Getting Back to Basics

At student aid officers' meeting, loan scandal is far from forgotten, but focus is largely elsewhere.
July 9, 2008

Last year, with New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo’s six gun still smokin’ from months of volleys at the student loan industry, several hundred financial aid officers poured into a ballroom at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators’ annual conference to hear the group’s lawyers describe its new code of conduct. This week, at the association’s 2008 annual meeting in Orlando, two seminars on “The NASFAA Code of Conduct: One Year Later” drew a comparative trickle, 45 people.

Whether that’s a sign of acceptance, fatigue or something else is hard to say. It’s not that all signs of the student loan scandal that dominated the financial aid world have faded: a representative of Cuomo‘s office still roamed the halls of the convention hotel, campus officials’ anger flared when they discussed the pounding they took from politicians and reporters during the many months of controversy, and the exhibit hall -- further minimized by the financial pain that many lenders are feeling from the credit markets -- was a shell of its former self, with some aid officers’ fondly recalling the old days when the giveaways were spiffier and the food fancier.

But on balance, the financial aid profession seemed at this year’s meeting to be trying to get back to basics, with the U.S. Education Department, after largely shunning NASFAA last year, restoring its traditional role of providing lots of professional development sessions for campus aid administrators, and NASFAA’s new leader trying to reinsert the group into the public policy conversation that it had in part abandoned in recent years.

Philip R. Day, NASFAA's new president, formally announced Tuesday that the association would begin a two-year effort of analysis, discussion and, eventually, solutions for "addressing, uncovering and promoting a nationwide program to eliminate the major barriers to college access and success, especially financial barriers for low- and moderate- income students and other populations underrepresented in higher education."

"Conversation will be taking place with or without us ... I do not want NASFAA to be left at the station while someone else takes control," Day said in his well-received speech. "No one knows the problems and solutions better than NASFAA. We must take a strong leadership role to achieve the desired outcomes for our students."

The agenda was still dotted with sessions that reflected the environmental changes wrought by Cuomo and his comrades in Congress. At a session on how financial aid officers should deal with lenders, Michigan State University’s Rick Shipman described the steps his institution took to revise its “preferred lender” list for federal guaranteed loans to comply with new regulatory and legal requirements. The administration, he noted with irony, promptly abandoned the new approach when Michigan State administrators decided, in the wake of this spring’s credit crunch, to switch to the federal government’s competing direct loan program out of fears that students might lose access to government loans.

If Shipman was perhaps more typical in nonchalantly describing how his institution has complied with the intensified scrutiny of financial aid offices, Heather C. McDonnell offered a reminder of just how raw some student aid administrators remain.

As director of financial aid at New York's Sarah Lawrence College, McDonnell and her colleagues have been the most visible collateral damage of the student loan controversy, criticized harshly by Cuomo and subject to the most restrictive state law as well as the new federal mandates. She complained of having been "put on trial in the media" and earned applause from colleagues when she said that "no student was hurt by any of our behaviors -- all of us plowed money [that they may have received from lenders] back into students for aid." (She and others also wondered aloud what the attorney general has done with the millions of dollars in funds his office collected in settlements with lenders and colleges that he accused of wrongdoing. A spokesman for Cuomo did not respond to an inquiry about that.)

About half of New York's colleges have dropped their preferred lender lists "because their general counsels have told them to get out of this beeswax altogether" rather than risk fines and other punishment for violating New York's law, McDonnell said, and "you will not see New Yorkers in the [NASFAA exhibit hall] because we're in such a mode of caution that we are keeping ourselves out of any environment that might put us at risk."

On a panel Tuesday with McDonnell, Carl Oxholm, executive vice president and chief of staff at Drexel University, urged college leaders to be vigilant in ensuring that their various business operations were entirely aboveboard and transparent to students and families -- but not to go to the extreme of avoiding conflicts of interest. Especially in tight financial times, he said, colleges and universities cannot afford to leave money on the table.

"The question is not if there are conflicts, and it's not if we’re buying from or selling to our friends... Nonprofits across the land depend on people who love them," such as alumni, trustees or other supporters, said Oxholm. Institutions have to have clearcut processes in place for deciding whom to contract with for services, and they must stick to those procedures, audit that they've been done correctly, and disclose any fees or other benefits they might get from those arrangements. "Conflicts of interest are not bad per se, but they must be handled in the right way," he said.

Drexel contracts with a vendor that keeps its vending machines stocked with sodas and energy drinks, Oxholm said. "That company gives us ... [Cuomo] would call it a kickback; we call it, that's what the deal is. We take every penny of what they're paying for caffeine jolts and use it for student activities. Drink up, boys and girls, help the athletic teams!"

"Are we allowed to maximize our profits? America is based on profit making," he said. "We are making these decisions on the merits, and as long as we explain why we’re doing it, what we’re getting for it, we will keep doing it."

A Focus on Retention

Several sessions at the NASFAA meeting examined the role of financial aid offices in helping to keep students enrolled and on track academically. In one, Allene Begley Curto, associate director of financial aid at Springfield College, in Massachusetts, said that often when students drop out, the common wisdom is that "we lost that student because of financial aid."

But "that's not usually it," Curto said -- inadequate financial aid packages are sometimes a factor in student dropouts, but they are rarely the main one.

Because financial aid offices "touch" almost every campus department, though, the offices are in a strong position to bring together the disparate offices that are essential in keeping students on track academically -- admissions, registration, academic affairs, business, student affairs, and information technology, among others.

Financial aid officers should push and prod their colleagues in other offices to ensure that their institutions have sound policies and practices for knowing when students are attending class (or, more importantly, not) and when they may be considering dropping out (Springfield urges all administrators and professors on campus to send a "heads-up" e-mail to key officials if they hear a student talk about the possibililty of leaving, said Edward Ciosek, the financial aid director), for example.

In another session, Virginia Donohue, executive director of On Point for College, and LaSonya Griggs, assistant director of financial aid at Ithaca College, described On Point's program that has helped more than 1,000 young people from Syracuse, N.Y.'s inner city get to colleges.

Much of the session was dedicated to the remarkable efforts to which the program itself goes to help get its participants into college and stay there -- including taking them on campus tours when they don't have family members who can and finding volunteer "angels" on every campus to look out for program participants.

But Donohue and Griggs also described the many ways that campus financial aid directors can adjust their policies to make them friendlier to students with little or no money, such as requiring college bookstores to carry all supplies students need for class (instead of assuming that needy students can afford to take a bus or taxi to the nearest Staples) and giving placement tests in nearby cities because, in many cases, low-income students get shut out of key courses because they can't afford to visit campus (for placement tests) until classes start.

In the Exhibit Hall

The number of company officials in the exhibit hall was down by about a third from past years, although NASFAA officials said the number of companies and other organizations exhibiting was down only slightly from last year, no doubt due more to the financial troubles many lenders are facing than to any lingering effects of the loan scandal. Major lenders like the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Authority were absent entirely, while others such as Sallie Mae had far smaller presences than normal.

Very well represented in the exhibit hall, though, were companies trying to carve out niches in two emerging areas in the private loan arena: help for students who wish to compare the rates and terms of loans, and peer-to-peer lending. In the first category, entities like College Loan Market and have emerged to challenge Simple Tuition; the second grouping, hoping to tap into the Facebook-driven craze for social networking, includes GreenNote Inc., Fynanz, and Zopa, among others.


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