Corcoran mismanages transfer of scholarships and veteran benefits

Jonathan Fields said he was worried he wouldn’t be able to pay next month’s rent when problems arose with his veteran's benefits following GW's merger with the Corcoran.

September 8, 2014
by Jacqueline Thomsen | Assistant News Editor

National Guard veteran and Corcoran student Dominic Fredianelli officially became a GW student last month, but his GI Bill benefits and $10,000 annual scholarship were left behind.

The junior, who served for six years and completed a tour in Afghanistan, spent a week trying to find out where his federal housing stipend and scholarship had gone. He said calls to GW’s financial aid office were unsuccessful at first, and when he tried the Department of Veterans Affairs, he was put on hold for an hour before an employee told him to call back later.

“I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes,” he said. “I didn’t want to blame the Corcoran or GW because I don’t think anyone’s really to blame. It just really sucks that everything got tossed up into this abyss and no one can really find anything.”

Fredianelli was one of 10 Corcoran military students who had their veteran benefit eligibility forms lost during the Corcoran financial aid office's physical move, and because the Department of Veterans Affairs takes weeks to process the paperwork, they may not see their benefits until next month. That misstep forced student veterans, who said they heavily relied on their benefits, to scramble to pay for their rent, utility bills and textbooks.

Other students, who aren’t veterans, said the art school also mismanaged transferring students’ financial aid forms to GW. Students had to prove that their Corcoran-given awards were legitimate, though their former college’s financial aid office had shut down and they had no access to their forms.

GW has since set up emergency funds in the financial aid and veterans offices to help cover students’ day-to-day expenses, but the students involved say the problems created a disappointing start to their time at their new university.

Emergency loans
Jonathan Fields, a photographer who served in Iraq, said he was worried he wouldn’t be able to make next month’s rent without his veteran housing stipend. After spending hours on the phone with the VA and visiting GW’s financial aid office several times, he said he only found success once he approached GW’s Office of Military and Veteran Student Services.

“It was almost like calling Comcast and making a complaint about something and then saying, ‘Oh, we’ll get it taken care of,’ and never hearing back from them,” Fields said about working with GW's financial aid office.

He received an emergency loan for $600 from GW’s military office, which he said covers most of his expenses. Still, he said he is now paying out of pocket for some bills.

Associate Provost for Military and Veteran Affairs Mel Williams, a retired vice admiral, said in a statement that it was the Corcoran’s responsibility to help their students receive their benefits, but GW expects the issues “to be resolved soon.”

“After learning of these issues, the Office of Military and Veteran Student Services immediately mobilized to ensure that no student will have a hold on his or her account, or experience any late fees or financial trouble,” Williams said.

The University's VA liaison, Roger Deason, deferred to Williams’s statement. Megan Lutz, a VA public affairs official, said she was told that the issues had been resolved.

George Altman, a senior writer for Military Times, said it wasn’t uncommon for veterans to have difficulties with VA, but the delay in payments could hurt students who need to spend money immediately.

“In the end, you’ll get the retroactive payments, but if you’re a student vet who doesn’t have a lot of money, like a lot of students don’t, and you’re trying to pay for your books and you’re trying to pay rent and pay for your food, you can’t do that retroactively,” he said.

‘Hiccups’ in the transition
Rosemary Markowski, a graduate student studying art education, said GW no knowledge of her donor-funded scholarship, which is worth more than the cost of Corcoran tuition. She then had to prove it existed, which she said was challenging because it was impossible to find any representatives from her former college’s financial aid office.

She eventually found papers from the ceremonies where she won her scholarships and an email that also mentioned them. Markowski still will not receive the payout from her federal aid until October, which she said puts an extra squeeze on her finances.

GW’s financial aid office gave her a small loan, but she said it is not as large as the federal funds she would be receiving and will not cover all of her day-to-day expenses, like those on the new car she purchased to drive her two-hour commute to campus from her home in Clarke County, Va.

“I’m pulling from other things, or not paying other bills or asking my immediate family to wait on stuff,” she said. “It’s just frustrating and difficult to navigate after you get accustomed to going into classes for the fall and figuring out schedules. It’s just a whole other element, just to be trying to get the finances together.”

With the merger tied up in D.C. court until a week before classes began, the Department of Education had to wait to begin transferring federal student loans from the Corcoran to GW.

In a letter that GW sent to Corcoran students Aug. 21, Associate Vice President for Financial Assistance Dan Small wrote that their federal loans would be applied in up to two months, but they could start classes as scheduled. GW asked the Department of Education to expedite the process, which usually would have taken up to four months, he wrote.

Mimi Carter, a spokesperson for the Corcoran and National Gallery of Art, declined to comment, deferring to GW's media relations office. University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said all affected Corcoran students can take GW classes, even if their Corcoran-given scholarships were not yet counted toward their tuition.

“The goal is to ensure that any hiccups associated with the Corcoran-GW agreement do not hinder a student’s educational experience,” she said in a statement.

Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert and founder of FinAid.org, said students themselves sometimes need to ensure a school doesn’t leave them behind when it experiences problems with a transition.

“When you have a merger, it’s almost a given that there will be some glitches along the way,” he said. “The students shouldn’t just grin and bear it. They should make sure that the school is aware of the delays and make sure they can be accommodated.”

Mending a rocky start
GW Veterans invited their Corcoran peers to their first meeting of the year at Froggy Bottom Pub on Friday night. The student organization's leaders say they want to help the veterans from the Corcoran transition to life at GW.

Jessica Crist, the group’s secretary, said the Corcoran student veterans she has connected with so far have experienced a "hard transition" to GW. They join a community of almost 1,400 military-affiliated students.

As the University’s veteran population has grown more than 300 percent since 2008, officials have launched programs centered on career and personal development to help veterans transition from military to civilian life. Those initiatives have boosted GW’s reputation as one of the nation’s most military-friendly schools.

More than 500 students are enrolled at GW as part of the Post 9/11 GI Bill, which was signed into law in 2008 to provide benefits for student veterans. Benefits include coverage of tuition and fees, as well as a housing stipend, but are allocated on a scale for veterans attending private institutions. They cover all tuition for public universities.

Fredianelli said he looks forward to joining the larger military community. Last spring, he helped create the art school's first student veteran committee, but he said joining an already established group will help ease Corcoran students into the larger student population.

“Sometimes it’s hard to rouse a vet out because a lot of them don’t want to be known as a vet, they want to fit in,” he said. “To see their group distinguished on their own and seeing how they work and they have all this planned, it really makes me want to be a part of it.”