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My friend George

If you’re reading this, you probably heard of the passing over the weekend of George Chin.  And if you’re reading this, you most likely knew George, perhaps for a long time, or at the very least you knew of him.  I don’t know how many practicing financial aid professionals there are in the country, must be well into the tens of thousands, and I know that every single one of them could play about two degrees of separation with George Chin.  There is no [fill in some letters]ASFAA not filled with people who have learned, directly or indirectly, but likely directly, from George.

George long ago earned rank into any financial aid old boys/girls network, if such a thing exists.  But that wasn’t George’s style.  In every financial aid association (and similar groups), the “how do we develop new leaders, what is it with these younger members, they just don’t care like we do” conversation takes place over and over again – usually among the veterans who won’t get out of the way and let the younger members move into positions of leadership.  George was always the one who recognized that the only way to get younger members involved was to invite them, to encourage them, to empower them.  My initial foray into any type of association involvement or leadership was in the late 90’s when George was the new EASFAA president, and he asked me to co-chair the Training Committee.  Nowadays, I’m one of the, uh, more mature members of the community who tries to encourage young’uns to broaden their horizons in the ways he encouraged me.

But George influenced my career in other important ways too.  We all learn financial aid in the weeds, from sweating the details.  Then we go to conferences and listen to federal updates and similar sessions and see a much broader perspective.  It would all sound like distant, detached government speak until someone like a George Chin would get up and tie it all together…that this grunt work we’re doing in our offices, one calculation, one email, one aid package, one student at a time, was all part of an important public policy decision that dates back generations by now…that America will be a stronger country if higher education isn’t just for those fortunate enough to have it all paid for without a worry by affluent parents. Financial aid exists not to give number crunchers some busy work, but to lift people out of poverty and into better lives.  It was George who inspired me to look at financial aid not just as helping one student at a time but also as public policy.  I would never have chaired federal relations committees, submitted written testimony to Congress, served on Negotiated Rulemaking committees or gotten involved in similar career highlights were it not for George.  And everyone who sees me step up to the microphone as soon as a presenter says “OK, we’ll open it up to questions now” and thinks to themselves “great, him again” has George to blame…or I would prefer, to thank.

But more important that the influence he’s had on the financial aid path I’ve chosen is that it’s been people like George who have kept decision makers – members of Congress, members of advisory committees, Department of Ed officials, and all of his colleagues – honest by reminding them what we’re doing this for.  Not for ourselves, not for our schools, but for students who are going to make this a stronger society by being better educated.

Our best tribute to George would be to encourage our colleagues to embrace their important roles in this thing we call financial aid and in all of the ASFAA’s, and to keep that pressure on those decision makers, now more than ever.  Rest in peace, my friend, our friend.

Now What?

I’m big on weekly to-do lists, there’s always one on my desk, typically on a white legal pad, and as I think of things that have to be done 2-3 weeks out, I scribble them down on a subsequent page. Included in the week of November 7 to-do list is “EASFAA blog – PSLF? DTR?”  I’m a loudmouth champion of PSLF, and DTR – Defense to Repayment – has been generating lots of chatter lately, and as I was on the Negotiated Rulemaking committee that worked with ED to create it, I figured either of those would be good topics to write on.

Yeah, maybe some other time.

Chances are that most of my colleagues who will read this are as stunned by the results of the Presidential election as I am; the ramifications are many and far-reaching, and there’s no point in discussing all of them in this forum (meet me at a bar and we can talk all night). But what will it mean for families who need financial aid?

Trump the candidate did not make college affordability a major theme of his campaign. There was a brief chat about returning student loans to the private sector (although whether he meant the FFEL model or removing the federal government from the student loan business completely was unclear) and tweaking existing income-driven repayment plans.  As is often the case with Republicans, there was talk of dismantling or shrinking the scope of the Department of Education and detail-free discourse about lowering college costs.  A little-known surrogate supposedly advising him on education policy made comments about how nonsensical it is to give students financial aid to study such silly things as English or History or Psychology or anything else that isn’t specifically designed as job training (I’ve always figured that if those fields were called Conservative Arts instead of Liberal Arts, the right would be far more supportive).

