Surprise bills covered

Brandon Zeris, Features Editor

Pitt-Johnstown administrators have saved over 300 Arts and Sciences College students an estimated total of more than $100,000 by paying for their PittPay balances.

The balances accumulated as a result of demands from the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency to pay back portions of tuition grants.

Last month, the Pitt-Johnstown Financial Aid Office sent notices to some students and said that their grant amount had been reduced.

The notices generated concern for cash-strapped students, who worried where they would find hundreds of dollars to make good on their accounts.

Pitt-Johnstown senior Colleen Maguire said she received a notice stating that she owed money.

“I got a bill for a little over $400. I don’t have extra money to spend on meaningless things. I have bills to pay.”

Because the university had no requirement to make up for the grants’ reduction, Maguire said that it was a nice gesture by those who made the decision to cover the costs for students.

Enrollment Services and Planning Vice President Jim Gyure said that some students’ grants are reduced every year because financial aid levels and packages are determined before the state budget is passed.

Once the budget is passed, grants are reworked to reflect appropriate levels set by the state.

Gyure said that because financial aid packages are made before tuition rates for the following school year, grants sometimes need to be reduced to match tuition rates.

Although individual cases are typical, Gyure said that the problem was widespread this year because of state budget issues paired with Pitt campuses having different, rising tuition rates.

“Pitt’s tuition was raised by about 7.5 percent and (regional) campuses went up by 4.”

Since financial-aid need levels were determined by Pitt-Oakland before the tuition hikes, Pitt administrators based the higher estimates on the expected increase for Pitt-Oakland, Gyure said.

When the actual need amounts were determined, Pitt regional campuses’ estimates were higher than they should have been, resulting in the need for students to pay back a portion of their state grant.

Financial Aid Director Jeanine Lawn said she has never seen something this widespread in her 15 years working as a Financial Aid staff member.

“It was unforeseen and unexpected, so I’m happy with how everything turned out. The university stepped in and covered the cuts for the students.”

According to Gyure, the money was taken from a discretionary fund instead of requiring students to pay.

“The Financial Aid Office was able to pool funds from various institutional grant sources to use in this process.

“While the recalculations would have had an impact on individual students, the total institutional amount was relatively manageable in the context of the cumulative amount of grant and scholarship aid received by Pitt-Johnstown students.”

Gyure said the discretionary fund is comprised of general scholarships, gifts and endowed funds made specifically to Pitt-Johnstown.

“There are some general scholarships that the donor says to use toward the school’s biggest need.

“The amount of institutional grants, federal and state grants total over $10 million and the amount owed by students was over $100,000, so it was easily manageable,” he said.

Gyure said it was important for those involved in making the decision to help the students.

Despite the complicated situation, Gyure said it was rare.

“In the past, you could forecast what changes needed to be made, but this was a unique instance. It’s unlikely to happen again.”