20 Questions: Student loan services and debt

Susan Godreau, Head of Financial Aid at SUNY Potsdam. Christopher Lenney/ NNY Business

Susan Godreau is SUNY Potsdam’s director of financial aid, and has worked in the financial aid office since 2005. NNY Business sat down with Godreau to talk about student services, financial aid stresses and confusion and how students can prepare for loan repayment. 

NNYB: When did you first start working at SUNY Potsdam, and in what capacity?  

GODREAU: I started part-time in 2004 in (the women and gender studies) department and started in financial aid in 2005.  

NNYB: What services are provided through SUNY Potsdam’s financial aid office?  

GODREAU: I guess from start to finish, it is our focus to help students find funding to help them achieve their educational goals — in receiving a bachelor’s, master’s degree, a certificate in some cases — and overall we manage the institutional, federal and state funds, as well as outside scholarships. So it’s a very broad area, but it has everything to do with trying to help find a package that works for students so they can attend college.  

NNYB: And what do you do in your role as director of SUNY Potsdam financial aid?  

GODREAU: My primary job is to be the person in charge of all of these programs, but of course, I cannot do that by myself, so our wonderful staff takes charge of particular parts of those pieces. I manage the process overall, and I make sure it’s done in a timely fashion, that we start receiving the FAFSAs after they are available on Oct. 1. I schedule staffing in general, I make sure there’s enough staff available so that students can be helped when they most need it and when they first arrive on campus. I set certain internal policies in terms of what needs to be provided to students so that they have all the information they need in order to make decisions.  

NNYB: Have you always wanted to work in student services or higher education in some way?  

GODREAU: I don’t think anybody goes to college thinking, “Oh, I want to work in financial aid.” I didn’t so much think about higher education as where I wanted to work originally — my path led elsewhere — but I am very happy to be in this environment. It is always changing and is always full of opportunities and some challenges too. But there are always interesting things going on and the students are just wonderful to work with. Over the years, you meet so many different kinds of people that it’s just great to see what energy and ideas they come with. And when they graduate it’s always a pleasure to see them go into the world and do what they were meant to do. So it’s very inspiring.  

NNYB: Did you hold similar roles at other institutions before SUNY Potsdam?  

GODREAU: This is the first institution of higher learning that I was in. I was more in the medical field and spent some time at home with my children and was active in other organizations, but not so much career-wise. But then when I made the shift to the working world again, this just became a good fit. … I just really took to it. My interest has often been with finances and things like that, and although this is not the same as finance, it was still a good fit in terms of my leaning towards numbers.  

NNYB: Have you always lived in Northern New York?  

GODREAU: We moved as a family to Northern New York in 1994. My kids were in elementary and middle school, and my husband started working in this area, so we came as a package and have loved it ever since. Before we moved here we came from Massachusetts.  

NNYB: Where did you complete your education?  

GODREAU: I got my undergraduate degree from Tufts University and my master’s degree from Babson College.  

NNYB: How was financial aid and the processes associated with it different when you were a student?  

GODREAU: When I was a student, everything was of course paper, that’s one big thing. Really since I’ve worked here, right around that time, the FAFSA started to be online, but even that whole process has completely changed since I started working in financial aid. So more and more things were done electronically — master promissory note, entrance counseling, the whole FAFSA, the electronic signatures — everything has become very electronic-based. The same thing with communications with the students. Although we still send paper award letters, we do most of our communications via email and text.  

NNYB: Have you noticed any trends in how financial aid has changed, not necessarily just at SUNY Potsdam, but generally, since you’ve been involved in financial aid?  

GODREAU: I think that because the cost of college and the cost of living, everything, continues to go up, it is difficult sometimes to have the financial aid source available to students keep up with that increase. I find that it is more challenging for families, and it could be that the students are changing too, of course, for families to afford to go to college in general, not just at Potsdam, but anywhere. This is a challenge for us as an institution, as it is for most institutions, to have some sort of a mix of financial aid that allows a student to come. So it does continue to be challenging.  

NNYB: What are some of the most common questions about financial aid that students come to your office with?  

GODREAU: There are many. The first part of any financial aid package is always completing the FAFSA, and that’s where the questions start. How do I fill this out? Who do I count as part of my household? Students can get confused on every question, and we’re definitely interested in helping them through that process so they can answer the questions correctly, because usually it’s to their benefit to have the information done correctly the first time. But 30% of students who receive federal aid are selected for verification, and we do ask for additional documents for those students. So if they didn’t do it right, then we may find errors at that point. … So that’s just the federal aid, then there’s state aid, so more opportunity for confusion. It can be so overwhelming for a family that they totally just try to step away and not get involved in it, and that’s the part that we have to bridge — making sure that everybody who wants to pursue any aid and is confused by the process that we can help them do so.  

