By Maria Carrasco, NASFAA Staff Reporter
MVP: Most Valuable Professional is an occasional series that features a brief Q&A with a different NASFAA member. Do you know a financial aid colleague with something interesting to say? Send the names of potential future MVPs and a short note about why you're nominating them to [email protected].
Patti Kohler, FAAC®
Vice President, Financial Aid
Western Governors University
Meet Patti Kohler, FAAC®, vice president of financial aid at Western Governors University.
Patti got her start in financial aid as a financial aid counselor at Utah State University and has worked in financial aid for 17 years. While she didn’t get the first financial aid job she applied for, she reapplied for the same position nine months later.
“As I reflect back and think about that, it was a lesson and sometimes things just aren't in the right time and place but it doesn't mean it's not the right thing for us to do,” Patti said. “So, a little bit of resiliency and here I am 17 years later.”
At Utah State University, Patti served as a financial aid counselor and financial aid director. In 2017, she joined Western Governors University as its director of financial aid. Last year, she became the university’s vice president of financial aid.
Patti has been involved and active in the community serving as the 2017 president of the Utah Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (UASFAA) and as a member of the Rocky Mountain Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (RMASFAA). At NASFAA, Patti served as an annual conference committee member, a Rapid Response Network member and a working group member for Examining Software Providers’ Compliance with the NASFAA Code of Conduct, among other things.
Learn more about Patti, her interests, and her career path in the Q&A below!
How did you get your start in financial aid?
It’s kind of a funny story. I was living in the Middle East in Kuwait and we were returning back to the United States. I saw a job posting at my alma mater for a financial aid counselor and so I thought “Hey, I could do that. That sounds amazing.” So I applied and interviewed over the phone while I was still living in the Middle East and did not get the job. Fast forward nine months later, and another financial aid counselor job opened at the same institution, and I said “you know, I think I'll try one more time.” And lo and behold, I got the position and that was my start.
How have you experienced innovation in your career in financial aid?
I would say my first few years in the industry were pretty standard. Then all of a sudden, we saw a lot of change, as far as what our students wanted, what our institutions wanted, and what financial aid was bringing to the table. What I mean is, we've gone through a pretty significant digital transformation over the past few years where students really want to be able to do everything that they can electronically, which I totally understand. Students really want to be able to do not only the administrative things that occur in their higher education through electronic means, but they want to be able to do it when it's convenient for them and where it's convenient for them. So when I was working at my prior institution, we implemented some electronic forms and that was really instrumental because the institution I was at was the land grant institution for the state and we had regional campuses located all over the state. So it just was not easy for a student to come into our office physically. I think the shift to accepting and processing our work electronically has been a huge shift.
We're seeing huge shifts right now in federal aid policy, obviously with FAFSA Simplification coming down the pipeline, with the last few years of verification waivers. While I know that that was in response to the CARES Act, I'm very curious to see what ends up happening with FAFSA Simplification and whether or not verification remains significantly pulled back, or what's going to happen with that.
What do you find the most rewarding and fulfilling about your work?
First and foremost, it's about the students — their completion, their ability to transform their personal lives through education is what I'm in this work for. Secondly, my colleagues and the people I work with, we all have a shared mission and a shared purpose in what we do. That purpose is to align our society's promise that higher education in any form — whether it's a short term credential, an associate's degree, bachelor's, and beyond — that education provides opportunity, and that opportunity translates to more fulfilling lives for all of us.
Is there anything in particular about the financial aid system that you wish you could change?
The complexity of the entire system. I don't mind having administrative burden, if it means that students have it easier to enroll, attend, and access federal aid. I don't think we're there yet. I think that there are barriers for students. While some students don't necessarily have a difficult time filling out the FAFSA or doing the paperwork, we have many, many, students that filling out an additional document, or having to provide proof of various different things, is the thing that makes it so they don't enroll. That to me, is what we should all be striving to change — removing those barriers. It's just unfortunate that we have so many students where that's the point they drop off. I would love to be able to remove the complexity for our students.
What's something you wish all higher ed folks knew about financial aid?
