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Profiles in the Financial Aid Profession: Delisa Falks & Bridgette Ingram from Texas A&M University

September 27, 2011

If you have never stepped foot on the campus of Texas A&M University, you’ll quickly notice that there is something different about this place. I sat down with two financial aid leaders to talk about “Aggie Pride”, individual growth & leadership, and how change in the office can be scary, yet necessary to adapt to an ever-changing industry. Whoop! – Lou Murray, Regional Director

Delisa Falks, Executive Director at Texas A&M University

Lou:  Well, Howdy!  How long have you been in FA and how long have you been at Texas A&M?

Bridgette:  I was a work-study, at Blinn College, and then transferred to Texas A&M University, working outside of financial aid.  In 2001, I came back to financial aid eventually ended up as the Assistant Director, at Blinn College.   Then, in 2004, I landed here, at Texas A&M.  So, counting work-study, I have around 13 years in financial aid.

Delisa: I’ve been in for 23 years, going on 24… all right here. When I came here I had no idea what financial aid was all about. Just started at an entry level position and never stopped working.

Lou: From entry levels to exec-levels. Time flies, huh? What is your job focus?

Delisa: My job focus now, as Executive Director, is more global with oversight of the Scholarships & Financial Aid Office as a whole. I also oversee sponsored-student programs, which is different from financial aid. I work with international students who are being sponsored by their government, or by a corporation in another country. So, my focus is not so much on the day-to-day operations. That’s really Bridgette who has a whole focus on the office. However, I also directly manage scholarships and compliance.

Bridgette: My new role, as Director, consists of the operations. I work with our customer service team, advising, student employment, Money-Wise Aggie (the financial literacy program), marketing, training, veteran services and operations. The transition to Direct Loans was a big focus. Customer service will always be a focus.

Lou: Are you able visit with students yourself, at your level?

Delisa: I do, on occasion. Primarily, because of two things: the Terry Scholarship – I am the contact/coordinator on campus. Because it’s a high profile program, I will work with those students and parents, throughout their development. I will also address various other issues that may rise up through the chain of command (which are few and far between). Our upper administration in the office is able to stay focused on current tasks and goals, as we have other staff, financial aid advisors, and assistant directors that are very capable to work through any situation.

We processed roughly 514 million dollars in aid last year. We have a record enrollment of over 50,000. From the perspective of the number of dollars to the number of students we serve (with 80% of students on some type of financial aid), yes, we have a lot of automation, but there is a lot to do. When you are running that many financial aid records through automated systems, there are a number exception rosters to sort through for different things. There is never any down time because there is always something we are working on, something to tweak, regs to learn or other campus entities to assist. With an office this size, there is just a lot of volume, in regards to managing processes.

LOU:  It sounds like, in your office, peak season is year round.

Delisa: We definitely have a peak – we start in February. What we consider “major peak” is February through the 12th class date of the fall semester. The summer is peak. I have people ask, “Aren’t ya’ll off for the summer?” Summer is the busiest time of the year. We have two new student conferences a week with over 500 students/parents coming through here – not to mention phone calls. It’s nothing for us to get over 10,000 phone calls a month and a lot are coming from that February through 12th class date. But, once the 12th class arrives, we’re not done. There’s clean up to do, and immediately planning for the next school year start up.

Bridgette: We start loading FAFSA’s as soon as we can, in March. We start awarding in late March, where others may wait closer to June. “Down time” in the Fall is really gearing up time for the next year. It’s September now and we’re already recruiting for ’12-’13. Admission letters have already started going out, with first round of scholarship offers immediately following.

Bridgette Ingram, Director, Texas A&M University

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

Delisa: I am most proud of what are staff does in relation to customer service. It’s understood among the entire staff that we want excellent customer service. After all, there’s only one financial aid office on campus so we must be provide quality customer service. The other thing is the dedication of this staff. Most of the people that work here have a high level of responsibility. They can understand and appreciate the intensity and importance of what we do. I’m also proud of the automation and the IT support we have that is critical to our operations.

