This week on the the (Not So) Secret Guide to Being a Berkeley Engineer we are talking with Joseph Sell, counseling projects coordinator from the Financial Aid and Scholarships office. We know that the pandemic has changed many aspects of our students’ lives and Joe gives us more information about how to navigate some of those changes, including applying for financial aid if you haven’t already done so, updating your expected family contribution if it has changed, where to find out about available scholarships and more.
- FAFSA website: https://studentaid.gov/
- California DREAM Act: https://dream.csac.ca.gov/
- Verify FAFSA & DREAM Act: https://berkeley.verifymyfafsa.com/
- Bears for Financial Success: https://financialaid.berkeley.edu/bears-financial-success
- Work study: https://workstudy.berkeley.edu/
- CNP tool: https://registrar.berkeley.edu/cnptool
- Basic Needs Center: https://basicneeds.berkeley.edu/
- Scholarships: https://scholarships.berkeley.edu/
- Financial Aid Office: https://financialaid.berkeley.edu/
- Cal Student Central: https://studentcentral.berkeley.edu/
- Financial Aid COVID-19 updates: https://financialaid.berkeley.edu/covid-19-support-updates
LAURA VOGT: Hello and welcome to the (Not So) Secret Guide to Being a Berkeley Engineer. My name is Laura Vogt, I’m the associate director for marketing and communications for the College of Engineering and your podcast host. This week we have Joseph Sell, counseling projects coordinator from the Financial Aid and Scholarships Office. Hi Joe, welcome to the podcast!
JOSEPH SELL: Hi Laura. Thanks for having me.
LV: Can you please tell us a little bit more about yourself and what your role is at UC Berkeley?
JS: Yeah. So again my name is Joe Sell. I use he, him and they/them pronouns. I’m in my fifth year of serving in the counseling unit at the Financial Aid and Scholarships Office here at UC Berkeley. So primarily, my role is to work with students to make college as affordable as possible. So meeting with students individually, typically in person. But you know these days it’s a little more remote to help navigate the financial aid process and just make sure students have access to the resources they need to meet their educational goals.
LV: Again thank you so much for coming in and talking with us this year. We’ve got quite a few questions, so let’s get started. So first step, can students still apply for financial aid or fill out the FAFSA?
JS: The FAFSA and the California Dream Act application typically have a deadline of March 2nd. That said students can definitely still apply for both applications. What I would suggest is that first off for students who are planning on attending the summer session, so any students coming in for the fall who may want to take summer classes beforehand, they would want to file their 2019-2020 application, so either the FAFSA or the DREAM Act application. Otherwise, students who are coming in for the fall should go ahead and file the 2020-21 application that’s still available. Students can still apply. I would just suggest you apply as soon as possible because once we get that application, that’s when we’re going to know if there’s any additional requirements that students need to complete over the summer. So even though the deadline is technically passed students can still apply. So if they have not, I would just encourage them to apply as soon as possible so we can make sure everything is done over the summer.
LV: Excellent. And I think this is going to be even more relevant this year that if you’ve had a change in how your family is going to be able to contribute, how can you adjust your needs?
JS: What I would tell students first of all is when you’re filling out your application it’s going to ask for information, specifically tax and income information, from 2018. So that was two years ago. Obviously a lot has changed since then, but my first suggestion and piece of advice is to complete the FAFSA using that information as it was in 2018, even if things have changed now. We have to at least make sure that that sort of baseline information is there. Then in the case where there’s been a change, what I would suggest is to submit what’s called an EFC appeal. That form is available on our website. Students can go to the website as berkeley.verifymyfafsa.com. That’s for both FAFSA and DREAM Act filers. And that appeal is available there. That gives students the opportunity to tell us kind of what the more recent changes have been in their circumstances. So has there been a change in one or both of their parents employers? Have there been medical expenses or something they’ve incurred more recently? That appeal gives families and students the opportunity to share that information with us, provide the relevant documentation to support those changes and then we can take a look and make any adjustments as appropriate. So really my suggestion is if there’s been any changes in the family income or anything within the household income over the past few months even over the past year to go ahead review that EFC appeals that we can make any adjustments as appropriate.
