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Since the Harvard Kennedy School Overhauled its Financial Aid Team, Students Say Services Have Suffered

Nine current and former HKS staff members said the enrollment services office became a toxic work environment under its new leader, Assistant Dean of Enrollment Services Oliver Street

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When the Harvard Kennedy School announced it would overhaul the structure of its admissions and financial aid teams in July 2021, the school said it sought to “better serve ​prospective, admitted, and enrolled students.”

The reorganization merged HKS’ admissions team with its financial aid team, laying off almost all of its enrollment services staff.

But nine months after the change was implemented, students say the quality of services provided by the newly-joined office has gotten markedly worse.

When the Kennedy School announced the restructuring on July 15, 2021, the school’s senior associate dean for degree programs and student affairs, Debra E. “Debbie” Isaacson, wrote to staffers that the shift would “further strengthen our efforts to attract the best students.”

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“This new enrollment services approach will better serve prospective, admitted, and enrolled students by providing holistic support and consistent stewardship prior to and throughout their studies at the Kennedy School,” Isaacson wrote in an email to HKS affiliates that day.

But in interviews conducted over the past month, 18 current and former HKS students said that response times to inquiries have increased, personal relationships with financial aid officers have disappeared, and funding disbursements have been delayed in the months since the changes were implemented. The restructuring, more than a dozen students said, has often left them in the dark about the state of loans, financial aid, and other basic student services.

As students said support worsened, former enrollment services staffers said the office culture did, too. In interviews over the past month, nine current and former HKS staff members with direct knowledge of the office’s workings said it became a toxic work environment under its new leader, Assistant Dean for Enrollment Services Oliver Street.

Students said the office overhaul — which laid off seven employees, including four who had more than a decade of experience at HKS — created a dearth of institutional knowledge that caused services to suffer and left students in limbo.

‘A Drop Off in Institutional Knowledge and Competence’

When Arielle R. Exner, a second-year Master of Public Policy student, enrolled at the Kennedy School in 2020, her financial aid advisor was “always very responsive,” she said.

“I had a relationship with him since before March 2020,” Exner said.

But right before the start of the fall 2021 semester, Exner reached out to her advisor about her financial situation — only to learn he had been laid off.

“I didn’t know who my new advisor would be,” she said.

The summer layoffs caused a “gap in staffing,” according to Exner, who serves as the executive vice president of the HKS student government.

“They weren’t able to provide the same level of service because they didn’t have the bandwidth to be able to,” she said.

She wasn’t the only one who faced financial aid issues that academic year.

Mandlesizwe L. B. “Mandla” Isaacs, who is set to graduate from HKS’ mid-career MPA program in the spring, said he noticed a change in the quality of the school’s financial aid services when he received his funding for the spring 2022 semester in late January, around when classes began.

The timing of the disbursement came in contrast to that fall, when he said funding arrived “well in advance of when I would have needed to secure accommodation.”

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“There was kind of an interregnum where January was kind of a tough month financially,” Isaacs said. “I just didn’t feel like they were on top of things.”

“There was a drop off in institutional knowledge and competence,” Isaacs said of the financial aid office.

At the time, administrators acknowledged that services had slowed. Street apologized to HKS students over email for his office’s lagging response times, saying the Kennedy School hired three “financial aid experts” to fill gaps created by the reorganization.

“I know many of you have been frustrated by the long wait times for responses to your financial aid inquiries,” Street wrote in an email to students on Sept. 9, 2021. “We pride ourselves on delivering excellent student service, and we know that we have been falling short of that standard. For that we are very sorry.”

In another email later that month, Street wrote that employees hired to fill the gaps were “continuing to work through the backlog of known issues that you have communicated to us.”

Ana Rocha, a Master of Public Administration student set to graduate in the spring, said her inquiries to the office often went unanswered, requiring her to send multiple follow-ups to receive a response — a stark contrast, she said, to response times prior to the layoffs.

After the restructuring took place, Rocha said she reached out to the financial aid office to inform the Kennedy School that she had received a signing bonus for a new job.

“At first they didn’t respond for a month,” Rocha said. “Then, the person that was in charge of my case — she literally didn’t know how to do her job.”

“I had to cc lots of people the whole time I wanted a response because she would take like three weeks to respond [to] me,” Rocha added.

In a statement, HKS spokesperson Sofiya C. Cabalquinto wrote that “during the enrollment services transition, which has been complicated by the challenges of COVID-19, we have not consistently been able to reach the levels of service to which we aspire.”

“However, we are encouraged by the progress that has been made by the team that is in place, and we remain committed to delivering excellent service to our students through an integrated approach to admissions and financial aid that supports our mission,” Cabalquinto wrote.

According to Rodrigo Pérez-Tejada, a second-year HKS student, one of the biggest differences in the financial aid services after the July 2021 layoffs was that the office took longer to respond to basic student questions.

“Before, they used to be very responsive,” he said. “I knew who my advisor was.”

‘I Was Going Desperate’

Other student services suffered following the restructuring, too, students said. Several students said academic holds remained on their accounts longer than they should have, preventing them from registering for classes ahead of the fall 2021 semester, though all said the issue was eventually resolved.

Daniel Pérez Jaramillo, an MPA student set to graduate in the spring, said a student account hold prevented him and several classmates from choosing courses until “the very last day of the shopping period” because the financial aid office did not process their scholarships.

