The Paper Clip

During the last several years, our office began scanning student documents. This requires fewer staples and more paperclips. We can’t put stapled documents into a scanner and of course we need to keep documents together. Suddenly, I noticed that I needed larger paper clips. This summer, I’ve had to use giant ones! You see those paper clips are keeping together entire lives; way beyond verification forms and tax transcripts.  We have copies of birth certificates, social security cards, court documents, government issued identification, petitions for dependency overrides, letters from student teachers, mentors, guidance counselors, requests for reviews of special circumstances, appeals for additional student funding and sadly death certificates. In some cases, all are for one student.

How did the Office of Financial Aid become the repository for so many documents? It seems to me, that we have, in our desire to ensure that funds are appropriately awarded, reached a place where we verify and document every detail of a student’s life; from “identity to purpose’, and then some.  This task is no easier for us, than for the student as we get lost in and amongst the weeds trying to decipher what is conflicting information in those documents or the definition of one or another term. But I digress. That paper clip also reminds me that we aren’t anywhere near simplification. I realize, that I’m not sharing any ground breaking news. It’s been said before. As we tumble head first into another academic year and the pile of documents grows; however, I feel compelled, from my small perch to encourage you to work together constructively to improve this process.

As Financial Aid officers, we are called to be good stewards of the funds we administer. We also need to advocate for students, share our expertise and insight with those that are directly working to make things happen and support each other. Fall is almost here.  Remember to renew your membership. Join a committee and become part of the process. There is so much beyond verification that we need to tackle such as improving and helping students understand borrowing and repayment, managing and explaining parts of terms, withdrawals, student academic progress and more recently the impact of degree audits on the financial aid awarding cycle.

P.S. I do hope to use smaller paperclips again, someday.

Its 2018! Are You Ready?

I woke up today, two weeks into a new year and it hit me. My youngest child is a second semester freshmen and like many other students will be returning to campus in a few days looking for guidance to begin a new semester. Some may be starting a new chapter in life. The question is are they ready? Am I? Are you? How did we get here and where are we headed? As financial aid professionals, we have so much to digest, assess, process, dissect and do. I’m curious. Have you been able to catch up on all that reading? I’ve tried. Before the holidays, I brought home a copy of the SAR C Comment Code Guide from the EASFAA training session that I attended in December so I could wrap my head around codes 400 and 401. I printed NASFAA’s summary of the Prosper Act and a slew of ifap notices related to cyber security. But the breakneck speed of the pre and post holiday rush along with a-much anticipated office relocation and daily life got in the way.

I returned to campus on January 2nd, with reading still undone, eager to start 2018, and was welcomed by 8 boxes that needed unpacking, the reality of finalizing fall financial aid for our beloved procrastinators and a new group of spring admits that needed awarding. Still, that first weekend in January, energized by the New Year, power-point ready, I attended FAFSA Day. I was greeted by an equally energized, well prepared, early admit who has yet to consider the role that winter and summer sessions may have in his future. He was curious to know when he would receive his award notice for the fall semester.  And at that moment… My anxiety took over.  So now I have to ask, am I the only anxious one? Are you prepared for 2018? Is your system updated and ready for 2018/19 processing? And while we’re on the topic of systems and information technology, how are you faring with the new regulations regarding cyber security that I am still combing through? Personally, what I did get through reading during the holiday break overwhelmed me! My take thus far, if you haven’t already established an excellent relationship with the Information Technology group, please do so now. What about the Prosper Act that I mentioned earlier? Did you get to finish reading the proposals and amendments being suggested? The word on the hill is that we’re moving toward simplification, but personally, my thought is that we have a long way to go. But here’s the reason, I felt compelled to write today.

If you are one of the lucky prepared ones, ready for the challenges ahead, please share your accomplishments and your methods. Join a NJASFAA committee. Be a mentor or a trainer. Make 2018, NJASFAA’s 50th, one of celebration and collaboration; one in which we chose to support each other, our students and the intent of the Higher Education Act.  Keep the conversation going with your colleagues, your Director, your VP and yes, the President. Ours is an important mission. Don’t get discouraged. There is still much to do! Best of luck to you and the students on your campus. I hope to see you in Atlantic City in March.

Our 50th

Recently, I’ve been searching for inspiration to welcome the start of another school year and to fill you in on preparations for NJASFAA’s Golden Anniversary celebration. Lo and behold, a Facebook post from a colleague provided the impetus I needed. It dawned on me that by virtue of age, parenting and professional affiliation, NJASFAA and I share a milestone. We’ve experience a half-century of crisp September mornings full of eagerness, enthusiasm and apprehension. We owe a great chunk of who, what and where we are to the Higher Education Act of 1965. But this milestone is about much more than what NJASFAA and I share in common. It’s about the Financial Aid community in NJ and it’s half century of accomplishments.

