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Profiles in the Financial Aid Profession: Jeannie Gage & Joseph Ruiz, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi

August 3, 2010

Jeannie Gage, Director of Financial Aid, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi

Lou Murray: How long have you served in Financial Aid?

Jeannie Gage:  This August will be 10 years.  I’ve been with the University 21 years.

Joseph Ruiz:   I just celebrated four years in June.

Joseph Ruiz, Assistant Director of Financial Assistance, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi

Lou:  What is your job focus?

Joseph:  As Assistant Director of Financial Assistance, my focus is on customer service and doing everything to please my boss! I need to make sure we have a 90% or better call answer ratio [and] make sure the counter staff is keeping students satisfied.  I am also over outreach efforts and managing the staff that work with students on the front end, [the staff] that will end up passing things along to the processing team.

Jeannie:  I am the Director of Financial Aid.  My job focus is to make sure Joseph does his job.  I also have Tracie Perez who manages the processing team.  My job is to make sure things are flowing–the processes are working efficiently–while keeping up with Banner.  Our new set up is working out really good.

Lou: What makes Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi unique?

Joseph:  Location is #1.  We are the only university that sits on an island all to itself.  We are surrounded by water.  Although we are a semi-large university, we still have a 19:1 student-teacher ratio.  You are not just a number here.  Our professors know the students by name, not ID.  We’re large enough–around 10,000 in enrollment–but still able to keep things personal.

Jeannie:  In Financial Aid, we have had an open door policy where the students first come to our kiosk and then request to see an advisor.  Before, everyone was interrupted by working with students, so processing time was interrupted.  Now, we have a customer service area that devotes all its time to students, and then we have the area where things are getting processed simultaneously.  Things are getting done a lot quicker and students are happy no longer having to wait.  At the same time, the staff really only have to see a student when there is an issue.  We have things so automated and can serve well electronically.  With the three (3) people running the kiosk, we can answer Financial Aid, Admissions, and Registrar questions as a one-stop shop.  We try to give the students what they need at that counter rather than sending them back to other areas.  All three departments were able to triple our staff [with] this change.

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

Joseph:  We leave when the job gets done. You don’t have many “8:00 to 5:00-ers” here.  The group that has been developed gets satisfaction [from] producing quick turnarounds.  We are truly working for the student. 

Jeannie:  I am proud of our customer service.  All of the advisors have all been there as far as needing financial aid.   They know what it’s like being on that side.  We relate to our students well.  Most of our workers are actually students seeking higher education.

Lou: What has been the biggest challenge for your office over the past 12 months?

Jeannie:  Getting my carpet replaced (laugh).  Even though our DL transition has gone smooth, in the back of the mind you still wonder, “Is this really going to work?”  That in itself is kind of a challenge, but it ended up…awesome!

Joseph:  Yeah, that uncertainty was hard, but it went super smooth.  Minimal errors on the first download!  It was a nice surprise.

Jeannie:  Year-round Pell was not bad this year.  It increased enrollment and credit hours taken.  Last year, we awarded $323,000, and this summer alone is $1.2 million.  This summer it has been good, but next year funding…2010-2011… ask that question again.

Joseph:  It will be hard, as we have to determine if they have more eligibility left or if they are totally out.  Do we use this year’s EFC or next year’s EFC?  It will be a challenge, but hopefully Banner will make things smoother before we get to that.

Lou: Are there any primary or coming trends that you see in the financial aid office?

Jeannie:  We are seeing a lot more non-traditional students coming through.  Perhaps due to the economy, maybe our new doctoral and engineering programs we started.  I see more students coming back.  GI benefits with veterans are an increasing trend as well.  Our VA population has tripled.

Lou: Do you have any tips for schools that are transitioning to Direct Lending (or what has been helpful to you as you make the transition)?

Jeannie:  One of the challenges we are having right now is getting students to go on and do the new process.  The difficulty is that Accounting did not get involved with the trainings and conversations, or if they did it was minimal.  So now, they are having issues.  We didn’t go to those sessions, as we focused on the processing and on our perspectives.  As far as the drawing down of the funds, Accounting really needs to be involved in the whole transition, beginning to end.

Joseph:  When we started, we did it early and were proactive.  Not the case for Accounting.  So our advice to other schools: make sure Accounting is involved in the trainings, webinars, etc.

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?

Joseph:  In-person entrances. Telling the students and parents what they are getting themselves into is a must. We talk about the average borrower indebtedness, this is what you could incur in debt, etc.  Through our Center for Academic Student Achievement, we have set up vendors to come in with financial management. We try to identify at risk students and speak to those groups directly.  The largest default population is freshmen.  We have to get them as freshmen and send the message that they are responsible. Your life can be financially ruined (i.e., bad credit, no house, no car). We have moved to in person exits as well.

Jeannie:  Our center is very involved with students not making the grade. They try to help them make it to graduation.  We try to get the campus involved.

Lou: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Jeannie:  I wanted to be a dentist.

Joseph:  When I was a kid I wanted to be a lawyer.

Lou: What do you like most about your job?

Joseph:  I love helping people.  If I get the chance to help one person a day, it’s a great day.  I know I can’t help everybody, but I have to try.

Jeannie:  Just to see a parent of a student, maybe first generation. When they come in with intimidation, particularly the parents, you can tell they have never set foot on campus. Being able to talk a parent through it, calm them down, go over the options, and try to get them as much free money as we can. To reassure and make people feel like they belong here, it’s the best.

Lou: What is your favorite book?

Jeannie:  Ahhh… I just broke my Kindle ebook on the plane yesterday!

Joseph:  George Orwell, 1984.

Lou: What is your favorite movie?

Jeannie:   Little Women, Gone With the Wind.

Joseph:  My favorite comedy is Back to School.

Lou: What is your favorite food?

Jeannie:  Seafood. (Lobster!)

Joseph:  Chicken… any way it is made. Chicken!  I’m getting hungry!

Lou: What is your favorite TV show?

Jeannie:  House, CSI, Law & Order.

Joseph:  M.A.S.H.. I still DVR that show!

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

Jeannie:  I stain glass.

Joseph:  I fell off Mt. Bonnell.  I fell somewhere between 70-100 feet.  July 11, 1992, is a day that will live in infamy for the rest of my life.

Lou Murray, Southwestern Regional Director (TX, NM)

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