About two dozen American students currently enrolled in UBC’s School of Library, Archival and Information Studies (SLAIS) are struggling to find the funds to continue their education and complete their degree after unexpectedly being cut off from student loans by the US Department of Education. (CKNW briefly outlined the situation in early January, but the issue is still ongoing.) UBC’s SLAIS program tends to attract a high number of US students because its international tuition is comparatively affordable and the program has been accredited by the American Library Association, ensuring the degree will be recognized worldwide.
For those unfamiliar how student loans work for people studying abroad: students get loans from the jurisdiction they originate from, not the jurisdiction they are studying in. The US Direct Loans program is a government-backed loan program and therefore a common source of funding for American students studying both in the US and abroad. One of the policies of the Direct Loans program is that students studying abroad are ineligible for loans if they are in a program that has, as part of its curriculum, a required Online or Distance Education course
UBC’s Master of Library and Information Studies (MLIS) degree has exactly such a course: LIBR500, which is mandatory, taken in the first semester of studies, and only offered online.
To be clear, the LIBR500 course is not new, nor is the Direct Loans program’s policy about online courses. The American students currently enrolled in the MLIS program were always ineligible to receive US Direct Loans but were approved for and received loans in spite of their ineligibility. UBC characterizes what’s happening as “a recent U.S. government policy clarification” although the only thing that’s really changed is the enforcement of it. Although UBC first became aware of the situation on November 4, 2014, it wasn’t until December 17 that students were given the bad news via email:
- “The MLIS and MASLIS [Master of Archival Studies/MLIS dual degree] programs currently include a Distance Education course (LIBR 500 – Foundations Information Technology). Unfortunately, this means that your program is not eligible for Direct Loan funding and therefore, you will not be eligible to receive the second disbursement of your Direct Lend Loan for Term 2 (January – April 2015).“
SLAIS has indicated that LIBR500 will be either gone or significantly changed so that this issue will not affect future cohorts. But current students can’t un-take LIBR500, and SLAIS can’t retroactively change the curriculum. As a result, students who are just one term away from graduating find themselves contemplating dropping out, or figuring out how to scrape together enough money to cover tuition and living expenses for a few more months on very short notice. Others, with just one term of the two-year program completed, have to assess whether they can make ends meet for a much longer period of time, explore transfer options, or drop out.
As international students, they are not covered under Policy 72 and ineligible for financial aid. The only concrete action taken by UBC so far has been to defer tuition payments until February without fees or interest but the main suggestion offered to students was to canvass other American lenders in search of new loan funding.
Some people may not have much sympathy because the students are international, but having your funding cut off because of factors beyond your control is an unfair and hugely stressful situation regardless of your geographic origin. Even if those 26 students were ineligible for loans all along, that should have been dealt with before they enrolled. Letting them start, then cutting them off mid-program is a deeply shitty move by the US Department of Education. How hard would it have been to grandfather them so that they can complete their studies? Finishing the program and obtaining their degree will put these people in a good position to get jobs that will allow them to pay back those loans. Making them struggle to graduate, or possibly drop out, will not.
In an ironic twist, one student has already left the program and has transferred the credits earned at UBC to an MLIS program that is offered entirely online. Another student has returned to the US, and will be completing the rest of the credits needed to obtain the MLIS from UBC through online/distance ed course. Clearly, the US Direct Loan regulation disincentivizing online courses is working exactly as intended.