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Tell Your Story: Financial Aid Administrators Convene for the NASFAA 2024 Conference in Milwaukee

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Managing Editor

The NASFAA National Conference is back after a year like no other.

In a year where FAFSA simplification has brought about innumerable challenges to all those in the profession, attendees learned firsthand that their lived experiences and expertise should serve as a guide to telling their own stories from the front lines of college access.

With over 2,400 financial aid professionals registered for this year’s annual conference in Milwaukee, NASFAA members were able to connect and learn more about the ways in which personal narratives can inform your mission.

A timely pre-conference session delved into the college pipeline for K-12 students, and the ways in which a commitment to diversity and equity programs can prepare first-generation and prospective students, from varying backgrounds, to access and thrive in postsecondary education.

Dr. Jennifer Norrell, superintendent for East Aurora School District 131, provided attendees with a detailed presentation of how the district she oversees implemented equity through action, and how her educators have developed partnerships with the higher education community to ensure that conversations over college readiness occur as early as possible for students.

Norrell recognized that not all students will, or should, go to college, but she strives to ensure that the decision is ultimately made by students and their families.

“We have an obligation to prepare every child to have the ability to turn [higher education] down,” Norrell said.

The session was packed with financial aid professionals who gathered to hear Norrell’s remarks on narrowing the educational bridge between elementary and high school students to postsecondary education.Through this connection, Norrell said her priority was to help students realize that a higher education is both achievable and accessible.

During her remarks, Norrell also highlighted six determining factors for successful enrollment and completion in higher education. Three factors occur in the K-12 sphere: academic preparation for college; high school counseling support for college; and the pathway to and through college. In the higher education space those remaining three factors include understanding financing higher education; the importance and role of family; and navigating the post-college landscape.

In order to bolster their graduation rates Norrell prioritized early college access. Specifically, she found ways to restructure grants to acquire resources that promote conversations about higher education starting as early as sixth grade where students can engage in STEM courses and have the ability to visit college campuses. Those grants can also be used to cover logistical hurdles like transportation costs and other barriers to engaging sitting in a college seat before beginning a post secondary education.

Later in the afternoon, the conference formally kicked off with NASFAA President and CEO Justin Draeger riding in on a Harley-Davidson to address attendees for the final time after his 14-year tenure.

During his remarks, Draeger touched on the challenges of not just the past year, but also recurrent challenges to the profession stemming from the back-and-forth of gainful employment (GE) regulations, staffing shortages, the pandemic, and most notably FAFSA simplification and how those in the profession have always risen to the challenge of meeting the moment. 

While reflecting on his career at NASFAA, Draeger encouraged all those in the profession to take time to find their own zen so that they can take care of themselves and further the mission of promoting access to higher education.

The opening session then turned to Maria Hinojosa, an Emmy- and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, who kicked things off with a personal speech that dug into her storied career, detailed how journalism has connected her to various communities, and centered on the importance of using one’s own experience to tell your own story.

Hinojosa went on to explain that the dynamic of change is everywhere and that she approaches news from a perspective that rejects living in a place of fear.

For immigrant communities, Hinojosa explained how challenging the current landscape has been to communities trying to navigate their place in higher education and reiterated remarks from Education Secretary Miguel Cardona that “being bilingual is a superpower” and is something to be celebrated.

One particular issue on the 2024-25 FAFSA form has been issues preventing submission when a contributor does not have a Social Security number (SSN), which has caused particular harm for vulnerable communities.

Hinojosa’s speech then turned to recognizing that financial aid professionals are on the front lines of higher education access and that those in the profession should use their roles to help put students at the forefront.

“Why do you do what you do? I know that you do this because of mission,” Hinojosa said. “Your mission is not only the work that you do. Your mission is to affirm your students and families for who they are. And for you to affirm the work you do.”


Publication Date: 6/16/2024

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