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Profiles in the Financial Aid Profession: Anne Walker, Rice University

July 19, 2010

Anne Walker, Director of Student Financial Services, Rice University

Lou Murray: How long have you served in financial aid?

Anne Walker: Twelve years.  I started at Brazosport College.  I was at TG (Texas Guaranteed) for five years.  I have been at Rice University for three years.  

Lou: You and I met in 2000 when you were implementing FFELP at Brazosport College, and now here you are fresh from implementing Direct Lending. Which one was easier to do? 

Anne: Probably Direct Lending, and we were surprised. One gets into that FFELP mindset. When that’s all you know, and you’re first getting into DL, it’s almost like learning a different language. So we visited Roosevelt University, in Chicago, because they are a Banner school like us. We talked with other schools already in DL–but [they] did not have the context of FFELP–on how to get us to transition or think differently from FFELP.  That’s why we chose Roosevelt.  They were great.  They helped us really understand the differences in the programs.  Of course it was scary, brand new, and appeared to be overwhelming.  We made the choice to do our spring-only loans as Direct.  We felt it was a good test population before we did the fall enrollment which is definitely much larger. We did around 150-200 loans.  At Rice, we’re a very traditional school, so we weren’t going to have a ton of loans in the spring. 

We learned a lot, especially on the reporting end… reconciling.  You really want to reconcile as you go; you really don’t want to wait until the end of the year.  As you know, in FFELP, many schools don’t reconcile that way and it’s a struggle.  There’s money going back and forth with so many different lenders–that was always real difficult.  

We have found the transition, although not perfect or without mistakes, to be really smooth.  It wasn’t too difficult, and now that we’re using DL it’s so much easier.  We’re not worrying about 15-20 entities getting money to us, lenders dropping out, or the question of whether or not money is going to show up.  It has gone well, and we have been very happy with the service we’ve received from DOE.  We’ve heard horror stories and we have not experienced that.   Whoever we have called from the department, from the very beginning, has bent over backwards to help us.   When you think about it, we were not early adopters, nor were we part of the last group to implement… we were somewhere in the middle.  However, every person we’ve worked with has been professional, and if they haven’t had the answer, they have gotten it to us very quickly.  It has been a pleasant surprise.  

Lou: You mentioned reconciling…do you have any other tips for schools that are transitioning to Direct Lending? 

Anne: We had the luxury in that we decided to hop on a little early and visit with another school that had gone through it.  We really picked their brains.  Schools transitioning at the last-minute probably don’t have that opportunity.  It took a year of planning on our part, making sure our systems were working, making sure Banner was were it needed to be, obtaining a solid understanding of the program.  We learned the DL language:  there is “booking a loan” as opposed to “disbursement rosters”.  

Lou: When I started in financial aid 14 years ago, Rice University was DL and was one of the later schools in Texas to convert to FFELP.  Now, Rice has transitioned back to DL.  How did administration approach the back and forth between the loan programs?  

Anne: I think the folks that were here in that DL world are all gone, with the exception of maybe 1-2 people upstairs.  The biggest concern I heard from our administration was, “If we need to go, are you ready?”  When we went from DL to FFELP we never took DL off of our participation agreement.  It was a no-brainer to get it all set up and ready to go, as far as COD and DOE goes.  It was a matter of getting Banner right, gaining an understanding of the process, reports, and how to verify funds.  There is a ton of reporting, probably more so in FFELP, to figure out.  

We have not heard from families for the upcoming fall.  We’ve sent e-mail blasts, updated our web page, and a lot of communication has been put out indicating change.  I suspect once they get our latest letter we’ll get a lot of calls this summer. That’s the case any time there is change.  The bottom line is we didn’t have a choice.  We had to go DL.  The best we can do is to try our hardest to communicate with the families.  

Lou: Do you have any thoughts concerning the multiple servicer format?  

Anne: Fortunately, here at Rice, we have a .2% default rate.  Our students pay their loans back.  However, when we have a student that has been in FFELP with multiple servicers (worst case scenario), and are now Direct (possibly adding another servicer), and then go to grad school (because a lot of our students go to graduate school), they could end up with 3-5 different servicers.  That is really going to affect how well they are going to pay back their loans.  I suspect, as we move down the road, we will see an increase in our default rate .  We have mentally prepared for that possibility.  We are fortunate that default is not a huge concern for us.  

I do think it’s an issue.  We (schools) should be working in partnership with the servicers.  It would be nice if we had some sort of preferred servicer list so we can do our best to keep loans together with servicers we know will do a good job.  We have families coming in from all over the country with loans at a number of servicers.  

I really feel like everyone will work through this.  DOE has responded quickly to changes with the PLUS Loan process, when we were used to a borrower-initiated process and it wasn’t available.  They responded very quickly, and by the spring that option was available.  I strongly feel that, from the top down, there will be motivation on the DOE side to work in the best interest of the families.  It’s where we need to be concentrating our efforts.  This has to be more about a team/collaborative/cooperative effort with schools and DOE.  If we, as schools, servicers and DOE, can look at it this way, instead of quarrelling with one another, this is one of those wrinkles that will be worked out.  

Lou: Where should default prevention efforts be focused given the industry’s move to a 3-year CDR model? 

