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Adrian Walker

Roxbury Community College gets financial aid, three months late

For about 1,400 students at Roxbury Community College, the checks are finally in the mail. And the mad scramble to get them out is just another sign of the dysfunction choking what should be an important Boston institution.

The checks in question are for financial aid, vital funds normally disbursed near the beginning of a semester, rather than at the end of it. But the money could not be paid because the college struggled for months to comply with government regulations on eligibility for the aid, two college administrators said. Students who qualify can use the government money to help cover tuition, as well as books, transportation, and other expenses.

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To quality for financial aid, students must be enrolled in classes that lead to certificates or degrees. Sounds simple, but in well over a thousand cases, Roxbury administrators couldn’t verify that. Dr. Stephanie Janey, the school’s vice president of enrollment management and student affairs, blamed the delay on a computer problem that made it impossible to verify that all the students were eligible for aid. She said between 1,400 and 1,600 records had to be checked manually. Janey said administrators did not know whether the computer problem was a new one. The amount of money tied up is said to approach $2 million.

This isn’t just about mailing some checks out a couple of months late, though that would be bad enough. The real issue is the college’s inability to manage a function that thousands of colleges handle routinely. Nothing, it seems, is routine at Roxbury Community College.

I reported earlier this week on a job-training program sponsored by heavy hitters in the business community that RCC president Terrence Gomes inexplicably passed on. The program is now housed at Bunker Hill Community College, which had the common sense to snatch it up. Now Roxbury Community College can’t even get it together to deliver financial aid to its students in a timely way, many of whom depend on the money to attend the school.

According to federal and higher education sources, the US Department of Education will be on campus early next week conducting an investigation. The financial aid snafu isn’t the only, or even the main thing the federal investigators are concerned about.

This is what passes for normal now at a college that bills itself on its website as “Gateway To the Dream.’’ Many of the students it was built to serve now dream mainly of going to a real college. That’s why there are 1,500 students from Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan at Bunker Hill Community College in Charlestown.

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You can’t blame students for hesitating to invest their dreams in a college with a state-calculated graduation rate of 6 percent. You read that right: 6 percent of its students will receive a degree or certificate within seven years. This, from a two-year school.

Much of Roxbury’s alleged leadership has been quiet in the face of the school’s nonperformance. This is partly due to fears that the state’s solution to the problems just might be a merger with Bunker Hill. Educationally, that could only result in improvement, but it would be a psychological dagger to Roxbury, which fought 40 years ago for a college to call its own.

One person who is not afraid to say he has seen enough is Councilor Tito Jackson of Roxbury, who has called for the ouster of Gomes. “There are good people at RCC, but the most important factor is leadership,’’ Jackson said. “We need leadership for the future that knows how to build partnerships for our students and not miss opportunities. We need to save this vital institution.’’

Gomes, who isn’t talking to the news media, is often portrayed as a well-meaning manager. But being well-meaning really doesn’t mean much, not at a school that is fumbling the big issues and the routine ones, too.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.

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