Navigating the Waters of Student Financial Aid


If there is a 500 pound gorilla in the room when it comes to obstacles to student success at the university level, it can be summed up in one word: money. At this point, we are all aware that there has been a nearly-exponential increase in the cost of a four-year degree over the course of the last 30 years. There are also obvious and systematic problems with the ways in which students fund their educations through various types of financial aid. Many of these issues don't knock on a student's door until after graduation, when it's time to start paying back loans in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, but others accompany a student throughout his or her college tenure, and money problems can become a seemingly insurmountable boulder in a student's road to achievement.

I am not an expert on financial aid and, frankly, I wouldn't want to be. Federal aid regulations change so frequently that it can be difficult even for professional financial aid officers to keep current. So of course students become confused and overwhelmed by them- the language is as foreign as the stakes are high. Since part of my job requires me to act as a liaison between students and the resources they need, I make sure my students find then stay connected with someone in our financial aid office who they trust, and who can explain things to them in an accessible, effective way.

Often, especially at first, I even walk down to the office with them. That was the case with Louie, a student whose parents had been taking care of his financial aid paperwork (or so he thought) until one day Louie received a letter casually announcing that he owed $14,000. When he arrived at my office, letter in hand, he was nearly in tears- terrified by the reality that had just landed in his lap. I walked with Louie directly to the financial aid office and stayed with him as one of our diligent financial aid personnel helped him break it all down into manageable pieces.

After that, Louie didn't need anyone to tell him that he needed to take control of his own financial aid. However, not all students realize just how high the stakes are. When I ask my students how they are paying for their education, many simply reply, "My parents are taking care of it." For a lot of these students, that's truly the case and all is well. Unfortunately, sometimes parents fall through, either due to factors within their control- like missing application deadlines or basic financial responsibility- or factors over which they have little to no control- like when a parent loses a job. One thing I try to get my students to really, really understand is that they are responsible for their own education. While their minds are the primary beneficiaries of that education, their feet are where all burdens and debts associated with that education will be laid. "Loans are taken out in your name," I tell my students, "and failure to repay them can lead to difficulties when you want to buy a car, a house, or start a business."

As a success coach, my job is not to solve the deeper problems associated with paying for college in the 21st century (though I applaud all who are diligently working toward that end). But by helping students better navigate the waters, ever watchful for icebergs ahead, I can do my best to ensure that financial stress doesn't prevent hard-working students from getting the education they deserve.

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.