The Washington Post reports that the average college student will graduate with $25,000 in debt. With more than $1 trillion in outstanding loans, student debt outweighs credit card debt and is exempt from bankruptcy protection. Even with these startling statistics, students will continue to borrow money in order to pay for college. College and university financial aid departments must operate at an optimal level in order to ensure that students have access to viable financial aid options and that federal regulations are followed. In order to find out more about the financial aid side of higher education, I decided to interview Steve Booker, director of financial aid at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla.
Q: How do financial aid operations fit into your overall campus environment?
Financial aid is a critical piece in ensuring that students who enroll at Rollins College are able to graduate on time. We work with families to plan out their four-year college career and estimate total loan debt as well as out-of-pocket amounts. This way, we eliminate as much of the unknown costs as possible.
Q: How is your financial aid office perceived by your office, others on campus, and students?
Finances are personal and can be intimidating for families and students. As such, faculty and staff across campus are the first line of identifying potential issues through interactions with students. They often identify students who are struggling financially and help these students contact our office. When faculty and staff provide the introduction to the Financial Aid Office, students are more at ease and we can work together to find solutions.
Q: What is the greatest challenge related to financial aid that you will face on your campus in the next five years? How is your institution preparing to address this challenge?
Our greatest challenge continues to be the rising cost of education and the lack of planning by many families. More families seek financial aid and need assistance. In order to encourage more planning, our office visits local high schools for presentations as well as partners with programs such as Take Stock in Children and College for Every Student in order to get the word out about financial aid options earlier in a student’s education. The earlier we can raise the awareness of college and need for planning, the more options available to the family to save and prepare for the cost of college.
Q: What effects have state budget cuts had on your institution?
As a private institution, the state budget cuts impacted us a bit differently. Many of our students receive Bright Futures and/or the Florida Resident Access Grant (FRAG), which provide funding for Florida residents. Bright Futures has not risen as quickly as the cost of college, and the test score requirements have increased significantly, which reduces the number of eligible recipients. FRAG has been reduced over the past few years, but is now steadily rising. These programs are important to our Florida residents and help reduce the amount of loans a student will borrow.
Q: What, if anything, can institutions do to stop the upward spiral of college costs and the increasing need for additional student aid funds?
Alternative delivery methods can help reduce certain costs. For example, online courses reduce the costs of transportation and potentially books. Also, providing information earlier to families including options to save can help families be in a better position at the point of college entry.
Q: Federal regulations stemming from a school’s participation in the federal student aid programs are increasingly reaching into other departments at a school (e.g., campus safety, admissions, records). How is your school making sure the entire institution is in compliance with these increasingly far-reaching regulations?
Through external and internal audits, we are able to stay on top of the reporting and disclosure requirements. In addition, the Office of Institutional Research provides a secondary check to ensure documents and notifications are available.
Q: How can a financial aid director raise the status of his or her office in the eyes of a college president?
Make sure that the Financial Aid Director either has a “seat at the table” or ensure that his/her direct supervisor is able to articulate the financial aid needs of the student body.
Q: If you were standing before Congress today, what would you want to tell them about student aid?
Financial aid is an important piece of the puzzle in bridging the gap between a family’s finances and the cost of higher education. Providing clear, concise, and accurate information for families to rely on and plan their educational career is critical. As a community, we need to reach families much earlier in elementary school in order to assist in the planning and preparation process. This should include incentives for families to save for higher education as well as provide a blueprint for children to succeed at each grade level. Recognizing the behaviors of academically successful students and breaking that down into achievable steps at each grade level (i.e., learning how to study, how to ask thoughtful questions) will provide opportunities for students to flourish.
This concludes my interview with Steve Booker. I would like to thank him for consenting to this interview.