Story posted January 09, 2009
Associate Director of Student Aid Gary Weaver's curiosity about a newspaper article led to a project that brings financial aid counseling to high school students and their families in southern Maine.
Aisha Woodward '08 offers this profile in public engagement.
"Here's My Idea. Tell Me Why I Shouldn't Do This."
Reading the Sunday newspaper in August 2007, Associate Director of Student Aid Gary Weaver stumbled upon information about a report released by the Senator George J. Mitchell Scholarship Research Institute that examined barriers that Maine students face when considering postsecondary education.
The Maine Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (MASFAA) — using a Web site developed by Weaver and the Information Technology department — has responded to calls from high school guidance counselors who said they needed more than just another Web site that few have the time to read.
Weaver and IT put together digital online recordings that feature financial aid directors from 23 Maine institutions answering frequently asked questions, ranging from, "What are your financial aid filing deadlines?" to "How does your institution integrate local merit scholarships into the financial aid award package?"
Upon reading the institute's full report, Weaver recognized that financial concerns were consistently listed among the determining factors in whether students would pursue a college degree.
Weaver also noticed that several Bowdoin students had been involved in the research for the report. Intrigued, he set up meetings with the students to discuss their findings.
"As we talked, it became increasingly clear what was going on," Weaver remembers. "The conclusion became obvious: we [financial aid administrators] were the only people who had the content knowledge to help solve this problem."
Weaver saw the issue — the lack of access to coherent information about financial aid — as not only a persistent problem but also one that he had the power to change.
Armed with the Mitchell Institute's report and the beginnings of a great idea, he approached MELMAC, a Maine-based foundation that works to support initiatives aimed at increasing educational opportunities for Maine people, with a proposal of how to get college financial aid administrators involved in helping students and families.
"Basically I said to MELMAC's director, 'Here's my idea. Tell me why I shouldn't do this.'" After submitting a proposal, MELMAC awarded Weaver a start-up grant to pilot the program for one year.
Like many great ideas, Weaver's was at once both obvious and ingenious. Because financial aid administrators are exceptionally well-versed in the process and expectations surrounding financing a college education, Weaver thought that if administrators were each to "adopt" one or two high schools in his or her area and provide one-on-one counseling to students and families, much of this complex process could be demystified.
To pilot the program, Weaver partnered with the Maine Association of Financial Aid Administrators (MASFAA) and recruited three other local financial aid administrators, including Bowdoin's own Director of Student Aid Steve Joyce, to test the program in its trial year.
The Myths of Financial Aid
Gary Weaver and Steve Joyce, Director of Student Aid, talk about some of the myths surrounding financial aid.
Making Sense of Financial Aid
Steve Joyce, Director of Student Aid at Bowdoin College, talks about the differences between various offers of student aid, how to evaluate those offers, and the questions to ask before accepting a particular aid package.
Weaver himself worked at Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham, just a few miles from Bowdoin. Administrative staff at Mt. Ararat coordinated students and families who were interested in discussing their financial options, and every Thursday Weaver spent two hours meeting with parents and students.
Much of Weaver's work involved direct counseling with parents.
The high costs of higher education often cause people to shy away from the process, but Weaver worked to provide greater clarity surrounding the process, as well as to show families that they have options.
Responses from the pilot year were overwhelmingly positive, so much so that MELMAC and MASFAA is partnering this year in placing 20-25 Maine financial aid administrators in high schools all over the state.
Weaver says that he has had to start a waiting list for participating high schools, because the demand for this sort of assistance is so high.
"That is my biggest concern," he says. "There is an enormous demand."
He hopes that MELMAC and MASFAA will recognize how pressing the needs are, and that eventually they might even further expand the program.
Looking back on the pilot year, Weaver is very satisfied with the results.
"It has been very rewarding," he says. "Kids and parents have been universally grateful, and the response among the student aid community is gratifying. I'm quite enthusiastic about next year."
Aisha Woodward '08 was a reporting fellow for the McKeen Center for the Common Good in the summer of 2008.
She was also a Community Matters in Maine Summer Fellow with a placement at the Mitchell Institute during the summer of 2007.
The Bowdoin student project to which Gary Weaver refers occurred during the 2006-07 academic year when seven students conducted interviews with high school students around the state of Maine to inform the Mitchell Institutes's Barriers II study, which was released the following summer.
Since then, a number of programs have been implemented that address the findings of the study by connecting high school students to the Bowdoin campus and individual students. These programs include campus tours as well as the programs under the Aspirations in Maine program run through the McKeen Center.
Throughout the year, Bowdoin hosts multiple groups of students who can get a taste of the college experience, ranging from a half day for ninth-graders from the midcoast area to more overnight stays for juniors from northern Maine and, more recently, from eastern Maine.