Bridgette: I’m proud of the people in our office – our team. When I think in terms of my career, and our office surviving it, I am really proud our Banner implementation. It was a huge project for a school this size. Now we can say it’s in the past, we’ve moved on, and are building things with Banner. We had an awesome implementation team.

Delisa: I have never in my 23 years been through an implementation, and I will say it will be a highlight in my career.

Bridgette: We also did a reorganization of the office last year. I am proud of how that went because it was tough to do. We went to a straighter focus for a processing team and a straighter focus for an advising/customer service team. In the past, everyone had a little bit of everything and now we can all focus on just processing, just advising, etc.

Lou: That must have been extremely difficult to make those changes during that time of so much industry change.

Delisa: It was! For me, I have seen it come full circle, because we did some of the things we are doing now in the past. Years ago, we were in a similar structure, and it worked – then it wasn’t working. So we made the shift to a centralized structure for people to be more generalist and do a little of everything. But when we got the new system, it became apparent, real quick, that we needed to go back to the old way of doing business. From a management perspective, our staff will say it’s one of the best things we did. We had to look at the individuals and teams and re-appoint individuals according to their skill set. We went to the staff and said, “This is where we need you. This office – the university – needs your skill here.” Change can be scary. It worked out.

Lou: Texas A&M has had financial aid staff positioned throughout the state for outreach and recruitment. Do they still fall under your area?

Delisa: There has been a recent reorganization which has removed the outreach advisors from the Scholarships & Financial Aid Office. Basically, what Texas A&M has done is reengineer our state-wide outreach team into recruiters. So, they are to know admissions and financial aid. They work with us and we keep them up to speed with financial aid updates, policies, regulations, and changes through training by our office. We still provide liaisons and delegated staff from our office to assist them. If they are working with a family with an issue, our office is contacted and they work with us.

Lou: I’ve worked with this office, in some capacity, for 15 years, and it just seems that the turnover rate here has always been low.

Delisa: We have good longevity, if you look at the number of people that have been here for some time. We’ve had a number of folks in recent years retire. One of the things we battle is in our entry level positions, where that person or spouse is here attending classes (even for Master’s or PHD’s), then they finish. So, we know we only have these quality workers for a certain amount of time. There are different variables for folks to leave we’re probably normal for an office this size.

Lou: What makes this Texas A&M so unique?

Bridgette: It’s the traditions… the camaraderie, It’s just a great place. “The Aggie Family” – It really is a family. It’s kind of like that “big time feel in a small town” thing. You walk around on campus, and everyone says hi. If you are looking at a map, someone is going to walk over to you to help. Even in this office, it is a family feel. There’s knowledge, growth, and the students are bright and full of energy.

Delisa: There is a lot of pride with students and former students. There is rich tradition. There is a lot of pride with employees. I didn’t go to school here, but I am an Aggie. When we go to conferences and assist associations, well, “We’re Texas A&M and we have something going on.” And, we share it. It is the largest employer for Bryan/College Station, TX. Texas A&M students are highly sought after graduation, thanks to The Aggie Network and the job that our career center does. And, it’s also because of the character of our students. It is one of our core values.

Lou: Are there any primary trends that you see taking place within financial aid?

Bridgette: We are seeing more counselor review forms for loss of employment and more families wanting to apply for aid. We see a decline in some of the state aid, although not as bad as we thought it would be. We were worried we wouldn’t get any Texas Grant, which we were able to use, as well as Top 10%. Losing ACG and SMART grants hurt us. But the university has reinvested funds that we can still use.

Lou: What is currently your biggest challenge?

Delisa: Program integrity is something we’ve been implementing. In addition, are recent budget cuts and the general public question concerning the value of higher education. What can they do with a degree? How are people going to be able to afford it? The big question, presently, is what is going to happen with Pell? Is there going to be a program? If so, will the amounts go down?

