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‘They don’t need $7,000 from my struggling pocket’: CSU RAs forced to pay back awarded financial aid

JJ McKinney
Hear from RAs who are now struggling to pay back their awarded financial aid money.

Some Colorado State University resident assistants are having to pay back the university part of their financial aid after a bookkeeping error awarded too much aid money to some students who were not originally designated RAs.

CSU submitted the complete list of RAs to the Office of Financial Aid later than normal this year, which meant that some RAs received more need-based aid than typical for the position’s benefits. When the university realized that some of these students were living on campus as RAs, their predetermined need for financial aid was altered, and many RAs learned that they have to pay back the university some of the aid money awarded to them two weeks ago.

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“There are 172 resident assistants or community coordinators at CSU, and 48 of those students are students who receive financial aid,” according to a joint email from Associate Executive Director of Housing & Dining Services Nick Sweeton and Executive Director of the Office of Financial Aid Joe Donlay. “Aid at CSU is based on many factors, including a student’s overall cost of attendance and unique expected family contribution as determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.”

Since RAs do not pay for food and rent expenses, their level of need in the eyes of the university Office of Financial Aid changes, and so does the amount of money they are awarded yearly.

“What they did is they gave me scholarships, and then they said, ‘OK, never mind, you need to pay it back — plus whatever else you were initially supposed to pay of your tuition,'” said Elizabeth Brink, an RA in Braiden Hall. “It ended up being just a lot more than I ever expected to pay.”

Brink’s financial situation and ability to afford college depend on the support she receives from being an RA, and she is now having to take on external loans because she can no longer receive subsidized loans. Brink is now being asked to pay back $2,500 of scholarships and $5,000 of work-study money.

“I come from a family of six,” Brink said. “My mom is an elementary school teacher, my dad’s a firefighter and I love them both, and I admire their professions, but they just don’t make that much. And there’s four kids, all of us are going to college (and) all of us are paying our way through college. So that’s what all my money right now is going towards.”

To pay for the added charge, Brink is picking up hours at another on-campus job, which has taken away the same level of commitment she was contributing to her RA job.

“It definitely makes it difficult because (in addition to) housing and the housing security, the food security aspect of being an RA is incredibly important,” Brink said. “I think it makes my ability to dedicate time to the students, which is what my job is, less feasible because I am picking up more hours to work to pay for school.”

Shelby Collins, another RA for Braiden Hall, is also having to pay back $7,000 from her initial refund check.

“I was planning on saving my refund check for vet school,” Collins said. “But now I have to give that back. And I know for other people, some of (them put the) refund check in a CD (savings account), and you can’t touch that for a year or two. So for them, they’re going to have to pay, like, out of pocket or take up loans. When, like, for most of us, … a majority of (being an RA) is … trying to avoid loans.”

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Collins said that when she saw the increased refund check, she wasn’t surprised because that also reflected the scholarships and grants she had been awarded. Collins went to the Office of Financial Aid, but like in Brink’s situation, not much could be done.

“I honestly hope they, like, give us some kind of explanation at least because I feel like the one I got wasn’t that thorough, and it still didn’t make sense when I talked to some of my other co-workers they don’t quite understand,” Collins said. “That still doesn’t, like, make up for the fact that it’s going to affect a lot of people. … I know with returning RAs, this has never been a problem before, but suddenly it is.”

Not every RA on campus was slapped with sudden charges, but a majority of Braiden Hall RAs were impacted.

“Whether it’s parking, whether it’s housing — in any area, the financial aid office doesn’t care unless it’s paid. If you don’t have that money now, good luck graduating. … I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what they expect us to do.” –Joshua Duran, fourth-year resident assistant in Braiden Hall

Gilbert Leal Jr., a first generation out-of-state student and RA in Braiden, said the money he owed increased by more than $10,000.

“My mom is also in college right now to trying to also get a degree, and she’s having to pay her tuition and my tuition,” Leal said. “And I’m also absolutely, like, covering her grounds and a part of my tuition with the help of my mom, and it only just being us is putting us on that burden strain. And my mom really doesn’t want me to feel that strain; she wants me focused on college.”

Leal’s family experienced a financial burden after childhood surgeries, which has only increased with steep tuition.

“Growing up (with) that, a financial burden has always impacted us, especially since I had surgeries growing up, and those medical bills stacked up after a while,” Leal said. “So just feeling that burden of not only the medical bills (but) also tuition is really taking a toll on me, and I can only imagine how my mom (is) feeling.”

All RAs receive free housing and meals as compensation for their work, which includes unpaid training during the summer, an earlier move-in, being on call in 12-hour shifts for any issues their residents might encounter, hosting community building activities on their floors and attending weekly meetings.

“In my case, my (initial financial aid) refund was around, like, $2,000,” said Joshua Duran, a lead RA in Braiden Hall returning for his third year in the position. “That money that could go towards things like books (and) things that I need for school. And they’re not only trying to ask for that money back, they’re trying to add $4,000-plus dollars onto that, so the money that they’re trying to have me pay back is now around $7,000. It’s making it really hard to pay back for something that wasn’t our fault.”

Duran wanted to become an RA after the positive experience he had as a first-year in Edwards Hall and to help other students find a place to belong on campus.

“I’ve been at CSU for four years now,” Duran said. “And whether it’s parking, whether it’s housing in any area, the financial aid office doesn’t care unless it’s paid. If you don’t have that money now, good luck graduating. … I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what they expect us to do.”

The RA contracts state in the “Remuneration” portion that a “student will receive a stipend of $200 upon completion of two or more semesters of service and $300 at the conclusion of every semester thereafter,” a small sum that cannot cover the amount charged back by the university.

