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Financial Aid Administrators Under the Microscope

University Business, Oct 2007

PRIOR TO A YEAR FILLED with revelations detailing "unholy unions," scandalous behavior, and new codes of conduct, I viewed my profession to be among the purest in the land. I assumed all of my colleagues took their commitment to students and to their institutions of higher education very seriously. I proudly touted that I was one among a group of professionals whom the U.S. Department of Education relies on to distribute millions of dollars in federal financial aid in a fair and equitable way to college-bound students. We were an honorable and trustworthy lot.

Alas, my profession has become associated with scandal, impropriety, kickbacks, and payola. I may be somewhat naive, but these words are as foreign to my colleagues as FAFSA, ISIR, SAR, and EFC are to the parents and students we assist.

New York State Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo began a nationwide investigation into the student-lending industry in January 2007 that uncovered conflicts of interest, including revenue sharing agreements, gifts and trips from lenders to financial aid directors, and even apparent stock tips to financial aid officers. As a result of these findings, many lenders have accepted a new code of conduct that details appropriate school and lender relationships.

Along with the vast majority of the other 30,000 financial aid administrators in the United States, I did not take advantage of (nor was I offered) stock options, expensive vacations, or financial gains. (Actually, I believe only six financial aid professionals made those choices.)

I suspect we were too engaged in helping students and families determine how to achieve access to higher education. Perhaps we were too intent on advocating for student financial aid or conducting early awareness programs at middle schools. Indeed, we may have been networking with colleagues to determine which charitable organization our professional association was donating funds to this year. The lender representatives that we interact with were far too busy providing excellent customer service to our students and families to bother with shady dealings of a financial nature.

I firmly believe that financial aid administrators deserve to come under scrutiny.

The news that some colleagues may have participated in unscrupulous practices came as quite a shock. Preferred lender lists evolved in an attempt to better serve our students as they face thousands of lender options. Financial aid professionals have been and continue to be obligated to inform students and families of options and to assist them in making difficult choices. When referring families for guidance, I need to be sure the lender will provide the same level of quality customer service that our institution provides. A preferred lender list enables the school to be clear about its expectations of the lender in serving our students.

I have been known to describe preferred lenders as "extensions" of our office, working with us to serve our students. The inherent culture of higher education is built on a foundation of relationships. We learn from each other and we trust in what we are taught. It is only natural that families seek and trust our advice. For all but a few financial aid administrators, these relationships have not been compromised or exploited.

I firmly believe that financial aid administrators deserve to come under scrutiny. Take a good long look at who we are and what we do. What you will see is a profession comprised of honest, trustworthy, and knowledgeable people who maintain ethical principles and values.

Donna Cerza is the director of financial aid policy and compliance at College Misericordia (Pa.).

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