NASFAA Conference Debuts With Many High Notes In Nashville

Exclusive Conference Coverage 

By Communication Staff 

More than 2,500 financial aid professionals convened in Nashville, TN Sunday for networking and professional development at the 2014 NASFAA National Conference. See below for summaries of selected sessions and follow along with conference happenings in real time on Facebook and Twitter using #NASFAA2014.

Opening Session With Keynote Speaker Ron Clark

The NASFAA National Conference kicked off Sunday with a rousing keynote speech from educator Ron Clark, a Disney American Teacher of the Year and two-time bestselling New York Times author. 

“In life, too many people take the stairs,” Clark told a packed conference hall. “We can’t be afraid to slide.”

It’s a message Clarke lives out figuratively and literally. At his school, a converted factory in Atlanta now known as the Ron Clark Academy, every visitor goes down a giant slide. That’s one of many innovative teaching processes he’s enacted to push all students to perform to the best of their ability, regardless of their backgrounds or learning levels.

As an educator, he’s helped students from suburban North Carolina to New York City’s Harlem succeed, often against tough odds.

“The most important this is, I just believed in these kids,” Clark said. “When I saw potential in them, they started to see it in themselves.”

Financial aid administrators play a similar role for the students they serve, Clark said – particularly when they show students they care.

“Not only are you helping kids financially, but you’re letting them know you believe in them, too,” Clark said, thanking the crowd. “That's powerful.”

Attendees also heard from NASFAA President Justin Draeger, who implored all in attendance to embrace opportunities to meet and mingle with colleagues, new and known.

“We’re here not just to look at rules and regulations, but to make connections,” Draeger told attendees.

Inside the Beltway Update

NASFAA President Justin Draeger and Director of Policy & Advocacy Megan McClean brought updates from Washington, D.C. to Nashville during an “Inside the Beltway” session Sunday. 

Last week, both chambers of Congress introduced legislation related to reauthorization of the Higher Education Act – but the process still has a long way to go, Draeger cautioned the crowd. 

Each bill introduced recently—the Higher Education Affordability Act from Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), the bipartisan Financial Aid Simplification and Transparency (FAST) Act from Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO), and three from U.S. Representatives, are likely “marker bills” – or starting points from which to launch later, Draeger said. Reauthorization will likely receive a one-year extension to 2015, making next spring the earliest to expect major movement, he added. 

All three recent bills include key issues for which NASFAA has advocated, including giving financial aid administrators the ability to limit loans for broad categories of students and reinstituting year-round Pell Grants.

The prior implementation of year-round Pell Grants was a simple idea with complex regulations–but that shouldn’t cloud the potential for the same principle with cleaner legislative language in the future, Draeger noted. In particular, crossover period regulations and the acceleration clause were problematic, Draeger said.

All three bills also include a switch to prior-prior year (PPY) tax data to determine aid eligibility, an issue NASFAA researched and for which it advocates. 

“[PPY] has picked up enough steam that we’ll likely see traction on this in some compromise bill down the line,” Draeger said.

Like much of NASFAA’s advocacy, the idea for PPY originally came from member feedback, McClean said. 

“Most of the things we elevate come from you all,” she told attendees. “That’s where it all starts.”

McClean also shared tips for financial aid administrators advocating for policies at the local level:

1. Forge strong relationships with lawmakers; be a resource.

2. Develop and know your positions; know why something is important.

3. Back up with data and research whenever possible.

4. Be prepared for the right moment, known as a policy window, or an opportunity to really push an idea that you care about.

5. Rinse and repeat! 

Community College Caucus

Aid administrators from community colleges around the country gathered Sunday morning to discuss issues faced by their sector. During a discussion led by past NASFAA Chair Ron Day, Draeger and other panelists shared their thoughts on topics like cohort default rates, the ability to limit loan amounts for certain populations of students, and remedial education.

Draeger told the audience that “college accountability is a theme that is not going away,” noting that a student unit record would help better track different student populations.  He also discussed a recently proposed bill by Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) which would reinstate the year-round Pell Grant. The bill, Draeger said, included provisions to make the program more flexible to administer. “I hope that there is some support for a year-round Pell …  because it really can help students,” Draeger said.

Ethical Standards In The Financial Aid Office

NASFAA’s revised Statement of Ethical Principles and Code of Conduct were reviewed during “Ethics In The Financial Aid Office,” with Richard Heath, financial aid director at Anne Arundel Community College, and Mary Sommers, director of financial aid at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

The financial aid profession has evolved in its nearly 50 years of existence, Sommers said, and thus has new demands on administrators. 

“We started as technicians,” Sommers said. “Over time, the work that we do has changed a lot. As a result, we’ve turned into something far more than just a bunch of bureaucrats or button pushers. We’re exercising a lot of judgment, and as soon as we get into judgment, there are a lot more professional aspects to the work that we do.” 

NASFAA convened a Task Force on Ethical Standards, whose recommendations were opened for a member comment period and was subject to final approval from the Board of Directors before being enacted in March.

The changes to the Code of Conduct also open an avenue to lodge a complaint against a potential bad actor within the NASFAA membership, Sommers said. 