NNYB: Aside from answering student questions, how do you help alleviate some of the stresses of financial aid?  

GODREAU: Certainly our staff is very dedicated, and we want to be available. I have to say, if a student reaches out, then we’re here to help them. It’s difficult to reach a student if you don’t know that they need help and they haven’t reached out to us. So that is always the difficult part, but if a student says “I am overwhelmed, I don’t even know where to start,” then we make an appointment and we just start at the beginning and see how far we get, make another appointment and continue with that process. And the same thing for families, if there’s a family here in Potsdam applying to a school in Pennsylvania, then they are welcome to come over and get our help with the FAFSA if they need it. We’re employees of the state of New York, and we’re here because of the taxpayers of New York, so we’re available to them. We’re not stingy with our help and advice.  

NNYB: Can you briefly describe how a loan to fund someone’s education works?  

GODREAU: Loans are money that you can receive from either the federal government or private education lenders to fund your education. With loans, you have to sign an agreement that you promise to pay it back, so it’s not free money, you do have to pay it back. And that’s the difference with scholarships and grants.  

NNYB: How do scholarships and grants differ from loans?  

GODREAU: Although some of them may have some strings attached, it’s generally money you are not expected to pay back. Work-study is a federal aid that is used to help students get jobs, in most cases it’s on campus, but there are some campuses that may have agreements with off-campus sites. Here, it’s just on-campus. Scholarships can come from many different places — something like a foundation down in Watertown, it could be our institution, it could be your high school, so there are many different places that you can look for scholarships. I think of grants as being primarily the federal and state grants, and those are generally outright grants, but certain ones, Excelsior, and others as well, do have something called a service agreement, where you promise some residency, in this case, so you can keep it as a grant. If not, then it will be converted into a loan. 

NNYB: Can you explain what the New York State Excelsior Scholarship Program is?  

GODREAU: Excelsior will pay for all of tuition as long as you don’t have other scholarships and grants that could pay tuition. It can be a little confusing for students, because they don’t always understand that connection between other grants and scholarships and the Excelsior program.  

NNYB: Who is eligible for the Excelsior program and what does it entail?  

GODREAU: The Excelsior Scholarship right now has a maximum family federal adjusted gross income of $125,000, so if your parents make $124,000 and you make $4,000, then you’re over the limit. If you don’t exceed that maximum, then you’re eligible to apply for it. However, if you receive other grants and scholarship funding, that will reduce the amount that you’re eligible for under an Excelsior. With Excelsior, for every year that you receive it, you commit a year to live in New York.  

NNYB: Does SUNY Potsdam offer its own scholarships? Are they merit-based or need-based?  

GODREAU: It does. They’re merit-based. We do have some discretionary money the state provides that we can give for need-based type of aid, but the scholarships are given as a merit-based award.  

NNYB: Does the financial aid process or availability differ for international students?  

GODREAU: They are eligible to apply for institution scholarships, but they are usually not eligible for federal or state aid.  

NNYB: How does the financial aid office help students prepare for loan repayment? 

GODREAU: The federal government has an online process and we use that process for entrance and exit counseling. We don’t have additional processes, but we do take advantage of when students come in and they’re juniors and seniors, we talk about what to expect when they graduate, that they can expect a grace period or if they go on to graduate school, their loans will stay in deferment.  

NNYB: What advice would you give to students about loan repayment as they are heading toward graduation?  

GODREAU: I would start before that, that’s the first thing. I would say to students, understand what financial aid you have and what your responsibilities are for it. And understand that some of this financial aid you will probably be repaying, just so that they take it seriously. It always pains me when a student comes in and says, “How come I owe this?” I want to make sure we start that conversation as soon as we start seeing them in the office, so it starts way before they’re getting ready to leave. Of course when they get ready to leave, we always want to have, as part of that conversation, know who your loan servicer is. If you’re getting emails from your loan servicers, you want to set up an account so you can access the information about your outstanding loans at any time, so that you can contact them when you graduate and set up a repayment plan. In a way, because so much of it has been delegated to an electronic format, it’s easier for people to tune it out or think it’s junk mail or just ignore it. So it’s important that we reiterate messaging about what it is they’re taking out for financial aid, what it means and what their next step is, when that time comes.  

NNYB: What other values, besides monetary value, would you associate with pursuing a higher education? In other words, why spend this money and go through all these processes to go to school?  

GODREAU: I always think that if you’re going to invest in yourself, then make a wise investment. Put in the effort and the time so that you get out of it at least what you put into it, just like with any investment. So I think there’s lots of data about the value of a college degree, but in the end, it’s all about what you put into it. Spend your time wisely, spend your money wisely, and go forth and prosper.  

~Interview conducted by Ellis Giacomelli. Edited for clarity and length to fit this space.