LV: You’ve mentioned the DREAM Act a couple of times. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
JS: Sure. So when students are applying for financial aid there are two primary applications that students will use. The most known is the FAFSA. That is for students who are a U.S. citizen, permanent resident or any other eligible non-citizens, such as if they have like an asylum status or parole status. That’s usually the first application that students will go to to apply for student aid. If a student’s not able to apply for the FAFSA, say for example undocumented students or students who don’t meet the citizenship requirements, they can apply instead using the California Dream Act application that will require that they qualify for the AB 540 non-resident tuition waiver. But if they meet that requirement and they don’t meet the citizenship requirements for FAFSA, students can instead apply for aid using the California Dream Act application that’s available. The website is dream.csac.ca.gov. That’s where students can apply instead.
LV: Excellent. And how is financial aid awarded or when can students expect to receive that financial aid?
JS: So we award financially based on two elements. So the first determines how much aid we offer is based on the students cost of attendance. So that estimated cost of attendance is factored using all the different estimated costs that students have reported over the years. And we build that in to say this is what we’re expecting your total costs are for the year. And therefore if we’re expecting that your costs are say thirty thousand dollars then your financial reward package should contain thirty thousand dollars of financial aid. Now what types of aid are in that award package is determined by the students EFC or their expected family contribution. So we talked about the FAFSA the DREAM Act applications. When you complete that application, students get that number, that EFC right at the end, and using that, that’s what we use to determine how much and what kinds of aids you receive. So of that say thirty thousand, how much that is gift aid, how much of that is work study, how much that is a student loan. Generally the lower the EFC, the more grant and scholarship the student is going to receive. Whereas the higher EFC, the more typically loan and more work study a student’s going to receive instead.
LV: And what should students take into consideration when they’re trying to decide if they should take out that student loan.
JS: What I would suggest first of all is perhaps to add up what their actual costs are. So we give an estimated cost of attendance but that may not be the actual costs. A classic example of that is one of the pieces in that cost of attendance is called personal expenses. It’s a very miscellaneous piece that can be anything from toilet paper to traditional groceries. It’s all, it’s anything. So we say we make a budget for a certain amount but those expenses may be less than that. So I would say to have students add up all of their costs. What’s your tuition? What is your rent for the semester? What are all those other personal miscellaneous expenses? And then subtract out what other resources you have. So what gift aid you’re getting that semester. You have a job. Do you have employment earnings coming through? You know what other resources do you have? And if there’s a deficit there that’s when you want to start looking at student loans to help meet some of that deficit. Now there are different kinds of student loans that students will be offered. The typical kinds you’ll see are the federal subsidized loan which is the most preferable of all the student loans that we can offer. That is not accruing any interest while the student is enrolled in school. After that you might see a federal unsubsidized loan where interest will be accruing once that loan is disbursed to the student even if they’re still enrolled in school. There’s also Parent PLUS loans which are loans that the parent can borrow on the student’s behalf if they wish to do so. So there are different types of loans but I think what comes down to whether or not to borrow that loan really just comes down to whether you have the resources to meet what your costs are. And if not, then is it time to start thinking about using loans to help supplement those costs.
LV: You talked a little bit about the miscellaneous extra expenses so financial aid is made to cover like on campus or off campus housing costs?
JS: That’s correct. So financially it is designed to cover any educational expenses. So that is tuition, fees, housing, food, personal expenses, transportation, books and supplies those sorts of things. So if students are living on campus generally their room and board will be charged to their student account. When we disburse financial aid, which disperses generally around 10 days before the start of the semester it will pay to the student’s account to pay off as much of their tuition fees and whatever housing charges or other charges they have first. At that point if there is nothing left for that aid to pay, it will then refund the student if it’s in excess. If the student’s living off campus they won’t have those charges on their account. So the same thing will happen: it will pay to their account. It will pay whatever tuition fees they have. And then if it’s an excess, that’ll refund the student. This happens most often for students living off campus because they don’t have that room and board in charge of their account. So typically they’ll get a refund at the beginning of the semester if they have enough aid to do so and then it’s their responsibility to budget that out to make sure they can pay all four or five months of that rent that semester. But the short answer to your question is yes financial aid can cover housing costs, food, books and supplies for those sorts of things outside of just tuition and fees.
LV: Do you have any resources for students to learn how to do the budgeting?
JS: Yes. So the first thing I would say is just to look at the estimated cost of attendance just to kind of see that baseline. That’s located in Cal Central right in the middle of the “My Finances” page but a more helpful resource that I would suggest is we have what’s called Bears for Financial Success. It’s a peer mentoring group of other fellow students at Berkeley who work with students one on one to develop a more personal budget and discuss spending plans and other ways to sort of stretch their resources to make sure they’re getting the most out of it. So it’s a free resource available for students. They can just search B.F.S. on the financial Web site and that’ll bring the Bears for financial success Web site and they can set up individual sessions with an advisor just to go through more of the specific budgeting pieces. So less about through the financial aid questions and more about personal spending, budgeting habits that sort of thing.
