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Profiles in the Financial Aid Profession: Ralph Perri, Texas A&M University-Kingsville

October 25, 2010

Ralph Perri, Director of Financial Aid, Texas A&M University-Kingsville

Lou Murray: How long have you been serving in Financial Aid?

Ralph Perri: I have been in financial aid for 23 years.  My first three years were as a work-study student.  As of April 1, I have been a professional staffer for 20 years:  1987-2001, I was at the University of Houston (UH); 2001-2004 at The University of Louisiana at Monroe; 2004-2007, back at UH, and since [2007], I have been at Texas A&M University–Kingsville.

Lou: What is your job focus as Director of Financial Aid?

Ralph: I am a “hands-on” Director.  Because I am at a smaller institution, I can have a little more control with a high sense of motivation.  To deliver aid to students, timely,  in an efficient manager to the eligible needy students, that is my mission.  I get very involved on the technical side–the funds management, packaging–while delegating responsibilities to the staff.  I am high on compliance, separation of functions, and customer service.  From the time I became a Program Coordinator at UH (1994-2001), I have been very tech-minded, enjoying working with systems.  It allowed me to learn the other side of things.  I started out in customer service, so I saw a lot of things that I felt could be improved, for the customer service side, by streamlining systems.  Once I became a Quality Control Officer, I really dealt with compliance and operational functions.  As I moved to an Assistant Director position, I was able to work hands on with system programmers and study the nuts and bolts of systems.  The opportunity to bring up a new system in 1999-2000 was probably the most I learned in financial aid.

Lou: What makes Texas A&M University–Kingsville and your office unique?

Ralph: Here, in South Texas, the challenge is the large number of students that are on financial aid.  Low income households are high.  We are not a UH, UT, or Texas A&M, which might have 50% of the students on aid.  We are 80% on aid; 65% of that 80% is Pell-eligible.  There are a large number of zero EFC’s, so the biggest challenge here is making sure students take care of things early so that they have the money available when the bill is due.  There is usually no other means for them.  If kids don’t know what their financial aid package is and are not done early, then they are not looked at for all aid programs.  I highly emphasize early awareness here.  We work with high schools and stay proactive by going to them before they come to us.  We have implemented a lot of FAFSA programs which have really increased our numbers, from students meeting priority deadlines to the number of students we are packaging. 

Our packaging philosophy is making sure [we are] spreading out money among the masses and not giving high awards to a small population.  When looking at SEOG, TPEG, D-Regulated grants–how can I spread it out and give students less reliability on loans?  It is a challenge.

From a small city environment of 25,000 people, with 6,000 being on campus, the community really knows and relies on us.  It’s not like a big institution where you have 50-60 staff.  We are more like a small family.  We are a staff of 15 who have, on average, all worked here 10-12 years.  Some of my staff even went to high school together.  A lot of them are Kingsville graduates.  So, we know each other.  From a small office perspective, the knowledge base is greater, as everyone has to learn everything.  We are able to rotate responsibilities.  It makes for a more rounded office rather than a large duty-segregated office.  We have great back up capability. 

Lou: Any other things that you are proud of with your financial aid office?

Ralph: For summer, I have already awarded $4.9 million compared to $2.6 [million] last year.  Loan wise, $2.9 [million] compared to $1.9 [million].  We’ve been doing massive [numbers of] phone calls because of the shut down of FFELP.  We are already fully tested in DL, processing a few [loans] for summer for the late students.  My Loan Coordinator, Catherine Montalvo, is doing very well with the DL transition.  I’ve been impressed.

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

Ralph: We are assisting with bringing up Texas A&M University-San Antonio, so having to run multiple campuses and working on the transition/separation plan for 3-4 years down the line is probably my biggest [challenge].  I spent a lot of time in Banner separating processes by campus. 