Anne: With a low rate, such limited access to students, and being as automated as we are, we are unique.  With a .2% default rate, there is not a strong motivation to make a ton of changes for default prevention.  We are paperless and so automated that are counselors are freed up to have a one-on-one conversation with the family.  We only package a small subsidized loan.  We cover the rest with institutional aid and work-study.  If a family needs additional unsubsidized or PLUS loans, that’s a conversation that they have with their financial aid counselor.  That process is not so automated.  Even if they go out and request a DL loan we question the family: “What are you trying to accomplish by obtaining additional funds?”  I’m sure that does not happen at every office.  Most schools don’t have the luxury of packaging like we do.  

Lou: Let’s switch channels for a second.  What’s your job focus? 

Anne: I work for the Vice President of Enrollment.  So my focus is making sure that everybody that needs financial aid at Rice is getting it and that the process is smooth.  The other part of my job is closely focused on matriculating the incoming class.  Admissions is out there starting the next class, pounding the pavement.  When those students are ready to make the decision to come to Rice, their financial aid better be in place.  We have to support the good work that Admissions does.  I am very much a part of that Enrollment team.   We talk about how much we are going to spend on merit aid; how much need-based institutional aid we’ve awarded; what does this class look like compared to last year’s class; do we anticipate a “needier” class?  So, I run the FA shop and work to get the freshman class matriculated and funded properly.  

Lou: What is it like working for such a unique private university vs. a public university? 

Anne: It is nice to be at a traditional school.  There is so much that the big publics have to worry about that we don’t.  We are small.  When you look at Rice compared to our colleagues (similar schools), we’re the smallest.  We have grown substantially.  We’ll peak out around 960 per class.  Four years ago we were at 780 per class.  

We are a research institution.  We are highly selective.  There are not a lot of schools like us.  Maybe on the east coast, like the Ivy League schools, but there are not many schools like Rice. 

But we struggle just like the publics as far as resources.  I envy those big schools that have their own IT help, bringing up Banner.  We just don’t have those kinds of resources.  But we do things very, very well given the resources we do have.  We are different in that we don’t get as much state money as the state schools do, so my reporting to the state is minimal. That’s good and bad, as I wish we had more money.  A lot of those programs, like teacher-forgiveness–well, we don’t have an education program here.  We have fewer programs to administer, but we have our institutional dollars, which is our biggest program–our money.  It gives us a lot of freedom and the ability to fund differently. 

We’re unique. When you look at colleges across the country–over 2,700–there are probably only 50 that are need blind and cover 100% of unmet need.  While there are schools like us on the east coast, we’re the only one like this in Texas or the southwest.  There are only a handful of schools west of the Mississippi that do what we do.  Although we are extremely selective, we don’t look at the student’s ability to pay when we are admitting those students.  There are not many schools that can do that.  

Lou: How has the economy affected Rice University? 

Anne: We did have some budget cuts and a hiring freeze for a period of three months but no layoffs.  So we came off relatively well.  We did not increase the value of the scholarships, but we did raise tuition.  The bigger impact for us is how the families have been affected by the economy.  It has increased our workload.  So, although we didn’t take any cuts, our workload increased, and we still feel short-staffed.  Our families have a lot more going on financially on the negative side than they did two years ago.  We have more exceptions now, special circumstances, appeals, etc. 

Lou: What are you most proud of regarding your financial aid office? 

Anne: These guys work hard and do so as a team.  I definitely have some superstars, but ALL of them are strong.  It’s kind of like the students at Rice: they all come in as the best of their class and, all of a sudden, they seem average because they’re put with a bunch of smart kids.  That’s kind of how I see my staff.  I’ve been fortunate with the hires I’ve made. They all came in at the top of their game.  They are smart.  They are overachievers.  They take their jobs seriously, and they care about their students.  We do a lot more hand holding through our advising and counseling.  We have the process part in control in order to offer that to our students.     

Lou: Are there any special projects going on? 

Anne: Getting Banner upgraded and the DL transition are our “biggies.” 

Lou: Biggest challenge? 

Anne: Staffing is my biggest challenge.  I would love to have 1 or 2 more people.  We did go to a new imaging system that has allowed us to go completely paperless.  Of course, trying to predict how things will go with DOE can be a challenge, particularly in the level of customer service that students have received.  

Lou: Who within the financial aid community would you consider to be a mentor?  

Anne: I don’t know if I would use the word “mentor,” but I rely heavily on colleagues that I feel I can talk to about anything as far as staffing, financial aid, and packaging.  I would say locally, here in Texas, Lynda McKendree at The University of St. Thomas and Scott Moore at Houston Community College.  But I would say that when I look at schools that look like Rice, Daniel Barkowitz, who used to be at MIT, now at Columbia University.  For those really tough questions that relate to schools like Rice, that guy is smart as a whip and willing to share his knowledge freely.  

Lou: Growing up you wanted to be… a Director of Financial Aid? 

Anne: Well, no.  In college I thought I wanted to do marine science but got bored. I majored in women’s studies and wanted to be a writer.  I was going to be the next great feminist writer! 

Lou: What do you like most about your job?  Commuting in the Houston traffic? 

Anne: No, not the commute!  I have a great staff.  It’s been nice to work in an office with a great staff versus traveling like I did prior to Rice.  I work at such a great institution.  I don’t know if there’s another place to go. 

Lou: What is your favorite book? 

Anne: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.  

Lou: What is your favorite movie? 

Anne: The Godfather

Lou: What is your favorite television show?  

Anne: Dancing with the Stars

Lou: What is your favorite food? 

Anne: Shrimp. 

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

Anne: I have moved 13 times in my life. 

Lou Murray, Southwest Regional Director (TX, NM)

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