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SPC student finds financial aid system difficult to navigate

Alexandra Gulbis stands in protest outside St. Petersburg College recently. After several weeks of confusion, Gulbis took her concerns to administrators, who finally resolved her problems.

LUIS PEREZ | Times\uFEFF

Alexandra Gulbis stands in protest outside St. Petersburg College recently. After several weeks of confusion, Gulbis took her concerns to administrators, who finally resolved her problems.

ST. PETERSBURG — When things were at their worst, Alexandra Gulbis was holding a cardboard placard on the Gibbs campus of St. Petersburg College, weighed down by a possible eviction notice and an uncertain educational future.

"All I want is for SPC to certify my private loan in the amount I was approved for," the sign read.

Fifteen minutes after she plopped herself on the grass in symbolic protest, a campus security officer would ask Gulbis and her boyfriend to leave. She complied willingly.

"I can't get arrested — I have an appointment with their head financial person next," she quipped.

Gulbis had armed herself with a lesson from her mother, who suggested that she take her problems to a higher-ranking figure at the college. Later that day, things turned around.

After weeks of confusion over the size of her loan, Gulbis walked out of the college provost's office with a smile on her face and assurance that she would be receiving $16,000 in aid to continue pursuing an associate's degree in psychology.

School officials said her case is an example of how many students experience aggravation and confusion over complex financial aid regulations, and how well-meaning counselors often have their hands tied in helping them or are simply too overworked.

Making a case

According to Gulbis, a few days before her protest on the lawn, the college told her it could not approve a $21,000 private loan application. The college was willing to sign off on only $9,000, Gulbis said. She was told that based on her family's earnings and her age (20), Gulbis' family should help her. Gulbis is not receiving scholarships this year.

But Gulbis lives in Tampa, not in her mother's home in St. Petersburg, and she said she does not rely on her mother's support. In the past year, she also hasn't been able to find steady employment.

She provided counselors with copies of her electric bill, apartment lease and proof of other costs but was turned away, she said. Gulbis even called the federal Department of Education, which told her the college was the authority on the matter.

With no one else to turn to and her $900 January rent in default, Gulbis scrawled out the message on the cardboard sign. The implied message: She was going to have to start looking for other living arrangements if she wanted to keep studying. Gulbis is carrying a full course load of 15 credits this semester.

"I don't want to live out of my car," she said.

Clearing up confusion

Gulbis was angry when she walked into Associate Provost Psalms Mack's office. Mack wasn't involved in the initial counseling with Gulbis.

She would explain again how she was denied access to the loan, even though, she said, it was approved the year before.

But Mack made phone calls, and in minutes was able to assure Gulbis she'd be receiving more than $16,000 in aid this year — $10,798 through a private loan and $5,500 through the federal Stafford loan program.

"That's more livable,'' Gulbis said.

"It was a communication issue," Mack said by phone, citing a misunderstanding between Gulbis and a counselor.

Marcia McConnell, the college's director of financial aid, insisted that $16,000 was available to Gulbis all along. She said that in December, Gulbis received letters informing her that both of the loans had been approved. Students also have access to that information online.

Still, she acknowledged that Gulbis had met in person with a financial aid adviser two days before she showed up on campus with a cardboard sign.

"She came in and her frustration and her concern was focused and fixated on the fact that she didn't want to talk about anything but her budget," McConnell said, adding that her three counselors serve a population of 2,000 students.

Moreover, the college's hands are often tied, she said, by strict federal guidelines that take into account a student's cost of attendance, family contribution and financial need. By those rules, she said, the college is not able to approve "nonneed-based aid."

McConnell said her counselors strive for compassion. "I don't want a student to ever say they could not go to college … because they could not get through the financial aid maze," she said.

Gulbis' next goal is to graduate and seek a bachelor's degree at the University of Florida, and after that, law school. For now, she plans to sleep in her own bed this semester.

"She's a defiant young woman," Lynn Kiehne said of her daughter.

Luis Perez can be reached at (727) 892-2271 or Lperez@sptimes.com.

SPC student finds financial aid system difficult to navigate 01/20/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 20, 2009 3:39pm]

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