The musical genre might be called Fafsabilly.
Pat Watkins, director of financial aid at Eckerd College, owns her job in the way she knows best -- with song and a good sense of humor. In 1997, she found four like-minded financial aid administrators, and they formed the Florida Five, a troupe of balladeers who take the ironies and jargon of financial aid advising and turn them into impassioned ditties.
They accept invitations. For example, a few years ago, they appeared at the Louisville Slugger Museum for a Kentucky Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators conference. A mechanical pitcher threw fastballs into a corner, ash bats lined the walls, and the group held the floor, singing their original hits: “There’s No Business Like the Aid Business,” “The Preregistration Blues,” “Don’t Cry For Me Leo Kornfeld,” and, to the music of Annie, “Tomorrow,” an illustrious ode to smart financial planning.
Louisville sluggers and the prospects of less-than-crippling debt? The crowd cheered, whistled, and gave a standing ovation.
“You give us any chance, and we’ll sing,” Watkins says.
The Florida Five (sometimes more than five) are: Kathy Campbell, a former representative for a Texas loan guarantee agency; Wayne Bodiford, director for financial aid at St. Johns River State College; Bill Spiers, Jr., director of financial aid at Tallahassee Community College; Watkins herself, of Eckerd; and pianist Ruth Strum, director of financial aid at Clearwater Christian College. Sometimes Mike O’Grady, a saxophonist who for years worked as a lender’s representative and who is now vice president of sales for Overture Technologies, joins them too.
Watkins composes the songs herself. “I had to write them -- otherwise you’ll go crazy,” she says. “We’re there to help students, and so many times students take financial aid extremely seriously and tend to get very stressed out, which affects their ability to deal with students and parents as well as their families.”
Some songs play on perennial struggles. “The Preregistration Blues” riffs on the rhythm to “I’ve Got the Blues":
Every day is a battle, and the war I’m about to lose
I got those pre-registration Blues
Student in the office (da da da da dah)
Can’t find his file (da da da da dah)
Searched through all of the cabinets (da da da da dah)
Went through all of the piles (da da da da dah)
Six hours later he screams in my ear
“I filled out my FAFSA, but not this year!”
Another song, “I Go On and On,” plays off the Celine Dion hit. It came to Watkins while she was sitting in the audience of a friend’s child’s grade school performance of "Titanic." “In school, I go on and on, and that’s how I wrote it," she says. "I sat down and I just -- it just came to me -- it just flowed all together.”
Her rendition of one of the verses: “Your education is through / Your loans are due / But no employer will hire you.”
You have to get through the day somehow. Call it her "Eye of the Tiger."
Just this month Watkins composed a song that might be of some interest to proponents of for-profit college reform. "Gainful Employment," sang to the melody of "Together" from the musical Gypsy, goes like this:
Wherever you go
Whatever you do
Make sure you get
Watkins says the Florida Five began after she had found herself putting lyrics to the situational humor she encounters on the job. She pitched the idea to some friends, saying they could sing in the style of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney backyard musicals. They arranged the songs, started practicing, and, before long, were performing at industry conferences. In 1999, they went national, singing in Las Vegas during the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators conference.
Most recently, they sang at the Education Writers Association's conference for higher education reporters in early February in St. Petersburg.
Putting the maddening to melody is something Watkins has done since childhood. Growing up, she says she idolized Tom Lehrer’s songs, parodies that flipped the norms of society on their head. That attitude quickly lent itself to financial aid. “If you don’t have fun in this business then you shouldn’t be here,” she says.
She recalls one of the first times a financial aid song arose from a difficult situation. “One time I was working in a college, and the director of admissions would break out in hives,” she says. “So I wrote a blues song about that.” She started singing the “I’ve Got the Blues” refrain: “Woke up about a quarter after three. He’s shaking his finger, he’s cursing my name, can’t make his numbers, and I’m to blame.” She pauses for the beat. “I’ve got the preregistration blues.”
Oh, and they sing for free.