Administrative allowances have been targeted for elimination that is money that would be a hit to us if we didn’t receive it. The subsidies on graduate loans have been eliminated and maybe eliminated for undergraduate. As a whole, in 23 years, I’ve never seen the cuts and programs under such scrutiny. Year round Pell was eliminated. The need for aid by parents continues to climb. But overall, in what we are able to provide (losing ACG, SMART, Pell under the gun, with other state programs), where do we make up these deficits? The institution is not increasing tuition (which is not a bad thing), but we will not have the financial aid dollars and “set asides” to use to aid students.

We have to figure out how to educate the general population on how getting an education benefits the individual and how it helps communities. But then, how do we keep it affordable for families? Will it become available specifically to the elite that can afford to go to college? While we can provide some assistance for low-income families, “some” is probably not going to get them there. There are also the Gainful Employment rules that we all have to implement. While I am confident in the value of our certificates, it’s a law that needs to be followed.

Lou: Bridgette, with you once being a student here and now an executive for Texas A&M, it must feel good, huh?

Bridgette: Yes! The memory of being a student here keeps me in touch with what’s important to the student. Doing grad work here, while working, was great also. I had real life experience in an administrative role here, while learning theory and student development. It is great to have been here as a student and to continue my career here.

Lou: Who would you consider a mentor in financial aid?

Delisa: I have had a number of them and have worked for some great people. Don Engelage and Arnold Trejo (both former Director and Executive Directors) believed in me and helped my development. While Joe Pettibon (current Associate Vice President of Academic Services and my current supervisor) and I have worked in different capacities together for a number of years, he has been a mentor and good support to me. Rob Sheridan (former University of Houston, FAD) was always informative and helpful. I have certainly benefitted from my peers in the associations and across the state.

Bridgette: Scott Mertz and Lydia Hall (currently at Sam Houston State and former directors at Blinn College) were influential. Delisa and Joe continue to be mentors.

Lou: Speaking of the associations, it seems there is always an Aggie in a leadership position? Do you require active volunteer participation?

Delisa: We definitely encourage participation with the associations and industry groups. In being one of the largest universities in Texas, we need to have a place at the table and we can contribute a great deal. We want our staff to grow as individuals and it serves as good development for them and our office.

Bridgette: It is a good way for our office to network and stay connected with schools throughout Texas. We also get the opportunity to assist others and learn as well.

Lou: Both of you started at entry level positions and have worked your way up to exec status. What advice can you offer to those striving for growth in financial aid?

Bridgette: It is getting out there and learning everything you can. I look back at the initial stage of each position, and I, by no means, knew everything to do. I never knew all that is involved in FA. Even today, I continue to learn. You have to get behind the scenes, learn details, and network outside with peers to find the best, most efficient ways of doing things. It’s not going to come to you. Put yourself out there and learn as much as you can.

Delisa: You have to be driven. When I started at a minimal salary, with a degree, in a secretary-like role, I knew I didn’t want to stay there. I had to let upper administration know in this office that I had the ability and drive to do more. You can’t be promoted and succeed, sitting around, waiting for 5 o’clock. I wanted (and want) to learn, grow and be involved.

Lou: Obviously, both of you grew up dreaming of someday being in financial aid, right?

Delisa: When I was younger, I was going to be a teacher, even into college, until I changed my major to business. I still didn’t think I was going to financial aid, though.

Bridgette: I’m not sure what I wanted to be growing up. A doctor? A lawyer? I was undeclared. I think I’m still undeclared.

Lou: Your boss walks in and says, “You’ve worked hard. Take the day off and do something nice for yourself.” What are you going to do?

Bridgette: I’m going to go get a pedicure.

Delisa: That’s what I was gonna’ say, I’m doing the same thing.

Both: Then shopping… Let’s go. We can go together!

Lou:  Last question.  What is one thing folks don’t know about you?

Bridgette: I grew up in a REALLY small town. My graduating class was ten people. College Station, Texas, is big city for me.

Delisa: I am from here (Bryan/College Station). My whole family is still here, so this is my home. Oh, and I love dogs. Why don’t people understand that I can like dogs?

Lou Murray, Southwest Regional Director, Nelnet Partner Solutions

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