Applied for a loan? Prepare for the worst

By Thomas Pardee

Sometimes, life calls for plan B. And like it or not, you have to be ready.

Columbia’s Student Financial Services department is charged with administering the finances of each and every student. It’s complicated, and hiccups in communication with federal and private lenders make the refund process even more difficult. A lot hangs in the balance when it comes to our money, so we as students need to take control of our financial interests and be proactive in securing funding for college. When bureaucratic snags arise that are beyond our control, we need to have a back-up plan.

This year, I played by all the rules. I filed every form on time, filled out all my loan applications and stayed up-to-date on the status of my funds. But because of a breakdown in communication between SFS and my private loan provider, Sallie Mae, my loan was not disbursed after it was certified. While counselors from both the college and my lender told me that everything was moving smoothly, the money just sat there, as both parties waited on each other to make the next move.

I had to figure out where the problem was, and I had to coordinate the phone call between SFS and Sallie Mae so it could be solved. My cost-of-living advance, which I was told would arrive within three to five days, took two weeks to reach me. This, I was told again via telephone, was due to problems with SFS’ automatic deposit system. “Sorry,” the counselor told me. “There’s nothing else we can do.”

Though I can only speak for my own experiences, the line spilling out of the SFS office door would suggest others are having money problems, as well. The line of communication between SFS and federal and private lenders is an important one. Crucial information is exchanged in this delicate back-and-forth. SFS executive director Jennifer Waters said about 80 percent of Columbia students depend on loans to fund at least part of their education, and that her office works hard to make sure students’ money doesn’t fall through the cracks. But clearly, the system is still flawed.

There are many steps students should take to avoid problems, and it all boils down to being proactive. Starting the loan process early is key in ensuring it’s processed on time. Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in January, even if you don’t think you’re eligible for government money. If you try to apply for a private loan before filling out the FAFSA, your application could be delayed.

Keep an eye on the progress of your loans. Call SFS over the summer to check on the status, or if it’s a private loan, check in with your lender. Get used to asking the following question: “Is there anything I need to do right now?” If they say no, understand why. It’s easy to forget about loans over the summer, but failure to keep up to date on their progress could lead to problems later. It may seem like an obsessive approach, but it’s paid off for me in the form of several averted crises.

If you do find yourself stuck financially, know your options. I called SFS toward the end of my ordeal. If your refund money is delayed, and you need it immediately to purchase books for homework, SFS has a book credit service that allows you to charge books to your financial account that will be automatically deducted from your refund when it finally does arrive.

However, what you shouldn’t count on is consistency in counseling, especially over the phone. Though it may be imconvenient, taking time to stop by the office is a good plan. If you aren’t able to drop in, call every day. Take names. Make sure you’re hearing the same things from everyone. If you get conflicting information about where your loan stands, trouble may not be far off.

SFS, along with federal and private lenders, makes education possible for thousands of Columbia students. Much of our money is processed in a timely and tangle-free fashion, and we do receive our needed refunds on, and often before, the date they are promised. Considering it’s responsible for almost 13,000 separate financial situations, SFS runs relatively efficiently.

The size of the operation means some students will inevitably have issues, but SFS works hard to catch problems before they snowball.

But as I know all too well now, they can’t catch everything. That means students have to be ready to deal with it-and if that means stocking up on ramen and Capri Sun, or stashing away some extra summer job money in case of an emergency, so be it. It may not be glamorous, but it’s a solid Plan B.

Next year, I’ll be ready for anything.