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Virginia Streamlines College Financial Aid Process

Timothy Gills, a 19-year-old George Wythe senior
Timothy Gills, a 19-year-old George Wythe senior, recently decided to attend Old Dominion University in the fall. (Image: Megan Pauly/WCVE)

This month, high school students across Virginia are making decisions about where to go to college in the fall. The process can be cumbersome and confusing. But the state is working to streamline how universities present their financial aid offers. Megan Pauly has more for Learning Curve.


ChappellToday is National Decision Day.

Pauly: At Richmond’s George Wythe High School, Dominic Chappell is helping students celebrate one of the most difficult decisions students have had to make so far: where to go to college.

ChappellIf ya’ll have not made your decision, we have people here who can help you, if you have your award letter and you need to go over your award letters we can definitely sit down and go over that.

Pauly: Students like 19-year-old senior Timothy Gills are tie-dying t-shirts to match their school’s colors. His shirt has lots of blue to match the school he’s attending this fall: Old Dominion University.

GillsI think ODU is a great fit for me.

Pauly: Gills says one of the most important factors that went into his decision: money.

GillsIf I won’t have to pay out of pocket that will feel great because I won’t have to pay back loans. I don’t want to pay back loans. That would be a lot to worry about.

Dominic Chappell helps Gills accept scholarships and grants in Old Dominion University's online portal. (Photo: Megan Pauly/WCVE)

Pauly: But sometimes the breakdown of things like tuition, housing, and other fees isn’t clear. Lee Andes is Director of Financial Aid for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia  (SCHEV). He says some colleges lump loans and grants into one big category, even though students have to pay back loans…. but not grants or scholarships.

AndesAnd so we felt like it was a bit misleading at times.

Pauly: Andes says the language universities use can add to the confusion. He suggests changing the title of financial aid award to financial aid offer.

AndesWe did not require that in our policies, but we've actually gone to start encouraging that.

Pauly: Students are finding out about their financial offers by going online. And the portals themselves can be confusing. Chappell and colleague Tracy Brower are working with Gills to make sure he’s officially accepted all of his scholarship offers.

ChappellI don’t want him to have to take out a loan if he doesn’t need it.

Pauly: They ended up having to Google what they were looking for. With scholarships and grants, Gills shouldn’t have to take out a loan. But a lot of students do. And now there’s a new state position created to help them. Scott Kemp started the job of  Virginia’s first student loan advocate earlier this year. He’s handling student loan complaints through an  online form. He can serve as a go-between, between students and their loan servicers, and help students navigate repayment options so they don’t default. Close to 10 percent of Virginia students default now.

KempIt can be as simple as, instead of a $2 cup of coffee every day, if you put $2 a day in your loan, a lot of times that can pay most of the interest that accrues, so that when you get out that $10,000 that you took out for your loan is $10,000 and not 12,000 with the accrued interest.

Pauly: Another part of Kemp’s job: helping educate students before they take out loans. He’s working on an online course that’ll be released by the end of the year.

For Learning Curve, I’m Megan Pauly.

Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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