The housing contract clarifies that financial aid might be impacted by being an RA.

“If student receives financial aid, the terms and conditions of employment are subject to review by the Office of Financial Aid,” the RA contract reads. “Student must report all forms of financial aid or income to ensure that the need factor is not exceeded. It should also be noted that remuneration of room and board can and may have an impact on student’s financial aid. (Housing & Dining Services) encourages all students to contact Office of Financial Aid before accepting position offer.”

RAs acknowledged that they understand that changes to their financial aid might result from their position. However, the change being a few weeks into the semester is what caught them off guard.

“I understand that there was no (malicious) intent,” Duran said. “There was no (malicious) attempt to try to hurt the financial pockets of CSU RAs, but it happened. So I feel like Housing needs to step up and take responsibility for what they do and talk to the financial aid office. However, that needs to happen between, like, the execs and directors of both offices. They need to … go ahead and do that and kind of exempt us from paying this back.”

Duran received a scholarship from the Denver Scholarship Foundation that was put in its entirety towards the charge placed on his account by the university, and he still has to pay an outstanding balance.

“They took another scholarship that was going to help pay for some of my other stuff — materials for school,” Duran said. “They took that to try to pay for their mistake, and I know that that’s the case for a lot of the RAs here as well that received the Denver Scholarship Foundation scholarship. So I feel like that money needs to come back to back to us, and they need to take accountability. … And I know this CSU has the money to do that, too. They do not need my $7,000 from my struggling pocket.”

Sweeton said an RA’s room and board are built into their compensation, and legally, CSU is not allowed to contribute funds toward that part of the financial aid package.

“We are aware that a number of resident assistants were unexpectedly impacted when they received room and board reimbursements in their financial aid package that should not have been included,” Sweeton said. “These room and board reimbursements were mistakenly applied to students’ accounts whose housing and meal plan charges are already included as part of their job, so they were asked to return this portion of their package. Financial Aid is in touch with these student staff and are currently working to meet one-on-one with each person to explain this process and discuss possible options for resolution.”

The statement noted that Housing & Dining Services is working to ensure that this mistake does not happen again.

However, of the RAs stuck with the increased charges, several are considering whether having the demanding job is worth the extra charges.

“When I explained to one of my fellow RAs the other day, they asked me if quitting changes the fact that I have to pay this money back — ‘Would I quit?'” Duran said. “I was thinking, ‘I didn’t even think that was an option. I was thinking, ‘Yeah, I would leave,’ because even though you get a lot of satisfaction from this job — and you do, I won’t deny it, you do get so much satisfaction from this job — the problem is that you’re still a student. You’re still you’re a student worker, … and all of the things that CSU students have to deal with, you still have to deal with. The added benefit of the reduced housing was one of the driving factors to say, … ‘I can create that balance. I can do all of that.’ But when you are now having to basically pay to be an RA? No, I’m not going to pay to do extra work on top of all the work that you have to do.”

Reach Allie Seibel at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @allie_seibel_

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About the Contributor
Allie Seibel
Allie Seibel, Editor in Chief
Allie Seibel is the editor in chief of The Rocky Mountain Collegian, a role she loves more and more with each day. Previously the news editor and news director of The Collegian, Seibel has a background in news, but she’s excited to branch out and experience every facet of content this and following years. Seibel is a sophomore journalism and media communications major minoring in business administration and legal studies. She is a student in the Honors Program and is also an honors ambassador and honors peer mentor. She also is a satellite imagery writer for the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere at Colorado State University. Seibel is from Colorado Springs, Colorado, and loves how The Collegian has gotten her acquainted with Fort Collins and CSU. When she’s not writing, reporting or in class, you can always find her with a book, cross-stitching, planning where to travel to next, trying out a new recipe or listening to Taylor Swift. Seibel is incredibly proud of The Collegian’s past and understands the task of safeguarding its future. She’s committed to The Collegian’s brand as an alt-weekly newspaper and will continue to advance its status as a strong online publication while preserving the integrity and tradition of the print paper. Seibel is excited to begin a multi-year relationship with readers at the helm of the paper and cannot wait to see how the paper continues to grow. Through initiatives like the new science desk and letting each individual desk shine, Seibel is committed to furthering The Collegian and Rocky Mountain Student Media over the next few years.

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  • K

    Kyle CSU GraduateSep 23, 2023 at 5:35 pm

    Uhh, borrow the money to pay for college like most people do. Because your parents don’t make a lot of money, you’re qualified for a lot more aid and low interest loans than anyone else. My son’s are borrowing nearly all the money they need for tuition, fees, housing and food. They both graduated with honors and got nothing for financial aid. While I agree that it’s unfortunate that the school made an error, it’s not your money. Get used to disappointment because being an adult comes with copious quantities of it. Consider yourselves lucky that you get any aid.

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  • D

    Deborah HodgeSep 22, 2023 at 8:10 am

    The financial aid office and the university needs to step up and stop making the RA’s pay for their mistakes. The RA’s are not responsible for the errors of the financial aid and the University. The RA’s need to go on strike and stand up to the university and the financial aid office and let the president know that they will not pay back the money that was made available to them by mistake. The university needs to make things right and stop being aggressive towards the RA’s. President of the university you need to step up and make the mistakes and errors go away and not make the RA’s pay all this money back. They are not responsible for your errors and mistakes that your university made along with the financial aid office. Stop the insanity of this paying the money back. Why don’t you have the people who did this investigated and be held responsible for the gigantic hole that they put the RA’ s in. You know that this is wrong. Please do what is right and forgive the financial situation and monies that the RA’s have to pay back.the RA’s are not in a position to pay the monies back and you know this.

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