LV: And that’s from your peers so that makes it so they’re living through what they’re counseling you on.
JS: Exactly yes. These peers have gone to this exact thing. They’re students and they have the lived experience here and they can share that with students as well right.
LV: Oh that’s awesome. I didn’t know that was there. And what is work study? We talked about that a little bit and how does that affect the financial aid?
JS: So work study is a financial aid resource. But what work study is, it’s an opportunity for students, to open up some additional employment opportunities for students. So some employers will only pay students out of a work study budget meaning that they’ll only hire students who are eligible for work study. If someone is or are students eligible for work study that opens up that job pool for them so they can apply for those different positions. Now they function like a regular job. The student receives a paycheck, you know either every couple weeks or months however the employer pays. They can earn up to that maximum amount of work study. So say for example that they have a four thousand dollar work study offer. That means that during the entire academic year students can earn up to four thousand dollars from their work study job. Even then in some cases if they’re going to earn over that four thousand they can always reach out to us and we can see if there’s any opportunity to extend that further. But in general it’s part of the financial aid package but essentially it works the same way as a regular job. It just opens up more job opportunities for students.
LV: Is there anything that a student has to do to accept the work study? Do they have to convert anything or?
JS: Yes we will initially offer work study to all students who are eligible. That eligibility goes back to being based on the EFC. So students will have to present enough what’s called eligibility for need based aid in order to receive work study. But if someone is eligible that will be right there on the award package when we first offer it over the summer. Students are then encouraged to go in and accept that work study offer. Usually that can be done, I think as early as July 1st. Students can go in and start accepting that in Cal Central. That’s just a way to say hey I’m interested in this work study award, I want to seek this out when the year starts. I would tell students even if they are remotely interested in work study even if they don’t have something secured that they are interested in applying, to go ahead and accept that work study just to make sure it’s available. If they don’t accept it eventually what we’re going to do is just roll that into a loan eligibility instead assuming that the student’s not interested in work study. They can always come back and ask for it later, that’s not a problem. And in that process like you mentioned would be converting some of that loan back into work study. So if there’s ever a case where someone does not have work study but they’re interested in pursuing it, they can always reach out to us and we can see if any of their loans can be turned into work study instead. That way it opens up that opportunity for them.
LV: And how do students find work study positions?
JS: So they can find on their web package that there’s a small link right above the work study offer that says find a job. That’s just one way to get there. The address is just workstudy.berkeley.edu. There will be a link where they can sign in. Students have to have an active work study offer in order to access the work study portal. So they’ll sign in with their student login and their CalNet I.D. It’ll check to see if they have work study and if so then they’ll automatically have access to that portal so they can start applying for jobs.
LV: Excellent. And as they move into the semester is there any GPA requirements that students need to take into consideration with their financial aid.
JS: For financial purposes we have what’s called satisfactory academic progress or SAP. What SAP requires is that students are maintaining at least a cumulative GPA of 2.0 or higher in order to maintain their financial aid eligibility. Now there are other requirements to go along with that as well. Students also have to complete at least 67 percent of the units that they attempt cumulatively at UC Berkeley. They also can’t attempt more than one hundred and fifty percent of their program. So for undergrad students that’s more than one hundred eighty units. It’s a lot. So a lot of undergrad students don’t get there but it is still a requirement. To your question though the 2.0 GPA is that minimum. So in order to maintain aid eligibility students have to keep a 2.0 GPA. If for some reason they don’t they fall short of that. They’re then given an opportunity to appeal, it’s called an SAP appeal. So they can kind of give us an explanation of what occurred and we can review to see if we can still offer aid eligibility.
LV: Excellent. And later this summer some students might see something that says CNP on their Cal central. Can you tell us more about what that stands for and if it’s cause for worry?
