Triage in the Financial Aid Emergency Room

If Mike Miller worked in a big city hospital emergency room, he would not necessarily be the doctor stitching up the head wounds. Instead, he would be the staff person conducting triage on an endless line of the walking wounded

Despite his title of director of the Office Financial Aid and Scholarships at UC Santa Barbara, Miller’s work resembles that of a triage orderly rather than the chief of hospital staff. As UC Santa Barbara students find their way to his office, he is working tirelessly to find the scholarship fund, the emergency loan fund, or the federal and state aid program that can keep them at UC Santa Barbara.

Never has his job been more demanding or more important. The double whammy of falling housing values — which in the past had been a piggy bank for parents sending students to college — and increasing numbers of white collar workers losing their jobs means more students are on their own in financing what is now a $30,000 annual cost of a college education at UC Santa Barbara.

“We are seeing more families with unemployment or underemployment than we have ever seen before,” said Miller, who has worked in financial aid at UC Santa Barbara for most of the last 13 years. That has led to a dramatic jump in students taking out loans, with the average student now graduating from UC Santa Barbara with $17,000 in student loans. Additionally, national statistics show that students at graduation are usually carrying $3,000-$4,000 in credit card debt.

The numbers at UC Santa Barbara, which has one of the highest family per capita incomes in the UC system, are staggering. Out of 21,000 students at UC Santa Barbara, more than 16,000 receive some form of financial aid. That number is increasing every year, said Miller.

While UC offers the Blue and Gold program, which provides full tuition aid for students whose families make less than $80,000 per year, all student aid programs require students to come up with at least $9,500 of “family contribution” per year. Miller pointed out that even the “neediest” of UC Santa Barbara students must come up with that $9,500 from work, family support or loans. California has one of the premier student aid programs in the nation, the Cal Grant program. It provides $12,192 a year in tuition grants, almost the entire tuition load at UC Santa Barbara. Some 6,000 students at UC Santa Barbara qualify.

Additionally students can take advantage of Stafford loans, the federal government program that at one time was run by banks and guaranteed by the government. Because of abuses in that program, the Stafford loans now come directly from the federal government. They provide loans at an interest rate of 3.4% to 6.8% to students. At UC Santa Barbara, more than $120 million in Stafford loans are disbursed each year.

Miller is a relatively young director of financial aid. He has held the position since last year, after being an assistant, then an associate and finally the interim financial aid director. A graduate of Linfield College in Oregon, Miller came to UC Santa Barbara’s financial aid office in 1998, starting out as a clerk processing financial aid applications. He left UC Santa Barbara for four years for a tour of duty in the U.S. Army, where, because of his collegiate track background, he ended up training U.S. Army Rangers. He competed in Olympic trials in distance running in both 2000 and 2004, but did not make the Olympic team.

“Our campus is no different than society in general in feeling the impacts of a bad economy,” Miller observed. “Students have never been as stressed out about finances as they are now. The opening of a campus food bank distribution center is a good example of the general economy we are in.”

As tuition increases are planned by the Regents and UC faces another $100 million cut in operating budgets in December, Miller is worried that access to UC is going to be limited. “More and more I am hearing from families that want to come to UC, but they just can’t afford it.”

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