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Profiles in the Financial Aid Profession: Diane Fleming from Central Michigan University

February 27, 2012

Diane Fleming, Associate Director of Programs and Client Services, Office of Scholarship and Financial Aid, Central Michigan University

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

Diane Fleming: We have a very dedicated and caring staff that takes great pride in their work and their interaction with students and parents. Central Michigan University (CMU) has an enrollment of about 27,500 students, with 22,000 receiving some type of financial aid.  We have 23 staff members, which by anyone’s definition of student-to-staff ratio is extremely high.  Yet, somehow this group of people manages to get the job done in a timely and accurate manner.

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

Diane: Dealing with all of the new regulations that came out of HEOA.  Those things ARE a challenge, but the biggest challenge for us has been to suggest to students and parents – in the most compassionate way possible – that perhaps the student can’t afford to come to CMU.   Many of our parents have lost their jobs and have an adverse credit history, which means they can’t borrow a PLUS loan.  Even with full Pell eligibility and some institutional aid, the student will have $9500 in student loans for just ONE year!  Students don’t have a clue about loan debt and the implications it has on their future; and parents don’t want to tell their kid that they can’t afford to pay for college.  We try very hard to give the family as much information as possible so they can make an informed – if not always good – decision.

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

Diane: The ever-decreasing level of need-based aid at the institutional and state level, plus the decreasing amount of state funding for higher education will continue to exacerbate the amount of loan debt our students will incur.  More and more needy students will be unable to start their freshman year at a four-year institution due to cost.  Institutions will be forced to compete even more for a dwindling number of students with merit-based funds, which will widen the gap even more between needy and affluent student access to higher education.

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

Diane: I think this goes back to the question about what has been the biggest challenge in the aid office.  Several years ago, our director encouraged us to advise a student or family as if they were our own child or relative.  In other words, we probably won’t get a gold star from the Admissions Office (which works very hard to recruit students) when we tell students the hard, cold truth about loan indebtedness over a four or five year period.

In essence, we are conducting a financial literacy workshop for students and their parents on a one-on-one basis.  We encourage students to complete the classes for which they enroll, pointing out that withdrawing from a class to avoid getting a bad grade is a waste of over $1000.  We encourage students to borrow only what they need and to exhaust all federal loan eligibility before borrowing a private alternative loan.

We have also carefully evaluated our cost of attendance and have created a different room and board component for on-campus students, students living in off-campus apartments, and students living with parents. Our school’s cohort default rate is pretty low, and we want to keep it that way.

Anne: What do you like most about your job?

Diane: With all of the rules and regulations surrounding financial aid, you would think that my inability to work in an unorganized and chaotic environment would be very compatible with my job.  However, the fact that Congress has given us the authority to exercise professional judgment paints the work environment in lots of colors – not just black or white.  I like the challenges that are a day-to-day part of the job – it keeps me from getting bored!

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

Diane: I have been blessed with many mentors, starting with you, Anne!  It wasn’t until I became involved with MSFAA that I had the opportunity to get to know other financial aid officers in the state.  I consider you, Judy Florian, Howard Thomas, Ken Fridsma and Rick Shipman to be both friends and mentors.  Also, at the regional level in MASFAA, Dan Mann has been a wonderful mentor.

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

Diane: Basically, I knew what I DIDN”T want to be:  a teacher or a nurse.  I never envisioned myself as a career woman.  My mother was a stay-at-home mom, and that sounded good to me.  It wasn’t until I got married and put my husband through graduate school that I began to understand that a two-income family was going to be a way of life.  Like most financial aid people, I started my job in financial aid because I needed a job and they needed to hire someone.  It was after I became involved at the state level and had the opportunity to participate as a committee member, committee chair, and eventually MSFAA president that my “job” turned into a profession.  It made all the difference in the world!

Anne: Name one thing that many people do not know about you?