JS: So CNP stands for cancellation for non-payment. Cancellation for non-payment is a university policy that says that students must cover or must pay at least 20 percent of their tuition and fees for the upcoming semester by a specific deadline in order to make sure that they are not dropped from their courses. Now a lot of financial aid recipients are relying on financially to cover that 20 percent. So what I would say for financial aid recipients or students who are expecting financially to cover those costs, would be to go to your current award package in Cal central and see if those if your gift aid or your total aid resources are enough to cover 20 percent of those tuition and fees. If so then the next step is just to make sure that their file is complete because that way we know everything will disperse in time, 10 days before the semester begins. One suggestion I would give on the registrar’s website they actually have what’s called just a CNP tool. And that website is just registrar.berkeley.edu/CNPtool. And it gives students sort of a question by question analysis of yes or no, what kinds of criteria do you have to cover 20 percent of your fees. You know those sorts of things. And it will give students sort of a step by step as to what their next steps are. You know, do you need to make sure your file is complete. Should you be concerned about CNP, is there an exception on your file? Those sorts of things. So I think what I would suggest is if students have any concerns about CNP to go out and check out that CNP tool just to see where they stand. And of course they can always reach out to us if they have any questions about their individual file.
LV: And we’ve also had students start emailing us saying that they’re trying to get ready for next year and they need to buy a computer and they don’t have the funds to be able to do that. Is there any kind of financial assistance to help students get a computer or anything that might be more costly as they start their journey here.
JS: Yes, so we have what’s called a cost of attendance adjustment request. At the beginning we talked a little about the cost of attendance including things like you know personal expenses and transportation and that sort of thing. One item that’s not automatically included in that cost of attendance is the cost of a computer. And so students can request with us to add the cost of a computer into that cost of attendance. Therefore we can then offer aid to meet that cost. So the form is just called the Cost of Attendance Adjustment Request. That opens up usually in the beginning of September and it’s available on our forms page berkeley.verifymyfafsa.com. Students can submit that appeal. They can opt for the computer even if they haven’t purchased it yet. They can say here is what I’m planning on purchasing. Here’s a screenshot or an invoice of what I’m planning on buying and that sort of documentation to say here’s what I intend to purchase. We can then review that and we can then increase the cost of attendance and therefore increase their aid to meet that computer cost. One thing to note is that generally these adjustment requests will only yield additional loans or work study. They typically do not increase a student’s gift aid. So if students are needing resources to buy that computer it’s very likely going to come from loan or work study. But they can submit that adjustment request and we can process that for them.
LV: And as the year gets going if something happens that a student needs emergency funds, is there a way for them to apply for emergency financial aid?
JS: There are and there are a couple different resources. So the first I would suggest is if students are facing an emergency related to their basic needs. So say for example a housing situation or food insecurity. My first suggestion is for students to connect to our basic needs center so they have different programs where they can help refer students to different either on campus or off campus resources to meet whatever those needs are. So whether that’s connecting with CalFresh or if that’s needing to apply for say housing security deposit assistance, you know one example is that if students are facing housing insecurity and need to move at short notice or just need assistance covering that deposit, there’s an application they can fill out to receive assistance with that. There are various different forms of assistance with the basic needs center but in general we also have what’s called just our emergency loan. It’s an opportunity for students to basically borrow a loan to their student account. They would say if they need to borrow a short term amount of three hundred dollars we would charge the account for three dollars and then refund them three hundred dollars. That way they have that short term assistance. Definitely, you know sort of I would say this is the last scenario if needed. And we can always walk that if students have any questions but that’s also an opportunity just if there’s a short term emergency need. Students can apply for that emergency loan as well.
LV: We’ve been talking a lot about loans but what about scholarships? Can students still be on the lookout for those and what would be a good place to start if they can?
JS: Absolutely. One Web site I’d like to suggest is scholarships, with an S on the end, scholarships.berkeley.edu and that link goes to our scholarship connection. I think one common belief is that students can only apply for scholarships the summer before they start in the fall. Scholarship applications are valid and accepted all throughout the year and each year too and not just the students freshman year. That website I suggest because it’s always rolling out these different application deadlines as they become available and they’re constantly updating and adding new scholarships as they come about. These are often the scholarship programs that we tend to see. So I would refer students there as just sort of a starting place. One helpful tool that that website offers is that it has a sort of a filtering feature where they can say I’m an incoming freshman, I’m studying engineering, you know I’m a permanent resident. Like what scholarships apply to me based on these criteria. And it will filter out the scholarships just based on those. So that’s definitely one good sort of landing place but not an end all be all. Just on our financial aid website, just financialaid.berkeley.edu, you can just search scholarships. There’s some other links to various other databases as well. But definitely that scholarships.berkeley.edu, is my first suggestion.
LV: And do scholarships affect the financial aid package?
