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Profiles in the Financial Aid Profession: Rob Sheridan, University of Houston-Downtown

June 7, 2010

Lou Murray and Rob Sheridan

Lou Murray: Fourteen years ago, while working for a local lender, the first school I visited was The University of Houston–my alma mater. You were the first Director I visited. I have had the pleasure of partnering with and learning from you ever since. Let’s go back even further. How long have you been in financial aid?

Rob Sheridan: I knew you were going to ask that! Let’s see… next month, I will be entering my 39th year. I started at Kent State University and then moved to University of Albuquerque. In 1979, I went to The University of Houston. I came to The University of Houston – Downtown (UHD) in 2005.

Lou: What is your title?

Rob: Executive Director of Special Projects and Financial Aid. To be clear, there is a Director of Financial Aid, which is Latosha Goudeau. I oversee Financial Aid (where I like to be somewhat hands on), which is about 70% of my time; the rest of my time is [devoted to] whatever the Vice President of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management wants me to manage. Some of those projects, for example, include establishing call center services, partnering with Higher One for disbursements, and so on. There are big projects. There are little projects. One of the things that UHD is beginning–starting next month–in addition to DL transition and year-round Pell, is the implementation of the financial aid aspect of Banner. So I’ll be working on implementation in June with a target rollout for the 2011-2012 year.

Lou: Wow. DL, year-round Pell, and a new system implementation. Good timing, huh?

Rob: Yeah, we have all kinds of things going on. Timing is like anything. It’s never a good time, and it’s never a bad time. You just have to go do it.

Lou: What would you say is your proudest accomplishment since you’ve been here at UHD?

Rob: We have done a lot in terms of the financial aid system: streamlining it, removing redundancies that didn’t make sense for the present time. We are able to award and deliver student aid far quicker than this institution has ever done. In fact, this year (2009-2010) we had two milestones: 1. This was the first time ever that UHD had over 10,000 recipients; 2. It was the first time we went over $100 million in awarding. Not to say this speaks of me–it may speak to the economy. UHD is historically an open-admission, 4-year institution. Most of our students are low income, first-generation. We are a Hispanic serving institution. Many of our students are non-traditional from the standpoint of being working adults, working part-time. We are pretty unique.

Lou: Talk about your staff here at UHD.

Rob: I think the financial aid staff here at UHD is a very good, loyal staff. They are hard working. They are student oriented, and I believe they are so much so because many of them are students. Some were students at UHD prior to getting their degrees. We have many current work-study students, and many work-study students have moved up in position. Several of the staff members are currently students, either here or elsewhere, working on undergraduate degrees or working on their master’s. So our office has a genuine concern for the well-being of students.

Lou: You mentioned some unique characteristics about your student body. Me being from Houston and knowing the downtown area, this is a unique campus.

Rob: Well, it’s a unique campus not only with the student body but also in physical nature. This is not the traditional horizontal campus you find throughout Texas, but vertical. Land is a big deal, and we have had to be creative…more vertical in growth. We just opened the College of Business building two years ago. They are talking about another building to host our sciences, but land is a problem for any campus that is located in the heart of a large urban area. Here land is at a premium, and to get land you are going to pay more than if you are more of a suburban or rural campus. That’s always a challenge. But, in regard to the economy, The University has done a tremendous job in terms of updating and keeping its physical plant current, modern, clean, standing. So we are currently striving to meet those challenges head on. We will keep building, but when and where I really don’t know. Dr. Flores (UHD President) is most proud of the diversity of the campus. This campus meets very distinct community needs. Our administration has grand ideas for this campus.

Lou: What would you say are the biggest trends that currently exist in financial aid?

Rob: I think the financial aid business has changed dramatically the last 3-4 years. A lot of it has been for the good and a lot of it the jury is still out on. As aggressive of an agenda as Congress has had–you know with year-round Pell, Direct Lending, etc., which, by the way, the year-round Pell Grant is far more complex than the Direct Lending situation–the bottom line is, I don’t think the federal government is going to be able to afford what they are attempting to do. I don’t think the money is there. You talk about savings in terms of the Direct Loan Program. Well, yes, there are some savings, but there are also costs. I think what you will see in a few years is every dollar that the federal government spends originating loans, even though Direct Loans is an off budget item, it still amounts to a dollar for dollar increase for the federal deficit. Some of it I applaud. I applaud some of the forgiveness options available. Repayment options that will be available have to be applauded. I just don’t know if it’s ever been truly measured, what it will all actually cost. At some point, the real costs are going to come out. Not arguing on it, just emphasizing there is a lot yet to be seen. The other thing is there is a complaint about how complex the FAFSA is. I don’t necessarily agree with that. If you read the instructions, they are pretty straightforward. The information is there. I think there have been a lot of changes to simplify the FAFSA, and I’m certainly not going to argue against them by any means, but the other side is that we are finding more and more students eligible for more and more dollars. Other than the increases in the Pell Grant program, there aren’t any increases to anything else. When you look at financial aid dollars, you have to look at the state level (not just Texas). State level dollars are drying up. Institutional dollars are drying up. Many institutional aid programs are the result of endowment earnings. Endowments, in the last couple of years, have taken dives. So what you may have is a more simplified FAFSA, with more students eligible, but eligibility and the wording are not necessarily running the same thing. You may have students eligible, but minimal dollars with unmet need is going to be the increasing reality of the world.

