A closer look at SMC's financial aid

Careena Willmont is a student with dreams of transferring to Columbia University in New York. David Evenskaas moved to Los Angeles from Colorado to forge a career in acting. Jonathon Boyer is an army reserve hoping to break into the music business. These three are all students at Santa Monica College, but they share one other common denominator: they are among a population of thousands who receive financial aid to supplement their studies at the college.

"Aside from my full time studies at SMC, I'm also taking classes at the Musicians Institute [in Los Angeles]," said Boyer, 22, whose punishing schedule only allows him time to partake in the requisite army drill once a month. "With the money I receive, I'm able to concentrate nearly all of my time on my studies."

Boyer, Evenskaas and Willmont are among the over 6,000 recipients of the Pell Grant at SMC. However, with a reservoir of around $30,000,000 available in financial aid and scholarships, Steven Myrow, associate dean of Financial Aid and Scholarships, believes that there remains a number of students qualified to receive financial aid who fail to take advantage of this service.

"There's this common misconception among community college students that they don't deserve financial aid," said Myrow. "But in reality, if all SMC students were to apply for financial aid, over half would qualify."

"Even if a student is only eligible for the BOG waiver (a grant awarded by the Board of Governors waiving tuition fees), they might still save themselves roughly $750 a term," he said. "Now that's a lot of money, especially in this current economic climate."

In a review before the Board of Trustees last month, Myrow addressed the current state of financial aid at SMC. This included an overview of the initiatives taken over the past five years to streamline the program, and a speculative advisory as to any anticipated changes in federal and state financial aid.

Myrow highlighted the department's efforts to modernize an archaic financial aid system that up until five years ago was a window to a bygone era of tedious manual crosschecking.

However, with the introduction of the automated Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) assessment system, Myrow said that the status of each student no longer has to be processed by hand and now can be verified almost immediately.

With the advent of electronic applications and a more interactive information system (including a soon-to-be-introduced student self-service portal where students can check the status of their application online), Myrow said that the improved accessibility and efficiency of the system means that students are receiving their money faster than ever before.

Nevertheless, Myrow admitted that this is an area still open to improvement, and Boyer is one of those who knows firsthand the shortcomings of the current system.

"I submitted my application one week before the start of the semester in February, and I still haven't received any money, nearly two months later," said Boyer, who receives up to $20,000 from the military to reimburse student loans.

More applicants than ever before are applying for financial aid. Myrow says this is because a quicker, more "user-friendly" electronic approach exists to inform students of their financial rights.

The amount awarded in Pell Grants has almost doubled from $7,421,141 in the 2002-2003 academic year to $14,746,534 for 2009-2010. The BOG waiver program mirrored this trend. It too saw a near four-fold jump in money granted from $1,550,208 in 2002-2003 to $1,550,208 in 2009-2010.

Myrow also said that the recently legislated Direct Loan Program is another reason for students to celebrate. By sidestepping the banks, and therefore preventing students from accruing huge interest-laden profits, Myrow believes that the current system is one that is fairer and more efficient for all those concerned.

The primary concern for students like Boyer, Evenskaas and Willmont is the speed at which forms can be filled, applications processed and the money dispensed. In most cases, this money is not a luxury. Willmont insists that the money she receives is needed "to pay for life."