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Software Problems Leave Thousands of Peralta Students Without Financial Aid

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday November 20, 2008 - 09:55:00 AM

A serious glitch in the Peralta Community College District’s new student financial aid software has caused checks for thousands of students to be delayed, with a resolution of the problem apparently not yet in sight. 

Peralta students have held demonstrations at several district board meetings concerning the situation, and district trustees have declared the continuing problem a “financial crisis” and “unacceptable.” 

There have been estimates by some district officials that the problem could affect as many as 5,000 financial aid checks that are due to students but not yet paid for the fall semester. And some students have not been paid on applications they put in as early as last spring. 

Because Peralta’s community colleges cater in part to an older demographic than state universities or the UC system, many of the district’s students are working adults and parents who rely upon financial aid to supplement their income. 

The problem is affecting students at all four of Peralta’s colleges: Berkeley City, Laney, Merritt, and College of Alameda. 

The problem may have been exacerbated by the fact that Peralta failed to renew the contract of Internet Technology head Gary Perkins last July, leaving the district’s IT department to be run by Chief Financial Officer Tom Smith, with no one overseeing the problem with a specific computer technology background. 

“I’m very disappointed with the district’s plan for conversion to the new software system and our lack of foresight in foreseeing possible problems,” board president Cy Gulassa said by telephone this week. “And I’m concerned for the welfare of our students as well as the reputation of the district’s four colleges.” 

And trustee Linda Handy, who served as chair of the board’s Internet Technology Committee before it was disbanded this year, called it a “horrible situation that is putting tremendous stress on students. I’ve been saying for the last six years that ‘the sky is falling’ (concerning Peralta’s internet technology problems). Well, now it’s down on our heads.” 

District officials say the problem began when Peralta moved from its old Legacy financial aid computer software this fall to the Regent system. The system is designed not just to issue checks, but to cross-check student applications to verify the identity of the student and to ensure that the student is actually enrolled in class and is financially eligible for aid. In addition, Peralta’s system is complicated by the fact that students apply for aid at individual colleges rather than districtwide--legally allowing for a larger amount of federal and state aid--and that the computer system must reconcile slight differences between the processes of the colleges. 

With the Regent software unable to handle the applications, Peralta staff has been reduced to manually doing the cross-checking and verification and handwriting the checks, a time-consuming process which has allowed some 3,000 checks to be written this semester, but which has not been fast enough to completely reduce the backlog. 

Gulassa said the old Legacy system that Regent replaced “was at least satisfactory. We had problems, but never of this magnitude.” 

“We keep being told that the problem is resolved and the system is now working,” Handy said. “Last Thursday in the Student Services meeting we were told that it was fixed, and we thought the checks would go out by computer the next day. They didn’t. It’s really distressing.”