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Dude, Where's My Student Loan Package?

John Sandman

NEW YORK (MainStreet)—Word on the impending Stafford Loan rate increase isn't the only news the nation's college students are waiting on, as interest rates are set to double from 3.4% to 6.8% on July 1. Congress is in gridlock while the immigration issue is pushing student loans to the back burner.

Less well-known are the number of students who have not yet received information on their financial aid packages for the upcoming Fall semester.

Computer systems need to be re-programmed for hikes in student loan origination fees mandated by the Department of Education once the federal sequester kicked in. The sequester is the $1.2 trillion in budget cuts resulting from a 2011 increase in the debt ceiling.

While the sequester's start date—March 1, 2013—was well-known, implementation has not been a Big Bang.

Diane Stamper, executive director of student financial aid at Ohio State University, said the fee increases are small but required many changes to OSU's computer processing system. It is those changes—and the time it takes to make them—that have forced students to wait to hear about their financial aid packages—and how much they're getting.

"We have an entire infrastructure in our computers and in our systems that supports this," Stamper told the Columbus, Ohio affiliate of NBC News on June 26. "We've had to make at least 74 changes to be able to accommodate what is a one decimal point change in the calculating of the fees that are due."

Normally, returning students at Ohio State receive details of their financial aid package by the end of May. Stamper says the university expects to provide the information to students during the first week of July. But there were no guarantees it would happen then.

"I have heard that there are some delays at colleges that have home-grown administrative software systems," said Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher at Edvisors Network . "The last I heard, the standard systems that are used by most colleges--BANNER, PowerFaids, Wolfpack—were all updated pretty quickly." BANNER is an administrative software app for higher education developed by Systems and Computer Technology, which maintains student and financial data. PowerFaids is software created by the College Board.

"It is not uncommon for schools to take some time to make changes to their administrative software systems," Kantrowitz continued. "This is why there is a master calendar provision in the Higher Education Act of 1965 that requires the US Department of Education to make changes well in advance of the start of the award year." For example, changes must occur by November 1 to be effective the following July 1, otherwise they get delayed by a year.

"Sequestration was not subject to the master calendar provisions of the '65 Act, increasing the likelihood that colleges would encounter problems," Kantrowitz said.

If news of these issues are not well-known, they are hardly ones that any college or university would want to publicize. And the likelihood is that the smaller schools, not the larger ones like Ohio State, are struggling the most.

The process itself it unlikely to be outsourced, meaning the brunt of managing the problem falls to the institution.

Programs widely used in this space—BANNER, PowerFaids, Wolfpack--provide for the management of financial aid, admissions, registration and similar functions. "It is quite common for schools to get such third-party software," said Kantrowitz. "It isn't quite outsourcing, since the college still manages the systems, but rather more akin to buying Microsoft Word rather than writing your own word processing software."

--Written by John Sandman for MainStreet

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