JS: They can. So what I would suggest for students is to, if they know they’re going to receive an outside scholarship in Cal Central, there’s a feature right above their award package where it says report outside resources. My suggestion is for students to go ahead and fill that information out once they know for sure they’re receiving a scholarship. What that will do, excuse me, is it will add a placeholder into their award package. It says you’re expecting to receive a two thousand dollar scholarship and so we’ll go ahead and adjust your award package accordingly. Typically what we try to do is to reduce as much of those loans and work study as we possibly can because the total financial aid awards have to stay within that cost of attendance we described. So if you’re already receiving thirty thousand dollars of aid and you get a two thousand dollar scholarship, we have to reduce two thousand dollars of something else. And we always try to make it a loan or work study that students don’t plan on using, that way it’s not reducing any other gift aid. But depending on how much scholarship they’re getting or what the students eligibility looks like, it could possibly reduce other scholarships or other gift aid. So my suggestion is to go ahead and report that upfront, that way you know right from the beginning what it’s going to do. And if there are any questions about how that is impacting aid or ways to keep that from impacting scholarships, then students can reach out to us and we can walk them through that process.
LV: And what’s your biggest piece of advice for students about financial aid and scholarships.
JS: I think my biggest piece of advice is just to ask questions. You know financial aid is complicated. I’ve been in financial aid for 10 years now and it’s still, it’s complicated. And there’s just so many pieces and so many things that change. And I think that it’s very easy to think that everything makes sense and then something changes and it’s just like “what happened?”. So my suggestion is always just ask questions. There’s no stupid question. You know we always want to be available to answer these. The best way to reach out to us, I say the starting place would be to reach out to Cal Student Central. Our Cal Student Central advisers work directly with financial aid. They also work with billing and the registrar’s office so they can really provide a good holistic sort of advising experience to say “hey you have these financial questions but you also need to get transcripts for records or something like that”. So that’s a good starting place. And then if it’s something that requires a more in-depth conversation then students can work with one of us counselors and we can go through their individual circumstances and assist accordingly.
LV: And is there anything that you didn’t get to talk about today that you think we need to touch on.
JS: I really think that again it’s just making sure that everything is done over the summer. I think that’s really the biggest piece. You know we have time now going into the fall to make sure that file is ready. We’re sending out notices to students just to say hey we have your FAFSA on file or your dream act application on file but you may have to complete a verification requirement or something like that. Or you mentioned the appeal process earlier, if there’s been a change in the household income then students want to submit that appeal as soon as possible because we get a whole bunch right around this time and we want to make sure we’re reviewing them as quickly as we can. So I think my suggestions are, as especially as we’re preparing for the fall, check Cal Central. See if there are any financial aid requirements that need to be completed. Are there any verification tasks? Is there any other transcripts or anything you do for Cal Grant or anything like that that needs to be done. Go ahead do that now. That way everything is good to go and ready when we disperse in August. You know if you want to send any appeals, if there’s been a change in your income or something like then start that process now. That way we can address it over the summer and that way it’s not hanging over to the end of the fall semester.
LV: Yeah. That’ll make it easier when you get here and you’re already having to transition into this new world of college.
JS: Exactly. You have those first few weeks and orientation is going on and getting used to classes you know. No one really wants to think about the financial aid process at that time, there’s other stuff going on. So my suggestion is to get all that done over the summer and we don’t have to worry about it. And then when you get here in the fall you can focus on classes and then we can take care on our side for you.
LV: And you know because of any changes that we’re having because of the COVID 19 pandemic, none of that is going to affect being able to turn in this paperwork and getting your financial aid in order.
JS: Yes. So we’re all working remotely. Our services have continued, just online and remotely at this point. So what I would suggest is to it. So we’re constantly updating our financial aid website for any additional COVID 19 related updates. You can just search COVID 19 on our financial aid site and there is a page right there that shows any different updates and we’re always keeping it, as you know, as updated as possible for anything new that changes. So if there’s any questions about how are things being impacted by my current circumstances. Definitely feel free to just check out the COVID 19 updates on our financial aid website. All that information will be continued to be posted there. But like you said everything else continues as normal. We’re all still here. We’re also reviewing documents and we’re also answering questions. So please feel free to reach out to us. Please continue to submit those documents over the summer, that we can make sure everything’s ready for the fall semester.
LV: Thank you Joe so much for coming in and joining us today. I guess you’re not really coming in, you’re calling in.
JS: I still feel like I’m here. It’s still, I’m still here with you.
LV: And I know financial aid is such an important part of college planning and it’s great to get to know more about all these campus resources. So thank you everyone for tuning in today. And if you’ve got any more questions, make sure you check out the financial aid website. We’re going to have links to everything that we talked about on our welcomengineer.berkeley.edu. And I look forward to podcasting with you again next week. Thank you.