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Portrait of Ron Herrell sitting behind a desk

Assistance from Financial Aid most effective when sought early

By Blake Sebring

November 16, 2023

Long before he became Purdue University Fort Wayne’s director of financial aid two years ago, Ron Herrell remembers a mentor saying, “We work in one of the coolest jobs because when students come in for a degree, they are not coming for that piece of paper. They are coming in for the dream behind it. We get to help fund dreams.”

That’s how 12 people in the Office of Financial Aid look at their work, providing guidance and answers as they help students and families achieve those goals.

“We’re a resource,” Herrell said. “We want you to come ask questions. You make our jobs easier when you ask questions rather than just doing something that is wrong. We can help you better if you come and talk to us.”

However, filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid—known to many in higher education simply as the FAFSA—or going to the financial aid office in Kettler Hall for help has sometimes caused anxiety in students and parents for generations. For many, discussions about money—either the kind you hope to acquire or those resources you’re having to give up—can be a challenge.  

As Juliana Bengs said, “People think we have all this money back in a safe, and they have to know the secret codes.”

Bengs, a financial aid support specialist, believes it’s all the unique terminology, just like first-time homeowners who don’t know what all the little charges mean but are afraid to ask and just end up paying them. That terminology confuses and intimidates people and makes things harder, and no one likes to admit what they don’t know.

The previous FASFA form had something listed as a data retrieval tool. What in the world? It’s an automatic tool to retrieve tax information, which at least makes sense, so why not call it that? Then the tool warns, “You are going to leave this site, do you really want to?” Nope, not intimidating at all!

Bengs introduces high school students and their parents to the financial aid process, driving all over the region to hopefully alleviate some of the anxiety.

That’s why the financial aid counselors’ go-to move is offering kindness. They’ve all been through the process themselves when the operation was more difficult and time-consuming, or recently with their own children.

“It’s always a puzzle and sometimes a mystery,” said Kathryn Snyder, assistant director for loans. “You never really get the full question because many times students just don’t know exactly what to ask, so sometimes the conversation helps guide what answers the student really needs.”

Snyder can’t count how many times students have stopped in totally bewildered and nervous before eventually saying they wish they had come in sooner.

“If we could tell students and families one thing, it’s the fact that we want to help you!” Snyder said.

This year, everyone is going to need a tad more patience. The Federal Student Aid Office of the Department of Education is throwing off the standard timing. Usually, the FAFSA forms come out Oct. 1, but there’s no specific date yet this year. By law, the forms have to be out by Jan. 1.

“We are anticipating Dec. 31,” Herrell said. “Normally, we are sending out the first award letters to new students by Thanksgiving. Now it’s going to be by spring break.”

Legislators in Washington have changed the rules, reducing the questions on forms, but they are still devising those remaining. They also have not provided the necessary computer programming updates, though Herrell and his staff can get a sneak peek at changes.

Though there are always adjustments, Herrell calls these the biggest financial aid changes in 40 years. The office is trying to notify students through tweets, emails, social media, and even snail mail.

“Don’t freak out,” he said. “Financial aid knows this is happening, and as soon as we know firm dates, we’ll let you know. Until it comes out, there’s nothing students can do because they haven’t had the chance to fill out the forms.

“We are here for you and can help you navigate what this is going to look like. We’ve been on top of it ever since they announced the changes were coming. We’ll all get through this. We have some of the most helpful staff, and I’ll put this team up against anyone.”