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Franklin Building

On Oct. 1, John, a Nursing junior, was told by a supervisor that he had almost exhausted his work-study grant.

When he started working about a month earlier, he had a work-study grant of $3,800. For a student to earn that much money over a period of a month, he would have had to have been paid $47.50 an hour for 20 hours of work per week.

What had actually happened to John was that his work-study grant had been cut due to changes authorized by Student Financial Services that affected several residential advisors. The changes, which were enacted this semester, drastically reduced the work-study grant for some RAs who receive financial aid.

John, an RA in the Quad, reached out to SFS personally to figure out where his work-study money had gone. In response, he received a scanned letter from the office which said that because RAs receive “two special benefits,” his “campus job and summer savings expectations have been eliminated.”

The benefits were first, “free housing with a value of $8,688, the median room charge,” and second, a “credit toward your university board contract with a value of $2,261.”

What that actually meant for John was that his employer could not pay him from a work-study budget anymore.

But what he could not understand was why SFS told him this in October.

“I was confused as to why they would tell me this a month into the semester,” John said, because “they know the list of RAs going into school year.” RAs are generally hired in the spring before the next academic year.

“We care deeply about the welfare of all Penn students, and sincerely regret how students were notified,” SFS Director Joel Carstens said in an email statement from Oct. 29 sent by an SFS spokesperson. Representatives from SFS originally declined to be interviewed for this story, but sent the statement after a representative could not be reached in time for an interview on Wednesday.

According to SFS, to comply with the federal government’s regulations, Penn needed to reduce several RAs’ federal work-study grants so that the students’ total aid awarded did not exceed their cost of attendance. Of the 150 RAs at Penn, 14 were affected.

But the students impacted did not find out about the change until after the semester started.

“That should have been made explicit from the very beginning,” said John, who, like other RAs interviewed for this article, asked that his name be changed to protect his privacy.

Lisa, a College senior and an RA in Harnwell College House, said she saw no references to anything about work-study  during RA training nor in the contracts she signed to become an RA. The only form of communication about her work-study grant issues she had received was from the coordinator at the work-study job for which she had applied. Currently, the website for those interested in becoming RAs does not reference a student’s work-study grant, only noting that SFS will determine how an RA appointment would affect a student’s financial aid package.

Lisa was particularly surprised when she learned her work-study grant had been reduced. “I had work-study last year and was an RA, [so] I came in this year, senior year, anticipating that I would have a work-study job,” she said.

The SFS statement said that although the federal policy has been in place for several years, this year was the first time SFS encountered a situation where students received more aid than the cost of attendance at Penn.

But SFS — through a mailed letter — did not officially notify all students until Oct. 2.

“The communication strategy ... it’s almost always reactive. They make the change and then they’re like, ‘Oh by the way this is what happened,’” one former SFS employee said about this miscommunication. It is “absolutely typical.”

This year, Lisa applied for a job with and was hired by the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, but could not start working because of the situation with her work-study. She received an email from the Netter Center on Sept. 8 reporting that she had no money in her work-study grant. This was the first notification she had seen of the change, though SFS had sent a letter to her home address after she had arrived at Penn for the semester.

Since the job with the Netter Center was a work-study position, Lisa could not keep the job. Work-study jobs are funded partially by a government grant and partially by the department or organization that the student works for , meaning that some smaller organizations cannot afford to keep their non-work study students. Instead, Lisa had to find three different non-work-study jobs to fulfill her monetary need.

John was luckier since he was able to keep his job. “I’m fortunate in that I’ve been working there for two years ... and they were able to pay me out of their budget for non-work-study students,” he said.

SFS’s delay in communication affected those RAs interviewed beyond their jobs, causing them to scramble to find ways to pay for things — like food and bills — that they had previously used their work-study grants to pay for.

Lisa, for example, used her work-study funds to supplement her dining plan. “I need it because I don’t have money in order to buy food,” Lisa said. “What they give [RAs] as a meal plan is 75 meals and 100 Dining Dollars is not enough to sustain you throughout the semester.”

Rachel, a College senior and an RA in the Quad, also had a work-study job last year without any issue, but was surprised to find her work-study award unexpectedly canceled this year . She was upset because her old job aligned with her interests in education, and now she has to search for another one.

“Now I have to find a job that won’t be as aligned with my career, what I want to do with my life ... just to have money to survive at Penn, to be part of the social scene. To enjoy my senior year,” she said.

For its part, SFS’s statement acknowledged this miscommunication, saying, “It presents a learning opportunity for our staff in how best to communicate such information.”

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