Lou:  What are your predictions regarding how things will be in the “DL World”? Easier?

Rob: Come July 1, when the flood gates open, it is going to be interesting to see what happens. As a servicer, managing your own portfolio in FFELP, there are millions of kids out there that will still have FFELP. They are going to be caught up in this whole DL thing, and it will be true for the next several years. Unless they consolidate, they will be split borrowers. A borrower will have in their mind, “I paid on my loan,” forgetting they have a loan somewhere else. In their mind, they handled their responsibility. We saw this in the FFELP world too, but not nearly like it will be now. There are still a lot of questions in regard to how loans can and will be serialized. How borrowers might be assigned to the servicers remains to be seen. Lots of questions to be answered. July 1 is only a day. There are a number of issues–important issues–that are going to have to happen, in the next year in particular but also in the next several years.

Lou: Do you have any tips for schools that are transitioning to Direct Lending or things that have been helpful for you?

Rob: The switch to DL involves two things. One is process. You have to look at your own FAM system. How did it work in FFELP and how will it work in DL?  Schools have to realize that we will have more functional responsibility in DL then we did in FFELP. At least in Texas, it’s a no-brainer. Our guarantor has to be complimented for being so forward thinking for years, developing products not just for now but in the future. Many other industry partners made things easy. So the first thing is the process. How is it going to look? Are you going to need more staff? We hired an additional staff member for loans. We’ll have to use staff in more creative ways. The other side is how are you corresponding with students? Are you giving pre-warning to the changes or throwing them into the fire? Are you sending messaging or simply new awarding that doesn’t have FFELP but now reads DL? Will you tell them, “You are going to do ‘A’,’B’,’C’,’D. And, in the end, your loan situation will look like __.”? Are you pointing them to federal websites? We took the approach early on to tell them it is coming. We have multiple correspondences scheduled at different times.

Lou: This next question is a fun one. Who within the financial aid community has been your mentor? I think it’s fun one because I have had several FA leaders point to you as their mentor.

Rob: Actually, I have had mentors. Unfortunately, they are all deceased. When I was at Kent State, the Director of Financial Aid was a gentleman by the name of Bill Johnson. The Associate Director was George Webber. Both were retired military. I learned more from both of those guys then, I think, than I’ve ever learned from any classroom. The third person that I must really consider a mentor is Jack O’Hearn, who was the Regional Director for The College Board in Austin. He was also the author of several books on financial aid. He was a mentor of overall higher education, a gentleman, and a scholar.

Lou: Where do you think schools should focus their efforts with regard to default prevention strategies given the industry’s move to a 3-year CDR model?

Rob: In general, schools need to look at their packaging philosophy and try as much to minimize the loan distribution. I say that recognizing that loans will remain the name of the game. But I think if you can give a student a reasonable package, in terms of grant and or scholarship assistance, that student will hopefully and realistically assess how much they really need to borrow, as opposed to how much they were awarded in terms of loans. Now, I say that having the luxury of being the second cheapest state institution in Texas in terms of tuition and fees. Most of our students are commuters, so we don’t have a high cost of residency situation. Institutions that have higher cost…well, the challenge becomes even greater.

Secondly, the idea is not a loan default model, per se, but a financial literacy model. I’ve argued that for over 10 years, when we first created The Council for Education and Finance. It’s interesting that Texas has passed, in terms of statute, some financial literacy requirements for K-12. How far they have been implemented leaves a lot to my imagination. UHD has an Institute for Financial Literacy that will begin new projects soon. We are excited about it.

The third thing is that communication with the student–from their institution, the lender, the servicer–is all vitally important. This will be more important than ever with the transition to DL. That transition does not end on July 1. This transition doesn’t end for several years.

Lou: Now the fun stuff…when you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Rob: A cowboy! I wanted to be a cowboy.

Lou: Really, a cowboy?

Rob: Yeah, I wanted to be a cowboy!

Lou: You mean it wasn’t an Executive Director of Special Projects and Financial Aid?

Rob: No, Lou, as a matter of fact, some people claim that God and I sat on a curb together one day and figured out that there should be financial aid people.

Lou: Yeah, okay. I would believe it, actually. What do you like most about your job?

Rob: Working with people. Whether it’s students, parents, colleagues, I like to be a people person. I have found absolute joy in all of those relationships.

Lou: At your level, do you continue to interact with students and parents very much?

Rob: Yes, I do. Heck yes, I do! I told you–I’m hands on! I still see parents; I still see students. Now not as much as I did formerly, but it’s important.

Lou: What is your favorite book?

Rob: Whatever I am reading at the time. I love to read, but I don’t have an answer.

Lou: What is your favorite movie?

Rob: I think Legends of the Fall is one of my favorite movies.

Lou: What is your favorite television show?

Rob: I don’t really watch TV. In the fall, I watch football (Texans, Steelers and Ohio State).

Lou: What is your favorite food?

Rob: Everything I’m not allowed to eat! (I guess most pasta dishes.)

Lou: Name one thing that many people do not know about you.

Rob: That I am shy.

Lou Murray, Southwest Regional Director (NM, TX)

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