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Mo’ money, mo’ problems

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OCTOBER 19, 2017

Tuition: $14,068. Rent: $2,600. Books: $565. Gas: $53. Parking Permit: $377. Having the financial aid office reduce your funding midsemester without any prior warning: priceless.

After graduating with my bachelor’s degree in English in spring 2017, I returned in the fall to complete my second degree in gender studies. With only a senior seminar and an elective left to take, my advisor gave me the green light to take a reduced course load.

Many student-parents at UC Berkeley have taken advantage of UC Berkeley’s reduced course load policy, which allows student-parents to drop down to eight units while still being considered full-time students. Until this semester, I had personally never taken advantage of this academic plan. Many parents, however, have found that it greatly increases their ability to keep up with their rigorous coursework while still being able to spend quality time with their kids.

Come last week, I logged onto my CalCentral account to make an appointment with my advisor, only to find that I had been billed a hefty $1,400 by Financial Aid. The charge read “Federal Pell Grant.” That was it. No explanation. Nothing.

Cue my panic attack, followed by a two-hour hold to speak with someone at the Financial Aid office who inevitably gave me some kind of variation of the non-answer “these things differ on a case-to-case basis.”

I came to find that many other student-parents were also billed with this ominous charge on their Cal Central account, none of whom had any clue as to why.

After another hourlong hold on the phone and four hours waiting on campus for an in-person appointment, I was finally informed by an advisor that the Pell Grant (which is a federal grant issued by the United States government out of the general federal revenue) only recognizes students enrolled in 15 units as full-time. Thus, student-parents taking reduced course loads had their Pell Grant fundings reduced and were required to pay back their original disbursements.

For many student-parents, unexpected shifts in financial aid such as this are significantly more stressful than they are for the average student.

Don’t get me wrong — financial stress in college happens to more than just student-parents. According to the National Student Wellness Financial Study, seven out of 10 college students feel stressed about their personal finances. For students attending UC Berkeley, which is conveniently located in a city with one of the highest cost-of-living rates in the nation, the personal expenses (rent, food, etc.) tacked onto an already costly tuition bill are overwhelming.

Student-parents, however, have to factor in the additional cost of raising children. According to Time magazine, the average cost of raising a child from birth to adulthood is $233,610. Raising your kid in the Bay Area, where the average cost of daycare sits at a cool $1,900 a month per child? $402,112.

Thanks to Facebook and the amazing student-parent population at UC Berkeley that utilizes it, I found the resolution to my problem.

The post on the UCB Student Parent Association for Recruitment and Retention Facebook page read,“REDUCED COURSE LOAD STUDENTS this week you may notice your Pell Grant funding has been reduced and a charge on your account. However, this reduction should be offset by a ‘UC Pell Grant Replacement’ for the exact same amount. Sometimes this process can take a few days and during that time it can appear that you owe more money.”

I was informed. And I was relieved.

The student-parent community can no longer be left in the dark, as they are with many conversations that go on within campus.

The changes to their financial aid packages were both drastic and imminent, yet there seemed to be no heads-up given by the university to the student-parents who opted to take reduced course loads.

Easily accessible information is the most invaluable resource to student-parents, who are constantly having to think just not about themselves, but about their children, as well. The campus needs to continue to shift its culture to be more student-parent-friendly, especially regarding matters of financial aid. This means keeping students up-to-date with changes to their financial aid packages and making assistance to them readily available when these changes occur.

And no, holding for two hours to speak to financial aid advisor who has to forward your case to their supervisor before they answer any questions doesn’t count.

Mia Villanueva writes the Thursday column on her experience as a student-parent at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected].

OCTOBER 19, 2017