‘The money just disappeared’: Financial aid glitches leave thousands of students scrambling


Caela Go | Senior Staff Photographer

Two technology glitches occurred after Pitt disbursed financial aid on Jan. 1, leaving more than 2,400 students with incorrect financial aid packages at the beginning of the semester.

By Neena Hagen, Senior Staff Writer

When Will Hayden checked his Pitt email last Thursday, he thought he was $5,000 richer.

The social work master’s student received an email from the University granting him a $5,000 scholarship for spring semester. Hayden, who has a new baby and bills to pay, said he felt “a huge sense of relief” and immediately told his wife the good news.

“This was massive — felt like a godsend, to be honest,” Hayden said.

The next day, the money vanished from his account. His advisor later told him that Pitt sent the email accidentally.

More than 2,400 Pitt students have experienced similar issues in the past three weeks — leaving many panicked and scrambling to fulfill unforeseen financial obligations. After Pitt disbursed financial aid on Jan. 1, two technology glitches occurred, University spokesperson David Seldin said.

Seldin said “a system fix was applied to ensure that no future errors would occur.”

The first, which appeared two weeks ago in PittPay, incorrectly adjusted financial aid packages and informed many students that they owed thousands more in tuition. The second glitch, which occurred a week later, sent out a volley of emails to social work students, erroneously telling them that they’d received additional scholarships.

Aaron Winchell, a first-year undeclared major, experienced the first glitch, which told him he owed an extra $1,000 in tuition. He said he had already paid his bill for the spring semester, but then a PittPay email appeared in his inbox.

“That’s weird,” Winchell said he remembers thinking. “I [thought] it was probably like, okay, you owe us $20.”

As everything sunk in, Winchell said, he felt fear well up within him.

“It might not seem [like] that much to some people, but an extra $1,000 out of nowhere was very scary because I was like, ‘Oh god, where’s that going to come from,” Winchell said.

Winchell was one of many students to call the financial aid office the week before classes began to question the unexpected bill, and the financial aid officer was able to resolve the issue within minutes. His balance fell back to zero later that day.

Seldin said the University sent out emails to all affected students on Jan. 10, explaining the situation and apologizing for the mishap.

“No student incurred any additional costs [as a] result of these errors,” Seldin said. “Everyone who received incorrect information was informed of the issue as promptly as possible. At present, there are no additional problems of which we are aware.”

Winchell said he never received any emails from Pitt about the incident.

With universities processing massive amounts of data, glitches in internal systems — even those that hold private information from students — aren’t uncommon. Carnegie Mellon University infamously told 800 applicants in 2015 that they had been admitted to the university’s computer science master’s program, before withdrawing the acceptance letters and blaming the mistake on a “tech glitch.”

This first error was not the last time Pitt botched students’ financial aid packages this year. Another glitch affecting scholarships soon followed — this time in the School of Social Work.

Shayla Preston, a master’s student in social work and public health, received an email similar to Hayden’s last Thursday, offering her a $9,000 scholarship. Preston said she was “skeptical” about the offer, because she hadn’t been notified of any scholarship, but also “super excited.” A few days later, “the money just disappeared from my account and I had no idea what happened.”

“My mom ended up losing her job this past summer, and I’ve had to financially support her, so that was kind of rough.” Preston said. “I was trying to figure out how to use the money.”

Hayden, whose incident mirrored Preston’s, said he felt “mistreated” by the University.

“It just makes me feel like a number that can get misplaced, and that there’s limited oversight and personalization,” Hayden said.

Randy McCready, Pitt’s executive director of financial aid, emailed an unspecified number of students in the School of Social Work on Saturday, apologizing for the error and correcting students’ financial aid packages. He said the University mistakenly duplicated many students’ scholarships, and that was the source of the error.

“As we work to make this process better, we ask your forgiveness for the frustration this may have caused,” McCready said in the email.

It’s unclear how many students in the School of Social Work were impacted. Seldin did not say whether other social work students had also received errant emails about scholarships. He also did not answer questions about whether Pitt would compensate affected students.

Preston said she’s able to forgive Pitt, though the predicament has left her feeling “upset.”

“I recognize that it’s a mistake, but it’s a very painful mistake for a lot of people,” Preston said. “It would be nice to receive some kind of compensation, but … that’s probably just not feasible.”

Students concerned about their financial aid packages can email the financial aid office at [email protected] or call them at 412-624-7488