Federal financial aid changes could have major impact on Oklahoma's community colleges

After working toward it for five years, Lori Colbart will receive her degree this week. But she very nearly didn't make it because of federal financial aid changes.
by Silas Allen Published: May 6, 2012

After working toward it for five years, Lori Colbart will receive her degree this week. But she very nearly didn't make it.

Colbart, a student at Oklahoma City Community College, graduates Friday with an associate's degree in music and a near-perfect 3.9 GPA.

In August, she plans to attend Mid-America Christian University, where she was offered a full scholarship. Eventually, she hopes to finish her master's degree and become a music therapist.

“I want to be Dr. Lori,” she said.

But those plans were nearly derailed by changes to the federal financial aid system that took effect in July.

Under existing rules, community college students who receive federal financial aid, including Pell Grants and federal student loans, lose their aid packages after 150 percent of the credit hours it would take to complete the degree. For example, if a degree would normally require 60 credit hours, the student would lose eligibility after 90 credit hours.

Colbart received federal financial aid, including Pell Grants, to pay for her education. She couldn't have afforded to go to school otherwise, she said. But earlier in her career at the college, she switched majors from biochemistry to music — a move that put her behind and eventually pushed her beyond the 90-credit limit.

When she reached that mark, Colbart was just 12 credits short of graduating. The news that she might not be able to finish her degree left her shocked and afraid, she said.

“I cried,” she said.

When a student loses eligibility for federal financial aid, he or she may file an appeal requesting an extension of those benefits. However under the new rules, the appeal process is much lengthier and more restrictive, and requires more documentation than in years past.

Colbart was in a better position to navigate the changes, she said, because she works in OCCC's Office of Student Life. Her boss knew who to call and what questions to ask to help her resolve the situation. Despite that advantage, Colbart received word about the extension just days before the semester started.

“Thank God that the money came through,” she said. “Without it, I would not be graduating.”

Colbart isn't alone. Harold Case, OCCC's director of student financial support services, said last year's changes had a significant impact on students. And another upcoming round of changes to the system could do major harm to students' ability to pay for college, he said.

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by Silas Allen
General Assignment/Breaking News Reporter
Silas Allen is a news reporter for The Oklahoman. He is a Missouri native and a 2008 graduate of the University of Missouri.
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