Federal financial aid cut for non-Mason study abroad programs

Mason is one of the only schools in the state that does not provide federal financial aid for non-Mason study abroad programs (illustration by Katryna Henderson).
Mason is one of the only schools in the state that does not provide federal financial aid for non-Mason study abroad programs (illustration by Katryna Henderson).

At the beginning of the fall semester, the Office of Financial Aid informed the Center for Global Education that federal financial aid would no longer be applied to non-Mason study abroad programs.

Changes to federal financial aid regulations have changed the financial aid office’s interpretation of how aid can be applied to these study abroad programs, which are not directly affiliated with the university.

Erin Mateu, the associate general manager for the Center for Global Education, said the financial aid office’s new interpretation made a very abrupt change to the non-Mason programs.

“The non-Mason programs, all the sudden, not only are they not they affiliated with Mason specifically, but also they’re now transfer credit programs. Those two elements combined read such in the law that [students cannot receive aid],” Mateu said.

The non-Mason programming is an option for students whose needs are not met by Mason’s programs.

“For the student that is looking for something so specific that one of our programs doesn’t offer what they need, we refer our students to the non-Mason category,” Mateu

Wayne Sigler, vice president of Enrollment Management, described the interpretations in more technical terms. He explained that when students choose to study abroad at another university through a program that is not affiliated with Mason, that student no longer pays to attend Mason and therefore cannot receive any federal financial

“In order to give a student at Mason federal financial aid, in an accounting sense, there has to be a Mason bill for [financial aid] to apply that against,” Sigler said. “Otherwise, [they] would be putting money on an account that has no charges.”

The Office of Financial Aid announced these new regulations a year and a half ago, however, they only became affective this past fall. This allowed students that had already planned their trips for the spring and summer semesters last year to go on their trips with their financial aid. Students that had already planned a non-Mason trip for this past fall, however, were not able to take their federal financial aid with them

Marie Alice Arnold, general manager for the Center of Global Education, stressed that financial aid is an ever-changing game.

"Financial aid is not a fixed type of thing and the regulations are constantly being rewritten and interpreted…its always different with the interpretations to get a clear determination,” Arnold said.

While non-Mason programs are not a popular choice amongst students that choose to study abroad, there are approximately 20-30 students per semester, according to Arnold, that choose this option.

The Center for Global Education has three types of program options for students that want to study abroad. Students can study through faculty-led programs that carry direct Mason credit, exchange programs through other universities that have an agreement with Mason or non-Mason programs, which are run through third party institutions.

Students that pursue the first two options, according to Arnold, are able to use federal financial aid for their programs, as they are still considered as Mason-affiliated. The third, non-Mason tier is considered a non-affiliate and therefore students that choose this option are not eligible for federal financial aid.

Heidi Granger, the director for the Office of Financial Aid, believes that Mason’s three-tier system of study abroad programs may be to blame for the difficulty in procuring federal financial aid for students that choose non-Mason programs.

Before these new regulations federal financial aid was available to students that studied abroad with a non-Mason program. According to Arnold, Students would still be registered at Mason and have to hold a consortium agreement between the university at which they were studying and Mason. This agreement would serve as a contract between the “home” campus, their primary university, to the “host” campus, where they were studying abroad to allow the student to continue to receive financial aid.

However, as the regulations began to change, concerns on whether students that were studying abroad in non-Mason programs were truly still enrolled at Mason forced discussion about financial aid. According to Arnold, the CGE even went so far as to create an online class that would keep students at Mason while abroad. However, the program was not enough to keep students within the regulations.

“It was a bit of nerve-wracking moment because most of our programs are transfer credit programs, even our Mason programs but [those] are officially Mason programs, they all fall into the realm of receiving financial aid,” Mateu said.

Alec Constantine, a senior studying Russian at Moscow State University, is currently enrolled in a non-Mason program and did not personally qualify for federal financial aid. However, he believes that the new regulations should not prevent students from the study abroad experience.

“I think Mason should [encourage] students to go abroad, even if its not through Mason…hopefully they’ll reconsider,” Constantine said. Constantine also added that he felt it was very important that Mason be represented abroad.

However, despite the wide variety of programs Mason has to offer, students that specifically need a non-Mason program may be put under immense financial strain to pursue their education abroad.

“I think there’s a huge complication because sometimes the students that are looking for such specific programming, if we don’t offer it, they might have support cost of the program,” Mateu said.

The new regulations, however, have not been a concern at other Virginia universities. Financial aid representatives from UVa and JMU, and a study abroad representative from VCU, stated that students from the respective universities could use their federal financial aid towards programs that are not directly affiliated with their university.

According to Shari Arehart, operations analyst at JMU’s Office of Financial Aid, students at JMU specifically have to complete a request form through the registrar’s office, have 12 credit hours to transfer back to the university and be studying through a program that is approved by the Department of Education. Their financial aid office uses all of these combined components as a signed contract, which approves the use of the student’s financial aid package for their study abroad program.

Arnold said that the Center for Global Education would have to do more research with the Office of Financial Aid into different types of agreements that would fit within the regulations. She said that the CGE would most likely look for a way for students to enter individual agreements with the university.

The financial aid office’s interpretation of the new regulations has put stress on the CGE, as the office now must try to push students towards Mason programs so they can receive federal funding.

“We really are trying to ensure that we have Mason programs for students so that they don’t have to go into the external program realm. But if they do have to, we will help guide them as best we can,” Mateu said.

Sigler stressed that the Office of Financial Aid is not trying to hamper students’ opportunities to go abroad.

“Our goal is to help students take advantage of many opportunities and we’re looking for ways to let them do that,” Sigler said. “One of our missions and our strengths, being close to the nation’s capitol, is to help our students be acquainted and comfortable with and thrive and compete in a global society. [Study abroad programs] fit very well with our mission as a university.”

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