Late changes in financial aid threaten student health insurance

Illustration of people looking stressed at the Financial Aid Office
Kelly Baird/File

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It was a week before tuition was due last year, and I was waiting for my scholarships to disburse so that I could be certain I wouldn’t be dropped from my classes. I’d received a financial aid office email every few days telling me that my awards had been adjusted. My awards changed by as much as $3000 per adjustment. I’d also been offered work-study, which was promptly rescinded. While it was somewhat stressful to see my awards fluctuate and my work-study money disappear, in the end I had enough gift aid to cover what I needed.

Suddenly I received a financial aid email saying my awards had been adjusted yet again. I suspected they had just given my work-study back. I opened CalCentral, only to find that my gift aid had been decreased by nearly $10,000 one week before tuition was due. I felt unnerved. “This must be a mistake,” I thought to myself. “No one would leave me with so much financial insecurity that close to a deadline.”

This year, I experienced something similar. When I got my initial package, it did not include a Student Health Insurance Plan, or SHIP, allowance, which I had received the previous year. I debated not signing up for SHIP and switching back to my old, worse health insurance, but in the end I signed up for SHIP. A week after the deadline to waive SHIP passed, the financial aid office gave me the funds for it. I was infuriated. Without the foreknowledge that I would end up qualifying for SHIP allowance, I almost signed up for insurance that would end up costing me more and giving me worse care. Had I switched to the inferior insurance, I might never have known that I could get SHIP covered. It makes me wonder how many students decided to waive SHIP to return to less comprehensive insurance, even when they qualify for SHIP funding. 

The financial aid office’s inability to tell students that their health insurance is covered until after the deadline to sign up for SHIP threatens students’ healthcare security. How can we be expected to make an educated decision without the financial aid office being able to educate us on our actual finances until after the SHIP waiver is due? Without this certainty, students are making decisions to switch back to whatever health care plan they can afford to pay for out-of-pocket, even though many of them may actually qualify for a SHIP allowance. 

The financial aid office may seek to bolster as many students as possible by giving out late funding, as shown by my getting the SHIP allowance so late. However, increasing funds this late can be detrimental to students’ finances, as they may have already taken out more loans to cover unprecedented costs or been relegated to a worse healthcare provider. This system is unacceptable. To remedy this, the time period in which the financial aid office may reallocate funds must be truncated. Reductions in awards ought to be final by mid-July so that students have time to prepare. In order to reduce anxiety and help students make the best financial decisions, the financial aid office must be able to give us an unchanging financial aid package long before tuition and insurance fees are due.

Zoe Merz is a junior at UC Berkeley majoring in chemical biology. Contact her at [email protected].