Pre-o program reimbursement process slow, confusing for many student group leaders

Danielle Drake-Flam | Contributing Reporter

Many pre-orientation program counselors have yet to be repaid by Student Union for extra expenses personally incurred during pre-o programs.

Pre-o programs occur in August, before Bear Beginnings, and are designed to give first-year students the opportunity to work closely with a specific campus organization, gain leadership skills and meet others with similar interests.

Amidst some confusion regarding the reimbursement process, Student Union did not receive some student groups’ receipts, and as a result, some pre-o counselors have yet to be reimbursed despite the fact that repayments began in late October.

World of Politics pre-orientation leader Isaiah Sciford, a senior, said he paid around $700 out of pocket and has not been paid back. He added that he felt that counselors shouldn’t incur this burden, even for a short period of time.

“Even if it’s just a month, or a credit card period, I still think that’s unprofessional,” Sciford said. “We’re not sure that we would necessarily be interested in running another program if it’s going to be requiring this kind of burden on the counselors.”

Catholic Student Center (CSC) treasurer and sophomore Evan Nagel said the CSC paid for its pre-o, Connect 4, with around $5,000 from its reserves but noted that the CSC currently has a -$4,000 balance because it hasn’t been reimbursed.

Student Union Vice President of Finance and senior Vikram Biswas acknowledged that the process for reimbursements is not as simple as students might think.

“[Reimbursing student groups] is a process that’s I think is a little more complicated than we give it credit for,” Biswas said. “Basically [the money] has to go through other checkpoints, which is why it kind of takes some time, and then it has to come back through those checkpoints before it can ultimately reach the student.”

Changes implemented last year by the First Year Center
(FYC) raised the minimum number of students required for pre-orientation programs from 15 to 20, requiring some programs to recruit more students. In addition, prior to 2016, some first-year students were unable to participate in pre-orientations due to lower program capacities and financial challenges. To allow for increased participation, the FYC increased the minimum number of required participants to prevent students from being waitlisted and made programs available to all Pell-eligible students through increased scholarship opportunities.

These efforts were successful, according to the FYC, as 727 students participated in pre-orientation programs this year—132 more than last year.

Despite allowing more students to participate overall, Sciford noted that having fewer, larger programs, can come with some drawbacks.

“Historically, our program [enrollment] has some years been as low as 17, but usually around 23 or 24. This year, we ended up with 33 kids, and we did feel that was a little large for what we like to do,” he said. “Students are less able to get to know one another on a closer basis.”

For many large pre-o programs, these extra costs can be paid for with reserves of cash from the organization or department the program is affiliated with. If no such reserve exists, however, pre-o counselors are often left to foot the bill themselves.

Regardless of whether the extra costs were incurred through the organization or by students themselves, those who paid out of pocket can submit their receipts to their Student Union business coordinator for reimbursement. After these receipts go to the Student Union business coordinators, they must be processed through the Washington University’s school account, then through central accounting and finally through payroll before going back to the students.

In anticipation of the switch to larger groups, the FYC coordinated program leader trainings for the SU organization’s program hosts during the spring of 2015. A workshop was also conducted to educate program leaders on the accounting processes and fiscal resources by SU’s then-VP of Finance, and current President and senior Kenneth Sng.

“SU worked with the FYC to train student group-led programs [on] how to work with the SU business managers to pay for expenses directly, not using a reimbursement process,” FYC Assistant Director Andrea Farnan and FYC Director Katherine Pei told Student Life in an email. “Based on what we’ve recently learned, it’s clear this is an area for improvement and additional education.”

Student group leaders and those who are in charge of the reimbursement process can all agree on one thing: They would like to see a change for next year.

“I think [we should look into] trying to eliminate students having to foot big bills out of pocket and then waiting to get reimbursed because that’s much more detrimental to them personally than we may realize in a systematic process,” Biswas said. “It seems like you paid money, and you will eventually get reimbursed, but for students—they have other things they need to spend on throughout the course of the year, even social needs, and that becomes a hassle there.”

Nagel agreed, adding that there should be more transparency throughout the process in order to make things clearer for pre-o counselors.

“Maybe a little more clarity of what FYC and who they reimburse versus SU [would be good],” Nagel said. “I’ve been treasurer for about a year, and I still don’t know really who reimburses who—if SU pays FYC or vice versa—and really where the money comes from. I know that everybody who pays out of pocket gets reimbursed eventually, so that all works out. If it was a little more clear of who to go to, I think that would be better.”

The FYC is currently working with SU Business Managers and SU Executive board to resolve these issues. In a recent meeting with Biswas, the FYC considered the possibility of pre-o program hosts attending the same training as the SU group treasurers, in an effort to provide a better understanding of the finances.