“I was going desperate,” Pérez Jaramillo said. “My program director didn’t know what to do.”

“They hired people that had no idea what was going on,” Pérez Jaramillo added. “They hired people to basically do damage control.”

Isaiah B. Baker, a first-year MPP student, said the summer layoffs made it “difficult” for him to get help from the financial aid office when unresolved questions about his student loans left a hold on his student account.

“When the financial aid office did respond, eventually, they did help me resolve the issue,” Baker said. “But it was stressful that it took up to the very last minute.”

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Rachel E. Carle, a second-year MPP student, said the summer layoffs also affected her ability to register for classes at the start of the fall semester.

“After the turnover, there was a lot of communication lags and coordination issues that led to me, and many other students, having an academic hold that impacted our ability to register for classes,” Carle said. “I remember emailing the financial services office, and every email I tried to send had an automatic reply to expect longer response times.”

Jordan M. Jefferson, an MPP set to graduate in 2024, said the quality of the financial aid services at HKS is “not the same” as what it used to be.

“The communication hasn’t been as hands-on,” Jefferson said, adding that his previous financial aid advisor responded more quickly than his current one.

Jefferson’s previous advisor would “email you, he would text you — he would hit you up,” he said. “He was very persistent about his job. And I will say that persistency has declined.”

While Street, the assistant dean of enrollment services, helped spearhead the reorganization, Jefferson said Street was “tremendously” helpful to him.

“When I was struggling and stuff, he was helping me out,” Jefferson said. “He went above his pay grade to help me out.”

A ‘Toxic and Demotivating’ Environment

Many of Street’s former employees feel differently.

In interviews this month, nine current and former HKS staffers said he fostered a toxic environment, controlling their work and communications and sowing confusion in the office.

Street — who has held positions at five other universities, according to his LinkedIn — is set to depart HKS on May 5. In an email to Kennedy School students announcing his departure, Isaacson wrote that Street “made great strides” toward helping “to recruit and yield a robust and talented student body.”

“We have learned how to recognize our biases and think holistically when evaluating admissions files, we have adjusted our financial aid awarding strategy to better incorporate applicants’ level of need into our decision making, and perhaps most notably, we have fundamentally reorganized our Enrollment Services team to better serve our admits, our students, and our partners around the University,” she wrote. “In short, Oliver has established a strong foundation atop which we will continue to build an outstanding operation.”

But the former staffers said Street was disruptive from the start of his tenure at HKS.

Between Street’s arrival and the restructuring that laid off the admissions and financial aid staffers, four admissions employees left the school.

One former enrollment services staffer said the work environment “was toxic and demotivating.”

The former staffers said Street frequently disrupted their work by giving contradictory instructions to enrollment services employees and used dishonesty to appease HKS leadership.

Cabalquinto, the HKS spokesperson said the school’s top priority is “to recruit, admit, and enroll a ​talented, passionate, and diverse student body of future leaders in public service.”

“The School’s decision to reorganize the Enrollment Services team last summer was driven by our vision for a more effective and holistic approach to admissions and financial aid that will benefit the Kennedy School for many years to come,” Cabalquinto wrote. “We are grateful to Oliver Street, who has resigned effective May 5, 2022, and whose leadership as assistant dean of enrollment services has helped HKS make significant improvements in our ability to recruit a robust, diverse, talented student body.”

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Complaints about Street’s behavior were filed with the Kennedy School’s Human Resources Department, according to four former enrollment services employees with knowledge of the situation. The ex-staffers said they raised concerns about Street to Isaacson as early as November 2019.

Isaacson, who has worked at the Kennedy School since 2009, according to her LinkedIn, acknowledged employees’ complaints in an email obtained by The Crimson inviting staff members to a team meeting.

“Over the past couple of weeks many of you have reached out to me to articulate concerns about the current climate within the Enrollment Services team,” Isaacson wrote in the email on Nov. 15, 2019.

“Two things have become clear to me through those conversations,” Isaacson wrote. “First, your collective passion for HKS and our work is truly amazing. Second, continuing to operate successfully won’t be possible if we don’t all address the climate issue.”

Less than two years later, most of the office’s staff was laid off as part of the restructuring.

‘It Was Very Messy’

Three current and former HKS employees familiar with the state of enrollment services after the layoffs said the Kennedy School failed to adequately prepare for the reorganization.

“There was a lack of foresight and organization and planning for the reorganization,” one HKS employee said. The staffer placed blame on Street, who they said “lacked the professional experience on the financial aid side of enrollment services to make sure that the new team was trained and supported in the way that they should have been.”

Approached by The Crimson outside his HKS office last Thursday, Street declined to comment or answer questions about the allegations against him, referring a reporter to HKS communications officials.

Pérez Jaramillo similarly said the reorganization was poorly executed.

“That transition period was just unnecessary,” he said. “It was a mess.”

Street wrote in an email to students in September 2021 that the additional staffers brought in during the transition to the new structure would “help us provide a higher level of support until we have fully staffed our newly reorganized admissions and financial aid team.”

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But nine current and former staffers said services suffered after the new team came in. Some placed blame on Kennedy School leaders — including Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf — who they said failed to account for the complexity of the work done by the admissions and financial aid teams they overhauled.

"A lot of students were left in the dark leading up to the start of the term,” one former staffer said.

“It’s a shame,” another ex-employee added, “because the students lose out in the end.”

—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at miles.herszenhorn@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @MHerszenhorn.

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