects of the potential funding elimination.

Leventhal said, “What we really want to emphasize is that this isn’t just counseling students, this is nursing students, MBA students, students who are going for their teaching credentials, engineering students. These are the students who will be taking the high skilled jobs in California and by getting rid of this very vital student aid, we’ll be attracting not the most talented students, we’ll be attracting the most talented students who can afford to go into these programs.”

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