Guest Post By Joe Gurba (Student, Sociology) on Student Scholarships Issue

I met with Perry Thorbourne (Assistant Registrar, Student Awards), Lisa Collins (Vice Provost and University of Alberta Registrar), and Pat Schultz (Associate Registrar Enrolment Management) for an hour yesterday evening. I have been active in pressing for answers to these crucial funding questions, and they wanted to clear the air of any confusion. We arrived at several understandings. First and foremost, I stand with the Students’ Union in that they reported what they were told, and they were extremely thorough in their investigations. If not for their statement, we may not have reached these understandings, and a multitude of students would still be in the dark. Second: as I understand it from these conversations, students are not losing any money in the grand scheme.

What I have discovered and what I find troubling about the time-shift process the University is undertaking for the continuing undergraduate awards is that those responsible for implementing the changes did not have their plan fully finalized before this year’s scholarships were postponed. I could not help but criticize them in no uncertain terms for daring to make such massive changes without having solidified their own plans and without consulting the students whom it affects most. I suggested that the communications about which they are distressed have resulted from their own opacity. That said, they were very open and kind and willing to work for a solid hour to find common ground, and I believe they have only the students’ interest at heart. 

My Conclusions From Our Conversation

They are not keeping any money that is supposed to go to students, and certainly not rerouting it towards the budget deficit, as many of my peers had worried. They have merely devised a (rather convoluted) system for moving the awards in such a way as to fix what they perceive is a problem for future students—the uncertainty that comes with not knowing whether or not you will have scholarships to count on until you are already half way through your first semester. They would like to see this changed so that students can know in the summer how much money they can expect in the coming year. The cost of this fix sits squarely on the shoulders of my graduating class (2016) and the two graduating classes before me whom will have to shoulder the costs for an extra year, even if in the final analysis they will receive their full awards. Here’s an outline of how their model works.

THE RO’s CURRENT PROPOSED MODEL

Students will apply for their 2013/14 awards in the winter semester, find out if they got them in the early summer, and be given them in two installments at the beginning of each semester the year after (2014/15). So second year students this year will apply for their second year awards, which they will not get till their third year, even though they are ostensibly supposed to pay for your second year of schooling; the third year’s get their third-year-money in the fourth; and the fourth at the end of the winter semester of their last year. These fourth years can still apply to convocation awards at the same time as they apply for their fourth year continuing awards. So you leave the institution with a big lump-sum of catch-up money to make up for the year you missed awards (this year: 13/14). This awarding of fourth years at the end of their academic year practice would finish in 2016 when all things will have caught up, and the class entering their second year right now is graduating. Things will be back to normal, with a time-table they think is beneficial for future students. One really weird thing about this plan is that for the first application this winter, they will take your grades from either 2012/13 or 2013/14, whichever are higher. Think what you like of that. It will certainly make this year’s application a lot more competitive.

I suggested two alternate models that I am anxiously hoping they take into consideration. (Readers who agree with me, please contact someone in the RO’s office to express your support.) These two alternatives do not include the first failed proposition many of us pointed out was the most obvious and beneficial: to simply move the August 1st 2014 awards back to the winter and leave this year’s awards alone. This is not possible because of the way revenue from the endowments is projected based on market expectations. It would not give them enough time to forecast how much they will be able to give, which alternates with the quantity of returns from their endowments.

The two alternative models I proposed and they are considering (you can compare these against their current proposed model outlined above):

1. Re-open awards now, award as soon as possible, disburse in Jan/Feb as usual. Then open awards for 2014/15 in the winter 2014 semester, wait till grades come in in April, adjudicate, award in the early summer, disburse in Jan/Feb in 100% installments as usual. This deals with the issue previously outlined wherein they have only so much money for every academic year based on projections and such. This way the award money is still handed out in separate fiscal years, but in lump sums, as before, and students know what they will be getting by summer, they just need to budget for the year not expecting their funds until January (as it has always been in the past). Their objection is that they want to hand out the money in 50% increments at the beginning of each semester to solve a problem they feel is inherent to the current (suspended) model: it doesn’t fund in real time. Of course the repercussion is that for the next three years our graduating classes will be funded after a delay, a whole year later than what we would expect. We are forced to shoulder that burden for this specific year with no prior warning or time to prepare.

2. Re-open awards now, award as soon as possible, disburse in Jan/Feb as usual. Then they can finalize their plans for the change, run them by donors and all other concerned parties on their end, then present them coherently to the student body along with a projected date they can take effect. This way the students, many of whom are living hand-to-mouth and cannot afford to weather a nearly one-year gap in funding without notice, can prepare for the off-set. Moreover, this way they actually have all the kinks worked out without rushing or without being criticized by the polyvalent interests who feel this opacity is symptomatic of a larger institutional problem. By re-opening awards immediately and presenting their plan as a whole for next year or the year after, they rise above reproach and serve out their mandate in good conscience.

I believe my first proposition eliminates all the weird ‘fixes’ their model demands while still allowing students to know how much they will be receiving should they return to the UofA. The question is whether they have the will to re-imagine things in this way, and if the current funding models for endowments allow it. The second model I proposed (delaying this whole change till it is actually figured out and presented to the students so they can plan for it) would smooth over this whole situation. Hopefully they take one or the other. Either way, we are still getting all of our money. No money is being stolen. This debacle has nothing to do with budget cuts (though you would think they would be more careful in a time as tenuous as this, people are bound to assume anything of this sort is tied to budget issues). The truth is simply that that this whole fiasco has been rushed into and that is why there is so much miscommunication. The facts are still being straightened out on the inside. Our best interest is still being regarded. Hopefully they will see in one of these two alternatives proposed that our best interest would be even better guarded in the long term and the short term.

We can only hope they re-open awards now, and apply these changes later when people can save for them.

Joe Gurba

I suggested that Joe invite the people with whom he had spoken to review his statement so that a reply might go up with Joe’s post. Here is the reply Joe received:

In the past week, the Office of the Registrar (RO) has been listening to concerns, correcting misunderstandings and clarifying items regarding the proposed changes to the process for the Undergraduate Academic Scholarships and Undergraduate Leadership Awards.  Included in those activities has been a discussion with Joe Gurba. All the feedback the RO has received, as well as the discussion with Mr. Gurba, has been very productive. It has enabled us to gather information from students that will help guide our final decisions and process. This valuable insight and feedback will be taken into consideration. We understand the concern these changes may have on second and third year students and are looking into solutions to help mitigate this impact.  When the proposal has been finalized, we are committed to keeping everyone informed.

Pat Schultz, Associate Registrar Enrolment Management

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3 Responses to Guest Post By Joe Gurba (Student, Sociology) on Student Scholarships Issue

  1. Zohreh Bayatrizi says:

    Sounds good! Great job, Joe! I am happy RO now realizes the need to communicate and consult with students in advance regarding important matters like this.

  2. Fran T says:

    You mention the change to a 50-50 split rather than a lump sum payment. I suspect this is intentional as these are earning while in the “big pots” so they want to hang onto to every penny until the very last moment. The downside is many students will incur debt and the cost of financing that debit will exceed what theses earn by holding them, bringing a net negative to the students to which this funding is supposed to support.

  3. Joe Gurba says:

    Actually, no. I assumed as well that the 50/50 pay out would benefit them by holding onto the money for an extra four months to collect interest on it, but they explained to me that that isn’t how it works. They take all the money they are going to offer out of the capital account and put it into a safe account before they even offer it, that way it is still there when it is time to pay (in case the economy tanks). They just want to give you your scholarships right when its time to pay your tuition for each semester, half in fall and half in winter.

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