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.

Great Column by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times – Is a Hard Life Inherited?

In the August 10, 2014 issue of the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof has a great column regarding the lack of empathy as a factor in the lack of progress in helping the less fortunate. The link to the column -

Within the column, he has a few comments which are pretty good sound bites, one which stands out is “Too often wealthy people born on third base blithely criticize the poor for failure to hit home runs.”

This statement in the current day reinforces Lyndon Johnson’s historic statement about equality made in an address at Howard University in 1965, “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race and then say ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”

As Kristof discusses the effect of background and environment on the lives of people, he correctly asserts “In effect we have a class divide on top of a racial divide, creating a vastly uneven playing field,and one of its metrics is educational failure.”

I hope readers who are in a position to foster and enable changes in governmental and institutional policy finish with two of the takeaways I had – We should not, in light of recent judicial decisions about affirmative action assume that the proponents of using class as a substitute factor to ensure diversity are correct – both class and race are essential elements to creating a diverse environment on campus, and that providing adequate support services to students is essential to attaining the national graduation goals – a strategy of recruiting and admitting only those who are already at third base to meet the prescribed metrics will surely leave the outcome short of the national goal even if the metrics are sensitive to the academic preparation of the enrolled students.



Finally, A Well Known Policy Person Sees the Light

In this morning’s New York Times (January 9, 2014), David Kirp has an Op Ed piece titled How to Help College Students Graduate.

He highlights an issue that I characterize as institutional efforts to implement systems and processes that are “High Tech, No Touch”, pushed by a drive for efficiency and modernization. I contend that in many instances students still need high touch processes and environments, particularly in the case of low income and less adequately prepared students in the academic, social and behavioral sense. The distinction between efficiency and effectiveness often gets blurred by institutions and many policy analysts by thinking what is efficient will be effective. Efficiency is usually driven by a focus on spending less per unit of production while effectiveness should be measured by improvement in outcomes. Often, the fiscal administrators push the efficiency aspect to reduce costs and focus on a return on investment argument.

In the context of a drive to increase college graduates, it must be recognized that it will cost more per degree for certain students. Dr. Kirp points to the ASAP initiative at CUNY as an example of the success that can be attributed to a more supportive structure. What needs to be recognized is that it is an initiative which contains a number of approaches that have proven to improve outcomes on a standalone basis. Of course when a multiple number of these approaches are rolled up into a program, the outcomes will be demonstrably favorable. However, if one looks at the components of the program, high touch is an important aspect, as well as adequate financial support for the students. The academic approaches include block programming and learning community structures. The outcome is a vastly improved graduation rate for the cohorts of students in the program, 56% for the program participants as opposed to 23% for a similar cohort not enrolled in the initiative.

Success comes at a price. As a pilot initiative, it is not terribly difficult to devote resources to support the services since the costs can be controlled and defined by the size of the experimental cohorts. Scaling the effort up will be expensive as the initial assessments of the program show it is significantly more expensive per student per year. The trade off is the effectiveness in degree production in the current timeframe which graduation rates are calculated. The critical question is whether higher education and its funding sources are willing to spend the money needed to make a comprehensive approach the norm rather than a nice experiment with good outcomes. Will effectiveness be acknowledged?





As articles appeared about the Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty legislation which “averted the doubling of the interest rate”, we saw quotes from Washington based analysts and lobbyists which essentially said “market based rates are more predictable and understandable for students.”

Really?, Compared to what?

Now, we, who work in financial aid, understand that the parameters of the fix was driven by budget considerations given that the prior one year fix to keep the subsidized rate for undergraduates at 3.4% was a $6 billion cost item which was partially offset by the 150% program length provision for subsidized loans with savings of $1.2 billion. So, to get at a near budget neutral fix, we ended up with a market rate based rate pegged to the bond yield of 10 Year T-Bills for the last auction prior to June 1 for the academic year. As part of the finagling to get to budget neutrality, though to be technical – the fix ended up scored as a $715 million savings over a ten year period, each component of the program has a different add on to the T-Bill rate and a different cap on the rate. The timing of the setting of the rate leaves new students guessing about the rate for their loans in the upcoming Fall and the admissions staff are pulling their hair out as the financial aid office tells them they can’t give them a rate to put in their recruitment materials for the following Fall. Do we really think students will intuitively understand a program with three different interest rates and three different caps on the rate, a different rate for each year’s loans, and the rates are not known until two months before enrollment for the fall term?

Predictability?, even Nobel Prize winning economists can’t accurately forecast the rates in the current environment where the rates can fluctuate 50 basis points in a week when Ben Bernanke coughs while he is talking about when the Federal Reserve will begin to taper the quantitative easing effort. The yield, for purposes of setting the loan rates, was 1.81% in May but here we are, five month later, and the yield is around 2.7%.In fact, by the time the bill was passed in July, and signed into law in August, the yield was around 2.7%. Between August and now, the yield peaked at around 3%. Can anyone, much less students, really guess what it will be in May, 2014 when the rates have to be set for the 2014-15 year?

Wouldn’t a program with a fairly low fixed rate be more understandable and predictable?

Ah, but that would require some acknowledgment that the federal student loan program is a social program and that it would be appropriate to spend to make an investment rather than think of the programs in a capital market sense – the notion of considering market rates is an artifact from the FFEL program which had a yield to the lenders based on market rates so they could make money. Can we really expect this Congress to understand the difference?


Old Irascibles

So, how did the label of the Old Irasciibles for the old past presidents as bloggers come about?

When the concept of having some older past presidents become regular bloggers was raised by Brian, the idea of labeling them the Grumpy Old Men was floated, given the three past presidents approached about the blog fit that description.

Upon further thought, there was acknowledgement that Brian might ask woman Past Presidents to be regular contributors to the blog, so categorizing the bloggers as grumpy old men would be a little bit of a problem.

Then, there was a recollection of a session at a conference where some of the papers from the Gates Foundation RADD project were discussed and one of the papers was produced by a group, generally representing younger graduates, called the Young Invincibles. Shirley Ort, one of the panelists, quipped that in juxtaposition some of us in the room could be classified as old irasicibles.

So, thanks to Shirley’s quick wit, we have begun to refer to us, for purposes of this blog, as the Old Irascibles. Now, perhaps we won’t meet the dictionary definition which implies a certain amount of anger, but I’m sure some of our commentary will have a degree of sharpness and perhaps disagreement with some of the conventional wisdom floated by today’s leading higher education commentators or prognosticators who perhaps haven’t lived long enough to remember the history and context of the purpose of student aid – or worse, have the arrogance to think they may know it all without consideration of history, philosophy, or real experience.

Not all of us are chronologically ancient, but certainly have been engaged in the financial aid world for a while to perhaps offer perspectives that reflect a significant commitment to the principles of equity and equality the aid programs are supposed to support in providing opportunity for students.

We hope you will read and respond – whether you agree or not – after all, we live in a democracy where different viewpoints should be tolerated and the sharing of them will have all of us develop a broader perspective.