Two weeks before the beginning of fall semester at the University of Montana, senior Travis Suzuki received notice that he was in danger of losing his financial aid. He panicked.
"The safety net that you've relied on is being basically yanked out," says the honors student, who's earning a teaching certificate while double majoring in history and political science.
A minimum of 120 credits is required to earn a bachelor's degree from UM. Double majors and certification programs add credits onto minimum graduation requirements.
This semester, UM implemented a 180-credit cap as part of an effort to bring the school into compliance with new Department of Education mandates and to encourage students to complete their degrees on time. "It is more strict in the sense that if you're one credit over, there is no wiggle room," says UM Financial Aid Director Kent McGowan.
Suzuki was among 980 students who learned in August that they were on track to incur more credit hours than the 180 allowed under the new policy. Like Suzuki, all were notified that they were at risk of losing federal and state financial aid.
Suzuki and the majority of students who received the notices will be able to keep their Pell Grants and Stafford Loans, if they hustle to complete their required coursework. "In the long run, 66 students were denied (financial aid)," McGowan says.
Those 66 students can apply for private loans, or transfer to another institution with a less stringent credit cap.
Suzuki argues the change penalizes overachievers like himself. But McGowan estimates 90 percent of those most at risk for losing financial aid are individuals who've repeatedly failed classes and withdrawn from them late in the semester. "Most of these students are students who were indecisive or had difficulty meeting the admission requirements for a specific major," he says.
As for the August notice, McGowan acknowledges that students should have been given more time. But he says reconciling the policy changes with UM's computer system took longer than anticipated.
UM aims to send out the next round of notices well in advance of the spring semester, so students can better plan ahead. "In the next week or two, more students are going to be getting this lovely notice and probably be cursing our name," McGowan says.