Reflecting on the Stories behind Financial Aid at NASFAA Annual Conference
Reflecting on the Stories behind Financial Aid at NASFAA Annual ConferenceAbby Hexter, Director, Communications
“Financial aid directors are the gatekeepers to the American Dream,” declared Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA) during the Student Aid Success Stories luncheon at the recent NASFAA National Conference.
Before unpacking this lofty statement, I should mention that I did not expect to walk away from the recent NASFAA national conference feeling…emotional.
I expected to learn about federal loan policy, prior-prior year implementation, and more about how colleges are using College Board services like PROFILE and PowerFAIDS—and I did.
But I also realized pretty quickly as I spoke with financial aid practitioners from across the country that behind the off-putting terminology of their profession are people helping people; people who have stories to tell about how their financial aid awards literally changed their lives. These stories are as inspiring and as impactful as any tale of improbable success. They are the stories of Tabitha McCallister, who worked full time making less than minimum wage and caring for three children while obtaining a master’s degree; of College Board’s own Amber Briggs, who overcame homelessness and verbal abuse to become the “caring adult” that invests in other students’ lives; and Janet and Ramon Murguia, whose immigrant parents may not have made it past the seventh grade but understood the importance of education, and pushed each of their six children to obtain multiple advanced degrees.
These panelists would likely argue that the financial aid professionals who changed their lives are opening doors to the American Dream. “I was approached by at least a dozen financial aid professionals after I got off stage, who all expressed their gratitude to me for sharing my story, saying that they were glad to be reminded why they do what they do,” Amber said to me after the session. “Since I have helped students obtain financial aid in my previous work as a college access counselor, I felt lucky that I could share their enthusiasm for their work—everyone is so clearly focused on positively impacting students.”
But as Uncle Ben once said to Peter Parker, with great power comes great responsibility.
“People get very emotional about money, and applying for college is one of the first big decisions that a young person makes in their life,” said Pamela Mason, Director of Financial Aid Administration at Columbia University in New York City. The prospect of paying for college can depress the enthusiasm of even the most motivated student. Part of the job of a financial aid advisor, she explained, is to interpret the jargon while maintaining the dignity of the stressed-out students and their families. “We are literally guides through the jungle—we hack away at the vines and leaves that threaten to block their path to help students get to college,” she said.
Tabitha shared a similar sentiment while on stage: “He empowered me,” she said of the financial aid director who made her education a reality. “He made sure I understood my financial circumstances. He made sure I knew how to fill out the FAFSA by myself.”
It is no secret that there are mounting pressures on students and families when it comes to paying for college. As the cost of college continues to rise, many sessions focused on how to simplify the financial aid process to allow for easier access to the funding available for loans, grants, and scholarships. Several policy recommendations were brought forward during the NASFAA conference that would build on the implementation of prior-prior year and an earlier FAFSA, such as changing the Pell Grant system so that students can rely on receiving a grant without going through the application process year after year; having students fill out a form that indicates their low-income status only once throughout their college career; and reducing the number of questions on the FAFSA.
Whether any of these changes will make a material difference will be determined over time. The stories, though: those had an immediate impact on how I view the wild world of financial aid.