When Teddy Boumboulis started at Towson University last fall, he became the first person in his family to go to college. Unfortunately, last month, he became the first person in his family to be thrown out of college for not paying his bills.
It wasn’t Teddy’s fault. It was the fault of adults who didn’t do enough to help him navigate the tricky shoals of the college-financing process.
Teddy is one of nine children. His father died two years ago. His mother is on disability. He was a good student at Wheaton High, playing on the football and lacrosse teams and graduating with a 3.21 grade-point average. He was accepted at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md., but had his heart set on going to Towson, north of Baltimore. He rejoiced when he got in.
Money was going to be a problem, but Meghan Lynch of CollegeTracks, a nonprofit that works with students from low-income families in Montgomery County, helped Teddy and his mother fill out the necessary forms to apply for a guaranteed-access grant from the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC).
“She told me that college was affordable through the grant,” said Teddy, 19. “I did whatever I had to do to make sure I would qualify and get accepted.”
And he was. Promised the $14,000 grant and some Pell money, Teddy registered for classes at Towson, moved into a dorm with a roommate and starting doing what no one else in his family had done. He had once bought and sold sneakers on eBay, so he decided to major in business administration. For the fall semester, Teddy earned three A’s, a B-minus and a C-plus.
But when it came time to register for spring classes, Towson wouldn’t let him. The school said he hadn’t paid his bill from the previous semester.
Of course, it was MHEC that was supposed to pay the bill. Teddy got in touch with it.
“Every time I would call MHEC, they would tell me just to continue waiting for the grant, for my verification,” Teddy said. “They said it’s just a matter of time, it usually doesn’t take this long. It will be solved soon, just keep waiting.”
So Teddy did. He had gone to the financial aid office at Towson to try to resolve the overdue-bill issue. He says he was told that because he was an MHEC-financed student, there was nothing Towson could do.
“I don’t know what the nature of the conversation was,” said David Horne, director of financial aid at Towson. “The standard response is, ‘You’re having an issue with MHEC, you have to resolve it with MHEC.’ Unfortunately, that was difficult.”
Towson did not offer to help.
The MHEC grant wasn’t disbursed until February, weeks after classes had started and after Towson ordered Teddy to vacate his room. His mother, Laura, said Teddy was mortified as he packed his belongings.
MHEC sent me a statement in which Donna E. Thomas, director of the Office of Student Financial Assistance, apologized “for any inconvenience or confusion” that Teddy endured. In an interview, she said Teddy had failed to provide a necessary financial document. Teddy and his mother insist that MHEC had the document. CollegeTracks says its records indicate that the document was faxed to MHEC the previous summer.
I understand that when it comes to financial aid, every i must be dotted, every t crossed. But even if that document was missing, someone — at MHEC and at Towson — should have worked with Teddy to straighten things out.
Said Nancy Leopold, executive director of CollegeTracks: “We would hope that colleges would understand that these first-generation-to-go-to-college, low-income students who have worked so hard to get admitted deserve and require a higher level of care and compassion because the barriers they inevitably face can cut their college journey short. That doesn’t work for anybody. Not for the kid, not for the college, not for society.”
Towson didn’t treat Teddy like someone who needed extra care. It didn’t act like a compassionate learning community eager to share its resources with someone who had gone to great lengths to attend — and whom it had accepted. It acted like a cable company dealing with a delinquent customer, and it treated Teddy accordingly. It cut him off.
Remarkably, Teddy bears no ill will toward the university. “I want to resume classes at Towson as soon as I can,” he said. “I love the school. I love everything about it. I just didn’t love what happened to me.”
MHEC’s Thomas said mechanisms are now in place to process grant disbursements more quickly. She confirmed Teddy’s eligibility for the 2015-2016 academic year. Teddy has spent the past few weeks moving furniture. He is going to try to get a job until classes start in the fall.
Here’s an idea: Towson should hire Teddy to work at the front desk of the financial aid office. That way, there will be someone there who can show a little empathy.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.