Illinois State University’s Financial Aid Office does more than distributing loans and grants. They play a critical role to educate students and parents about borrowing, costs, and repayment options. Since laws and loan options change frequently, financial aid professionals must stay on their toes to ensure students and parents have timely and accurate information. When a new three-year pilot program aimed at increasing awareness of student debt levels was signed into law, the ISU Financial Aid office took swift action.
Senior Assistant Director of Financial Aid Michelle Cornell has long recognized the need to help students make informed decisions. Her vision “to provide clear and readily accessible information to borrowers as a key component to help lower student loan default rates” fit perfectly with the new law. Having some of this need mandated helped galvanize resources to make it happen.
Financial Aid played a critical part in the solution but integration with technology was needed. The Office of Financial Aid and the Office of Technology Solutions worked closely together exhibiting the collaborative spirit ISU prides itself in making the project team a perfect fit. Add an alliance with Marquette University, who had tackled a similar challenge, and a strong partnership to solve an important problem was in the works.
As the team prepared for the pilot program, they had much more than compliance in mind. A significant goal of the project was to harness technology and data to enable more easily understood loan information. Team members crafted a comprehensive online “Debt Center” bringing student loan principal, interest, and payoff options to one screen, updated on a monthly-or-better basis through feeds from every educational loan they’ve taken. Ultimately, the solution should lead to lower default rates, and this increased transparency provides an additional opportunity for students to monitor for fraudulent use of their accounts.
The project team lived many of ISU’s strategic plan core values including collaboration, innovation, and use of data to inform decision-making. Though the finished product just “went-live” at the end of the Spring term, it has been well-received by those that have used it. An early example of its success came when a student noticed her loan debt was higher than expected. When she called the Financial Aid Office it was discovered she had picked up ‘refund’ checks for Fall and Spring terms but never actually cashed them. She didn’t realize she would be liable for the loan if she did not cash the checks. The Debt Center will be an important tool to help the Financial Aid Office educate students on borrowing with the ultimate goal of improving student loan default rates, something everyone can support.