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Questions for a Financial Aid Officer Before Picking a College

Following an acceptance letter, the best news your school can share with you before freshman year is how much aid you will receive. This dent in your total cost of attendance could be the last piece, or most important factor in deciding where you will go to school. 

If this letter has left you with more questions than answers, a financial aid officer is your best resource for advice specific to that letter. We spoke with Daniel Barkowitz, Assistant VP of Financial Aid and Veterans’ Affairs at Valencia College to learn how he got into this field, and what advice he would share with those attending college in the coming years. 

Where did you go to college and what did you study?

I was born in Panama and lived there until I was 14. We then moved to South Carolina, where I attended high school, and then went to Boston for college. I started at Brandeis University, where I met the love of my life during my freshman year. We got married my sophomore year and I started working full time and moved to part-time school. 

I transferred and earned my Bachelors of Science in History at Northeastern University, which I guess means I can BS my way through History! I then got a Master’s degree in Human Resource Education from Boston University

How did you get started in financial aid, neither of those degrees sound directly linked to that career path?

My work experience prior to my freshman year at college had been McDonald’s and a local record store. When I got to college I was primarily looking for a job that let me stay in Boston over the summer. I went to the careers office on campus and started looking through all the job listings. One of them was working for a company called Knight Tuition Payment Plans, which was a parent loan and monthly payment plan processor. They were looking for an assistant account manager, someone to do data entry, put mailings together, and I thought, “oh I can do that”. 

I wound up working for them for two summers, and after my sophomore year, they approached me about working full time while I finished my degree. They even offered to help pay for my tuition, and that was an offer too good to pass up! That wasn’t quite a financial aid job, but I got to meet a lot of people in financial aid working in loan servicing.  

When I was graduating with my undergrad, I knew someone at Boston College was looking to hire an Assistant Director of Financial Aid. Because of the contacts I had made, I was able to apply and get a job there. Since then I like to say that I’ve worked on all sides of financial aid: I’ve worked in an aid office, I worked for a lender, for a loan servicer, and as a technical consultant.  

With student debt at $1.5 trillion dollars in the US alone, have you noticed any changes in the questions that students or families have when they come into the financial aid office since you started in the space?

Absolutely, I would say we work with families all the time who are debt averse—the conversation there is around “what is a reasonable expectation for students as they graduate for income?” Students often haven’t done the research or have a good sense of what their starting salary might be for their chosen field.

There is also conversation to be had with parents about overborrowing for their students. More and more we are seeing parents who are still paying off their student loans bringing on more debt for their child’s education. That can be difficult to manage.  

We are doing some really interesting things at Valencia to manage student debt. In eight years we have cut the amount of borrowing at Valencia in half. One of the ways has been not automatically accepting loans every year for students. We make students actually go in and tell us how much they need this year. We give them an annual debt letter that tells them how much they borrowed against their total availability and how much repayment will be based on their total borrowed to date. 

We don’t automatically include a full Cost of Attendance budget for students who are attending less than full-time. If you are a part-time student the total amount you can borrow may be limited because you may hit against a smaller budget. We are also doing a number of things with counseling to make sure students don’t borrow more than they need to.

College can often be an emotional decision, not just a practical one. Do you have any advice for parents or others supporting a high school student about taking on that debt?

Part of the challenge is that if you are starting the conversation at 16 or 17 you are almost too late. We need to be offering better and more education with students in elementary, middle and high school about their personal finances.

As a parent, are you sharing info about how you manage your own finances? Do you have a family budget, are you sharing that with your kids? Do your kids know what it means to file income tax, or plan for retirement, or pay life insurance? What kind of financial conversations are you having with your kids before the college conversation, because that is the wrong time to start. 

Is there any advice that you would give to someone considering a college degree who is currently undecided. As someone who was undecided, my salary expectations changed dramatically from freshman to senior year. 

There is a balance. You don’t want to force yourself into a degree that a family member or others are suggesting if it doesn’t feel right to you. I also changed majors! I started out as a political science major with an acting minor, but wound up with American studies with a Bachelors in History. I use this acronym POEM when working with students: 

P is Passion, what are you passionate about, what do you love doing? 

O is Opportunity, where do you find the opportunity to explore that passion?

E is Experience, what experience reflected that passion that you are remembering?

M is Moment, is there a single moment in that experience that stands out?

If you can go down that pathway, starting with your passion and ending with that moment, then that moment is something you really need to explore. For me, I love musical theater and acting, that was my passion growing up. You might think, what does that have to do with financial aid? Well, my opportunity was that I got to do community theater when I was in middle school. My experience was one performance on my birthday, it was the Wizard of Oz and I was a munchkin and my brother was the Cowardly Lion. My brother stopped in the middle of the curtain call for everyone to sing happy birthday to me. He put me up on his shoulders, my mom had made cupcakes for everyone, it really was extremely moving. I realized in that moment that I wanted to help everyone find that moment of celebration. 

In working in financial aid, I get to create moments of celebration for our students – moments where they are the star. I love watching students’ faces at graduation, giving them a high-five as they prepare to enter the arena for the ceremony, and knowing that I had something to do with getting them there.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the interview subject are not necessarily those of Earnest.

Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.