In fact, while NJASFAA’s first President, was taking office, many of us had not even been born and most of us were far from imagining a career in Financial Aid.  As we moved through college and beyond, BEOG became Pell and the Guaranteed Student Loan evolved into Stafford Loans. We welcomed PLUS, and private loans. We hosted ACG and Smart Grants. NJ awarded Tuition Aid Grants, Garden State, Urban and Distinguished Scholarships. Outstanding Scholars graced our campuses. Financial aid programs expanded and so did regulations. As professionals, we searched for support to reference and interpret a myriad of regulations written in voluminous handbooks (hard-copy and electronic). The students we welcomed to our campuses grew in number and diversity.  And throughout the years, guided by a strong Statewide Association of professionals, NJASFAA, brought us together.  Committees such as Novice and Training helped us to gain an understanding of federal and state legislation, Conference and Government Relations provided venues and opportunities to network, and advocate for our students. We were challenged and developed personally and professionally. It’s now time to come together to celebrate our achievements and NJASFAA biggest milestone!

Save the date! Spread the word, and don’t forget to make plans to be at the Tropicana in Atlantic City, March 14-16th. Let’s celebrate our 50th! It promises to be a wonderful and very special event!

FSA Atlanta Recap

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Stop and think about the last time you attended a national conference and felt a sense of gratification and marvel; a conference where you expanded your professional knowledge, while sharing the experience with some very dedicated colleagues. This year’s FSA Conference provided just that.

About a week before the conference, an announcement inviting NJASFAA members to respond if they planned to attend was sent. At least twenty responses quickly followed before my departure Monday. By Tuesday, about another dozen NJ financial aid administrators appeared at the Georgia World Congress Center for the start of the conference. We gathered at general and group sessions. We participated in COD & NSLDS Hands on Training. We “Asked a Fed” and heard from the Feds about Comment Code 399, Campus Based programs, the new Borrower Defense Rules, SAP, Gainful Employment, Drops, Withdrawals, the Pell Recalculation Date and more. Wednesday, the week took an unexpected turn when cell phones began to chime and buzz with tornado alerts, complete with session evacuations. Luckily, there wasn’t much more than a few gusts of winds with passing rain so we returned on Thursday to chuckle at the blow-up Magic 8 Ball that Jeff Baker brought and placed at the front of the General Session meeting room where a veteran panel fielded questions that were difficult even for them to answer. Along with colleagues we toured the World of Coca-Cola, dropped in at Margaret Mitchell’s house, CNN and the Civil and Human Rights Museum. In the evenings we gathered for dinner at Max Lagers, Meehan’s Public House and Sweet Georgia’s Juke Joint for delicious meals and music. While taking in a view of the city from the top of Hyatt Regency, we shared our opinions on the future of financial aid and ended the week of professional training and development with dinner at Benihana.

I’m sure that by the time wheels touched the ground in Newark on Friday evening (or later) many were as glad as I was to be back home. But the trip and the time spent together with colleagues left me with a tremendous sense of wonder at the work we do and great pride in the talent that gathered in Atlanta (6500 hundred financial aid professionals from across the country). Financial aid administrators posses a wealth of knowledge on requirements, regulations and formulas (technical and other) that result in billions of dollars being awarded to students across the nation. It is an important job that we are called to do each day and I am proud to share that experience with very special NJ colleagues both in Atlanta and on a daily basis!

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Fall Greetings ~

Labor Day is behind us and summer is nearly gone. As we welcome a new class of students to our campuses and classrooms, NJASFAA Committees are starting to organize their agendas. It’s easy for the seasons and the years to blur into one another: fall, winter, spring summer.

Twenty-eight years ago, I became a financial aid administrator in New York State. Twenty-two years ago, I accepted a position in New Jersey and joined NJASFAA. In 2011, Jim Anderson asked me to join the Government Relations Committee and then, in 2012, to take on the challenge of being NJASFAA Treasurer. That was the year that Sandy decided to wreak havoc on New Jersey and upend the fall conference. I asked myself as I struggled to maintain “work-life” balance with three children, one about to graduate college, a second in his sophomore year and a third about to enter high school how I thought I could accomplish it all. I still wonder what I was thinking but I plowed on. I got past being Treasurer and then Past-Treasurer with an awful lot of help and support from Doug Wilson and my family. The NJASFAA bug had bitten me. Once you get involved it’s hard to become uninvolved. You make personal connections. You share your experiences with colleagues from across the State. You read about upcoming legislative proposals. You squirm thinking what these will mean when they are implemented. All along, you ask yourself how much can a financial aid officer be tasked with doing? How can I sensibly explain SULA, PELL LEU, legal guardianship, the effect of R2T4 formulas and modules, while juggling reporting deadlines and system implementation? And you realize that to maintain your sanity and this profession alive you need to become engaged in the process, whether it’s advocating for simplification, sharing your expertise and knowledge with others, mentoring a new professional, assisting in expanding financial literacy or promoting dialogue. NJ has a vibrant and diverse community of financial aid professionals. I hope you accept the challenge to become an active participant and that we have the opportunity to meet at an event sometime in the near future