“How many times have you talked in your office about students that said, ‘This is what an institution told me,’ and you know it’s just wrong?” Sommers asked. “In some cases, they’re just mistaken, but this does provide a place where, potentially, if you think it’s really egregious and not just a mistake, you have an avenue to file a complaint against [that institution].”

Currently, there are no active enforcement procedures in place, but the task force, along with legal counsel, has drafted proposals. The proposed Enforcement Procedures are intended to educate members about their ethical responsibilities and, as a last resort, to sanction those who are unwilling or unable to meet their ethical obligations. Any members with comments on or questions about the proposals should come to the “Looking To NASFAA’s Future (Town Hall)” session on Tuesday, July 1 from 9:00 – 10:15 am in 104AB, Sommers said. 

Graduate and Professional Town Hall Meeting

The afternoon Graduate and Professional Town Hall session served as an opportunity for graduate and professional aid administrators to voice their issues and concerns before NASFAA National Chair Craig Munier, outgoing Graduate and Professional Issues Committee (GPIC) Chair Linda Bisesi, incoming Graduate and Professional Issues Caucus Chair Mary Fenton, and NASFAA leadership. 

After opening remarks highlighting GPIC's work, the floor was opened to members for their thoughts and concerns on issues relating to the administration of aid to graduate and professional students. 

Loan origination fees on Grad PLUS loans, in combination with the high Grad PLUS interest rate, is a recurring issue, said one member. “It’s hard to justify the safety net features of a Grad PLUS” versus a private loan with a lower interest rate and no fees, he said, noting that students at his school are continually asking why they should be using federal loans before taking private loans.

“Let’s call it what it is; it’s a tax on people who need student loans,” said one member of the audience. 

“It’s a very good point—one we’ve advocated for,” Draeger said in response. Draeger also noted that Senator Harkin’s reauthorization draft, released last week, called for the elimination of loan origination fees.

Other concerns voiced during the session included: 

  • The potential elimination of the Grad PLUS program, as put forth in Senator Alexander’s Financial Aid Simplification (FAST) Act 
  • The treatment of Grad PLUS loans in the return of Title IV funds formula
  • Predatory companies that charge a fee for helping students consolidate their loans and offer financial incentives to schools that recommend their services to students

“The good news is the reauthorization bills are dropping now. We have nine to 12 months before reauthorization will likely move in any serious way; this gives us all an opportunity to look at what’s on the table and influence changes, so I hope we’ll all take that chance,” Draeger said. 

Adapting and Adding New Programs 

The constant addition of new academic programs, education models, and delivery methods can pose significant challenges to financial aid offices. In an afternoon session, members discussed how aid offices can adapt to the growth and change of their institutions.

“There’s a real encouragement of entrepreneurial spirit” on campuses but there are challenges like inadequate technology, varying student populations, and confusion of regulations from other departments on campus, said panelist Susan Murphy, from the University of San Francisco.  

“It really behooves us as financial aid administrators to sometimes train the rest of the campus” on regulations regarding academic programs and financial aid eligibility, “especially because of the assumption that students are always eligible for financial aid,” said Joan Zanders of Northern Virginia Community College.

The panel also shared several slides from a NASFAA webinar on non-traditional programs that provided checklists to ensure compliance with federal regulations.

The Future of the Perkins Loan

During a different afternoon session, panelists discussed the current state of the Perkins Loan Program, the challenges it faces, and the possibility that the program may expire in the near future. Panelists also discussed their current lending under Perkins and how changes to the program – or the program’s disappearance – would impact their students.

“I think we’ve gotten to the point with the Perkins where the admin burden far outweighs the amount I can give out in the awards,” said NASFAA Chair-Elect Eileen O’Leary of Stonehill College. “The complexity and liability are out of proportion,” she added, noting that a "one grant, one loan" program may be the best way to go in the future.

Federal Town Hall 

In yesterday's Federal Town Hall session, the Department of Education’s (ED) Jeff Baker answered questions posed by members regarding concerns about the new 150 percent rule, changes to the FAFSA, and the Federal Work-Study Program. 

When asked about the potential use of prior-prior year (PPY) income reporting and the FAFSA, Baker said that he does not think a change will be implemented before the 2016-17 award year “but we’re hoping to be able to talk more specifically about it in the future.” He noted that ED has the authority to implement the change under current law and that ‘the community is ready for this, has been ready for it.”

“We’re very serious about it, but just not yet,” Baker told the audience.

Baker also touched on the pending expiration of the Perkins Loan Program, which is scheduled for September 30, 2015. He said that as of recently, there was no discussion on Capitol Hill about extending the program and that ED is exploring possible alternative programs under the Direct Loan Program. He told the audience that he is hopeful ED will have more information on the subject by December, when FSA holds its annual conference.

When asked about President Barack Obama’s proposed college ratings system, Baker said that he did not have any new information to share. “We know we have a lot to learn,” he said, adding, “I know the administration is sincere about doing this right … but beyond that I don’t know where else we are on it.” 

 

Publication Date: 6/30/2014


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