Other major challenges have been dealing with summer processing, two Pell programs, and the implementation of DL.  Major changes are upon us in financial aid that I haven’t seen in 20 years.  Pell is going to be more difficult than DL.  DL will be a smoother program, from a funding standpoint, if we do our job in communicating with students.  From a processing and reconciliation standpoint, Pell is going to be the major challenge in deciding what is what (i.e., the Pell crossover, progression, policy, etc.).

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

Ralph: Universities are going to rely on more technical tools to reach students.   It is difficult for the smaller schools to do those things when you are looking at funding.  We should have our new university webpage up in a month.  How we can use that new tool to add new features is the question. 

As far as communication, I utilize enrollment management tools to run campaigns to inform students of new processes, where I am not using my FAS system to do that.  My enrollment management system and FAS are working together.  It’s not just Admissions and Recruitment using that software, but we are getting other offices to use that same service, doing the same thing, so students get the same look.  I have about 10-15 campaigns going on in a year.  We are huge on communication.  We saturate [the students with] information–they might get too much information, but I don’t want to hear they are not getting anything at all.

These quick trends, like text messaging, Facebook, etc….kids don’t want you messing with their text messages.  Do they want you messing with their Facebook, which is their means for communicating with family and friends?  School portal?  A kid will check it but may not want you in their private environment.  I still think that e-mail is the driving avenue.  It cuts cost, it gets to kids, and it has the means to audit.  You can see if they get the e-mail and read it.

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

Ralph: Schools have to work closely with their vendors.   You have to make sure you have dotted every “i” and crossed every “t” to make sure the file system setups are perfect.  Quality control, for example:  you might have a discrepancy in grade level, which in FFELP would error out.  If you awarded a kid as a sophomore but he was a freshman, it would error out and not process and you can clean it up.  In DL, it will originate in a zero dollar value.  This is an example of knowing your processes…how the entrance process works, how the MPN process works.  With the new data files from DOE, what business practices are put in place to update the system?  I hired a Banner consultant to come in and review everything we did to make sure we didn’t miss anything.  It was beneficial for the consultant to be here when we did a live test.  I would rather call the vendor directly than to call another school for advice.  I want that technical conversation with the maker of the product.

Lou: Who within the financial aid community has been your mentor?

Ralph: Robert Sheridan, presently at the University of Houston-Downtown.  He took me under his wing while I was young.  I remember when I was seeking my first Director position, Rob said, “The phone is always there.”  I said, “Don’t worry. I’ll be calling all the time.”  He replied, “No you won’t.”  And, pretty much, he was right.  He taught me a lot.  There were issues that we talk about, but when it came to understanding FA processes or how to run an office, I learned a lot.

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?

Ralph: I want to see what is going to happen with the transition.  I want students to know where their loans are.  Will I really have a relationship with all four servicers or will all my originations go to a specific servicer, which would be easier?  I know I would like to have a lot of direct communication with the servicers.  The Feds already own 75% of FFELP.  Now, some of these kids are going to have to deal with multiple servicers.  How is it going to work to bring all these loans together?  Do we force students to do the DL consolidation?  Are we going to do some type of proactive consolidation process to combine FFELP and DL loans so the kids have their loans in one place?  This is a real concern as you start dealing with default rates.

Lou: What do you like most about your job?

Ralph: Working with students.  Giving them opportunity and access… bottom line.  It is the high of my job.  All the[demands]–accountability, reports–can stress you out.  But when you sit with a family and know you affected them, that’s the highest high.

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

Ralph: I grew up in a blue-collar household. I figured I’d be running a construction contracting company with my dad.

Lou: What is your favorite book?

Ralph: Mike Krzyzewski has some good stuff.  Also John Wooden.  I like books about developing leadership, management, and coaching young people.  I like to see myself as a “player’s coach.”

Lou: What is your favorite movie or food?

Ralph: The Sting.

Lou: What is your favorite food?

Ralph: Lasagna.

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

Ralph: That I am “Rock.”  Growing up, those close to me called me “Rock.”  My nickname as a UH athlete was “Rock.”  I’m a different person as “Rock” than Ralph.

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