New Program Helps Incoming Students, Families Map Out College Plan

A student and her family talk with a financial planning advisor Image by Ed Brennen
Assoc. Director of Student Financial Services Monica Vachon, left, goes over loan options with incoming student Nicole McClung and her parents, Jeff and Terri, at University Crossing.

By Ed Brennen

Amid all the anxiousness and excitement of applying to college, capped by the euphoria of high school graduation, it’s easy for students and their families to put off questions and concerns about paying for higher education.

Even those with a clear financial picture of freshman year may not be able to envision the bigger four-year plan.

To help incoming students and their families navigate their options and plan for the long haul, the university has rolled out several new ways of providing information, including one-on-one financial aid planning sessions with a team of expert staff members from the Solution Center, Financial Aid and Student Financial Services.

Launched as a pilot program for 60 families in the spring of 2017, the program doubled in size this year, with 120 families registering for 30-minute appointments offered on three dates in June at University Crossing and the Campus Recreation Center.

Students who made their deposit to UMass Lowell, were awarded a financial aid package and completed their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) verification (if required) received an email invitation to the sessions. Students in the River Hawk Scholars Academy also were invited.

During their one-on-one meeting, participants could ask questions about everything from grants, scholarships and loans to the cost of residence halls, meal plans, health insurance and projected tuition and fees.

“There’s so much for families to think about, so this is a great chance to help them feel less overwhelmed,” says Senior Asst. Director of Financial Aid Someris Rivera, a member of the Financial Wellness & Financial Planning Committee, which designed the new program.

A student and her mother talk with a financial planning advisor Image by Ed Brennen
Asst. Director of Financial Aid Christine Robbins, right, answers a question from Cristina Lemus and her mother, Lidia Martinez.

“A lot of families have special circumstances that they’re not comfortable talking about in a big group, so this gives us the opportunity to connect with them on an individual level,” adds Rivera, who helped welcome students and parents to the third and final round of sessions on a recent Wednesday afternoon at UCrossing.

One of the first to check in was incoming Honors biology major Cristina Lemus and her mother, Lidia Martinez, from Lynn.

“I was a bit lost in the whole financial aid process, so I decided this session would be helpful,” says Lemus, who was able to review her financial aid award and see her estimated costs using the online financial planning tool. Her mother, meanwhile, learned more details about the online monthly payment plan.

Nicole McClung, an incoming mechanical engineering major from Merrimac, Mass., and her parents, Jeff and Terri, spent much of their session asking questions about student loans.

“I was trying to figure out whether or not I want to do subsidized or unsubsidized loans, and what the best plan is for me,” says McClung, who came to the session sporting her school pride in a Francis College of Engineering T-shirt.

“It was nice to sit down one-on-one and help you compare interest rates,” her father adds. “We got a lot of our questions answered.”

For those unable to attend a one-on-one session, the university has also added hourlong financial aid planning presentations for families during the first morning of the two-day student orientations. There are also one-hour presentations offered during transfer student orientations, and a webinar will be held in August for out-of-state students. Families can also find resources online and contact the Solution Center with questions either in person, via email or by phone.

An advisor speaks with a student and her mother Image by Ed Brennen
Financial Aid Program Coordinator Rachael Otoo, right, meets with Malerie Glasser and her mom, Paulette, at UCrossing.

“We want them to walk on campus, Day 1, having a financial plan and knowing how they’re going to finance their degree,” says Solution Center Director Tara Krch. “We don’t want them trying to figure that out a few months in, when they’re already invested as a River Hawk.”

While the university has long offered tools and resources for financial aid planning, both online and in person at the Solution Center or during events like open houses, it has only been able to track their success anecdotally.

By utilizing its Salesforce customer relationship management software to schedule the new one-on-one sessions, Krch says her office will be able to gather metrics that will show what kind of impact the program is making.

“The metrics are huge,” Krch says. “We’ll be able to see if this contributes to a reduction of questions that come in down the road, or if we see a reduction in financial holds.”

Which leads to the program’s ultimate goal: to increase students’ success and retention by promoting their long-term financial health.

“We know that across higher education as a whole, a major component of success and retention is students and families knowing how they’re going to pay for school from one semester to the next,” Krch says. “So this is a win-win – for us as a staff servicing students and for families having confidence and feeling empowered to move forward.”

Krch says the university hopes to add even more one-on-one sessions next year, with the possibility of extending them into July and August.

“Our goal is to reach as many students as possible,” she says. “I think it’s really going to make an impact for a lot of students.”