Diane: There are two things that most people don’t know about me. (1) I am a first-generation American (my father was born in Germany); and (2) my high school counselor told me I wasn’t college material.  Consequently, I didn’t start college until I was 36 and finished at Michigan University in February 1983.

Anne: What is your favorite book, movie or food?

Diane: Since I like so many books and movies, it’s hard to pick a favorite.  But food is much easier – anything that I can salt!!  Salt is my number one food group.

Anne:  What is your favorite television show?

Diane: This year, it is “The Good Wife” – and lots of news programs.

Anne: You have notified your colleagues of your plan to retire in October, 2012; how are you really feeling about leaving the profession that you have served so magnificently and with great dedication over the years?

Diane: I have very mixed emotions about retiring from financial aid.  I started as a receptionist in the Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid at Central Michigan University in February, 1983.  Over the years, I have served as a receptionist, an office manager, a financial aid advisor, a verification specialist, an assistant director, and finally as associate director.  My duties have been varied, and I have learned so much along the way about so many aspects of financial aid.  I have had the opportunity to be involved with my state financial aid association (MSFAA), with our regional association (MASFAA), and with the national association (NASFAA).  The friendships I have made have enriched my life tremendously, as well as that of my husband, Rich.   When I first started working in financial aid, I viewed it as a job, for which I was happy to be hired.  However, it was when I became active at the state level that I began to view what I was doing as a profession.  I have never looked back!   In my current job, I don’t see many students, but everything that I do is about students.

Unless you are in the financial aid profession, no one on campus really appreciates what our offices do.  Only your spouse, significant other, and best friends have any idea of the complexity of our jobs and the challenges we face. When Rich and I get together with other financial aid couples, the conversation is almost always dominated by financial aid.  Do/can people really talk without using acronyms??  I have to remember that not everyone cares about the newest Congressional act that will literally change our world upside-down….or the latest round of negotiated rulemaking and the resulting changes for the aid community.

It will be very difficult not being involved in this profession on a daily basis.  However, I know that I will always be a financial aid professional and will continue to advocate on behalf of students.

Anne:  How do you and Rich (spouse and honorary member of the financial aid community) plan to spend your time and energy in your “new world”?

Diane: Many people have this all worked out, but I’m not one of them!  Rich continues to do math research AND he is writing an historical novel.  He jokes that his biggest concern is that I may upset his daily routine.  I need to find the best place for me to spend my time and energy….the possibilities are many:  church, community, family, home, gardening, traveling….  I love to organize things, so maybe I can find something along those lines.   If anyone has a great suggestion, please send it my way!

Anne: You always seem to have the pulse of what is going on in Washington; any advice/words of wisdom you wish to pass on to our community?

Diane: It takes time and effort to stay abreast of what is going on at the federal, state and institutional level.  I have never been content to do just my own job, but to learn as much as possible about everything that affects what I do.   I get very frustrated if someone says, “That’s not part of my job” and then doesn’t offer to try to find an answer.  My advice to anyone in this profession is to learn as much as possible, get involved with your colleagues at the state, regional, and national levels, and develop a network and the friendships that facilitate that network.   You will get first-hand information on what is being discussed or proposed, and can then determine the pros and cons for your student body or office.   If you approach financial aid in this manner, it is almost impossible to NOT know what’s going on!

Anne: Thank you Diane and lots of luck and happiness to you in Rich in your ‘New world.’

Note:  Diane just received (February 1) the most prestigious award given, “Life Time Achievement Award,” from the Michigan Student Financial Aid Association.  She served as both MSFAA and MASFAA President, on the NASFAA Board and several committees, with great passion for the Federal Issues committee.

Anne Watson, Midwest Regional Director, Nelnet Partner Solutions

One Comment leave one →
  1. mk bethune permalink
    February 28, 2012 9:03 pm

    Diane has created a great legacy for future FA professionals to follow. They can use her professionalism as one standard of excellence to emulate.

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