As I write this, Trump trails Clinton in the popular vote and can’t really be said to have a sweeping mandate, especially in a campaign in which “policy” was discussed at only the most superficial level. That said, I can’t be dishonest and say that I’m not worried about how the ugliest parts of his campaign seemed to swing the election.  The forces that Trump rode into town on hardly seem friendly towards helping those less fortunate, they have demonstrated no concern about social justice, and they view American higher education as a bunch of liberal elitist eggheads at best.  It’s not a stretch to predict that the years coming up will not be easy for students and families who need our help.

Those of us who have been in the business for, well, a long time, remember the Reagan years. They weren’t rosy.  Aggregate undergraduate loan limits were lowered midstream, forcing many students to leave school because their senior year loan was eliminated during their junior year.  We were introduced to verification and origination fees, two banes of both students’ and aid administrators’ existence 30 years later.  Costs rose and the Secretary of Education foolishly said that they were rising thanks to Pell Grants, even though there were years in which Pell awards were reduced.

Yet students kept going to college, and we were able to continue to help them. Innovations emerged, many of us found new ways to do things.  Wiser men than I have said that necessity is the mother of invention (cue “Peaches En Regalia,” and bonus points to anyone who gets that reference).  As a man much less wise than Plato (that would be me) has said, 2+2=4, but so does 3+1.  Maybe the blessing in disguise is that our profession will be forced to muster up new creativity and find new ways to help students.

In the meantime, traffic is probably getting busy along the I-95 corridor northbound through Maine. New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island…all lovely places.  You might be able to beat some of the traffic by taking Route 1, or try Route 3 through New Hampshire into Quebec.

Ramblings from the father of a college freshman

So I turned on the television yesterday and I learned that there was a presidential election coming up. Why is no one talking about this as it seems very important? My only hope now that news outlets are reporting on the election is that the candidates will run a positive, uplifting campaign.

I plan to review both candidates’ higher education proposals. As long as they don’t do anything earth shattering like use 2015 tax returns in 17-18 then I can handle it.

My sources are telling me this already happened and it’s called PPY.

What kind of a name is PPY anyway? It lacks a certain creativity. And why am I always the last to know?

Moving on.

I am pleased to start blogging again and I hope I have interesting things to share with you throughout the year. If they are not interesting, don’t despair. EASFAA is assembling a team of bloggers so surely the other writers will leave you entertained and/or informed.

I can only speak for myself here but you have my guarantee that I will not once, no matter how hard it is, mention the election or PPY. Consider this your safe space.

I have spent the better part of the last two decades working with students. I love what I do and I cannot imagine doing anything else. This last year was different though. I have a (gulp!) college freshman. Going through the college search has opened my eyes to all of the stresses that families experience on their way to finding the right fit. I suspect the experience will guide my future interactions and I hope make me a better financial aid professional.

In my house we talk a lot about making good choices and in the months leading up to move-in day we offered many pieces of advice to my daughter. I meant to write them all down in a beautiful, heartfelt letter to her but life got in the way. So forthwith I share my words of advice for new college students, sans the sugary exposition.

Fail…a lot!
Never go to a party alone.
Call your parents every week.
Learn to budget your time.
Be sensitive to your friends’ economic stations.
Find success in your failures.
Always leave a party with the friend you went with.
Call your parents every week.
When at a party, never leave your drink unattended! If you do, dump it and get another one.
Don’t spread yourself too thin. Instead, pick a few things you really love and commit to them.
Call your parents. Did I mention that one?
Make eye contact.
Give a firm handshake.
Take advantage of office hours.

What am I forgetting? Join the conversation by sharing your advice below.

See you in this space again soon.

Is There a Student Loan Crisis?

It’s become hard to pick up a newspaper (oops, age is showing) or go to a news site and not see an article about lives being destroyed by student loans or that they represent the new bubble that will soon burst. The citations are familiar: over a trillion dollars in student loans; low repayment rates among underemployed graduates; they’re responsible for tuition inflation (don’t get me started); Millennials who borrowed $250K to earn a PhD in 19th Century Greenlandic Philosophy and are now making pretty designs with the milk on cappuccinos at an artisan coffee shop in Bushwick.