Financial aid is one of the key items for our students — not only at the point of enrollment, but also all the way through completion. Financial aid, along with many other items in the academic journey of a student, is what enables a student to complete their degree. Ultimately, it's about getting that student to complete the credential that they're seeking and that promise of a better life when they're gone. I think that most higher ed employees and administrators understand this. However, it is such a critical point in all points of a student's journey, whether it's a year or two of retention, ensuring that a student can focus on their academics and not their money and getting them to that finish line.
What are you optimistic about in financial aid in the upcoming year or so?
FAFSA Simplification. I'm really curious and anxious to see what can change for our students long term. And looking forward, helping students that have left our institution and what the return to repayment looks like. Hopefully, some of the new proposed regulations with repayment and loan terms can come to fruition because I see some major changes there that are very complimentary towards helping students repay their debt.
What is a goal you've set for yourself for the upcoming year?
So work related, we are working on a series of initiatives that will provide more clear information to students earlier in their recruiting or enrollment journey. So our institution enrolls students on a monthly basis and our recruiting cycle is pretty continual. One of the things we're working on is providing more clear information sooner so that we can remove that anxiety and also remove those barriers for our students to enroll. We don't want students worrying “Can I afford this?” What we want is our students to know that there are financial options to help them enroll. We already do this, but we're enhancing what we already do. I'm really looking forward to seeing how that changes things.
Personally, I am a big advocate of the spin bike. I'm working through a series of programs and then trying to increase my fitness level. That's a goal so that by next summer, I can do some pretty substantial hikes outdoors.
Tell us about your institution. What are some unique aspects of Western Governors University?
WGU was founded by a group of Western governors back in 1997. So we are a fairly new institution and we are a public nonprofit. Even more importantly, we're competency-based and 100% online, so it is a very different model of education. We impact the lives of so many students across the nation, from all 50 states and it is a pretty incredible thing to watch.
We hold commencements around the United States, because we are a national university, and I met a student of ours that I had helped through all of COVID. She lost her job, she lost her house, and had all of these series of issues that cropped up due to COVID. I met her at commencement and she had earned her teaching degree and had been hired and was moving on to the next step in her life. Like all of us, when we see those success stories, it is just so validating. Because we're an online university, I rarely see students in person. It was just really touching to meet this particular student and see their success.
Do you have any recommendations for people just getting started in the field?
I have a bit of a life philosophy, where it’s basically found in my ability to say “yes” to new opportunities. So my recommendation, especially at a professional setting, is when you're asked to take on a new project, to try something new, or to get out of your comfort zone, be OK with saying “yes” because you never know what that's going to lead to.
What's something you couldn't function without?
Our students' abilities to do their work when it's convenient for them, and our systems that make it possible for them to do that, is pretty incredible, and something that we could not live without.
On a personal note, I probably could not live without the Internet. I work from home and so, in a remote setting, the internet is the key to everything. I think we take it for granted that the Internet exists when the Internet was barely a thing 25 years ago.
Want to say hello to Patti or reply to something she said? Please leave your remarks in the comments section below. You can also take a look back at our past MVPs to read any you missed the first time around.
Do you know a financial aid colleague with something interesting to say? Send the names of potential future MVPs and a short note about why you're nominating them to [email protected].
Publication Date: 9/21/2022
Donna C | 9/22/2022 12:48:17 PM
Keena F | 9/22/2022 9:6:57 AM
Congratulations Patti! Very well deserved!
David A | 9/22/2022 8:14:29 AM
Amanda A | 9/21/2022 7:3:59 PM
Ditto to every comment. This is well deserved! Congratulations Patti!
Christina T | 9/21/2022 10:45:48 AM
Jenny R | 9/21/2022 10:35:25 AM
Congratulations Patti! Information provided is great to know and to learn more about you! Much continued success!
Christina A | 9/21/2022 10:11:34 AM
You deserve it all! Go girl!
Marvin S | 9/21/2022 9:58:52 AM
Great article Patti! Appreciate you sharing your thoughts and stories. You rock!
Nathan B | 9/21/2022 9:41:10 AM
Congratulations, Patti! What a storied financial aid experience.
Emily O | 9/21/2022 9:33:32 AM
Congratulations Patti!!! So very well deserved!!
James H | 9/21/2022 9:8:53 AM
Big Congrats on being MVP !!!! way to go
You must be logged in to comment on this page.