That’s all much better click bait than “Student Loans Help People Continue Their Education and Lead Better Lives. And Most Borrowers Repay Them OK.”

Those who attended the NASFAA conference in 2015 will recall that when the question that gives this entry its title was put up for a vote and the “no” vote won, the backlash was swift; student loan activists who are struggling with their debt accused our profession of being some combination of oblivious, uncaring, greedy, and in general, the face of the problem. Many attendees voted yes, we do have a student loan crisis, but as the only response choices were yes and no, it perhaps obscured the thoughts of many that perhaps many individuals have their own student loan crises, but the nation does not.

Student loans have helped generations of students earn degrees that have led to higher paying careers and better lives. Even during periods of high default rates, most borrowers satisfactorily repay, and the current average debt of about $29,000 is only slightly more than I just spent on a Subaru. And no one has said the economy is going to collapse because of all of these Subarus.  A good education is a good thing to have, in our country it costs money, and student loans have been providing some of that money for decades.  Crisis?  Not if they’ve helped so many people.

So maybe yes/no is a matter of semantics, but that might be weak argument in an environment in which many have been promised a better life by continuing their education, only to see it all go wrong, with misrepresented claims, closed schools, no degree or career advancement, but plenty of student loan payments due. To someone who borrowed thousands of dollars for a bill of goods that turned out to be false but still carries burden of that debt, they’ve got a crisis on their hands no matter what meta-statistics anyone can cite.  Public opinion and public policy should both be formulated by facts and data, but we all know that they are too often informed instead by anecdotes and headlines.  If lots of people have very negative experiences with student loans, even if they’re in the minority, it can do irreparable harm to the program moving forward.

Where does the truth lie? What role do financial aid professionals play?  Are we subjecting a generation to too much debt?  What can we do to make sure that sensible borrowing remains – or becomes – the norm?

A Little Respect

I am the type of person who needs visual reminders.  When I have to remember something in the morning, I will hang a shoe from my bedroom door knob before I got to bed.  Then, when I see the shoe hanging from the knob the next morning, I remember why I put it there.   Most of the time, this technique works, and I avoid having to turn my car around and go home to retrieve my left-behind work laptop.  I also have (not so) tiny stacks of paper and files on my desk to serve as a visual reminder of what I have to do that day.

When I look up from my desk, the front of my office door is facing me.  On that door, at just about eye level, I have taped a strip of paper with the following words:

“Be useful, and be kind.”

This quote, attributed to President Obama, is placed there as a reminder to me; this is the type of colleague I want to be; this is the type of leader I want to be; this is the type of community member I want to be; this is the type of friend I want to be; this is the type of person I want to be.

There are days when I am utterly useless and, sadly, when I am not particularly kind.  So, I need the reminder.

Here’s the thing: I am not the only person who needs this reminder.  There are days when I wish I had stickers with these words emblazoned on them that I could just affix to people’s foreheads.  For example, this presidential election cycle has really challenged my belief it is even possible to be useful and kind – especially the kind part.    I feel like I can’t read the news, or watch TV, or listen to the radio, or look at social media, or overhear other people’s conversations and not just want to scream, “How hard is it not to be a jerk, you dummy?”  (Which is, of course, useless and unkind.  Also, my thought is edited for appropriateness.  The nouns are usually – um – stronger.)

I suspect I’m not alone.  It’s far too easy to get buried under the weight of useless negativity and bizarre discourtesy.

The good thing is I have reminders every day – both visual and not –  that all is not lost.  Being a part of an association like EASFAA continually reinforces my belief that people can actually be useful and kind.  Through the years, I have been able to rely on my EASFAA colleagues and friends for help, support, information, and commiseration.  As a new aid director, I am even more appreciative of the support system that comes along with my membership.  Whether it’s advice on where to find a copy of my cohort default rate letter for the auditors, or much needed reassurance that I will, in fact, not totally mangle my first FISAP, my EASFAA colleagues have been there for me.

I’m grateful to be part of an organization filled with thoughtful professionals who know how to be useful, and be kind – and who help hold me to the standard I have set for myself.