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Up Close with Kris Wright

Kris Wright As the University's director of student finance since 2001, Kris Wright knows a thing or two about how students and families pay for a U of M education. Her office oversees everything from need-based scholarships to veteran's benefits to state and federal loans, but she'll tell you that her job is about far more than spreadsheets and regulations—at its core, it's about helping every student succeed.

How do students know how much aid they'll receive?

Many families and students start online. The U's website, for example, allows them to put in their adjusted gross income, the number of students in college, and that sort of thing, and get some idea of what kinds of aid would be available to them.

What's next?

They need to file their free application for federal student aid (FAFSA) and be admitted before we'll give them any estimate of their aid. We start sending out estimated award packages sometime after the end of March, with an explanation of what the awards mean. There's a lot for them to understand, and it's complex.

In the middle to end of July, we release students' final awards. About 10 days before school starts, we start disbursing funds. Hundreds of millions of dollars move at that point.

What are some common pitfalls?

We have a policy that says, "If you owe, you don't go." If a student owes more than $100 for a prior semester, they're not allowed to keep their registration. So inevitably we have 150 to 200 students who, for whatever reason, couldn't pay their bill.

What can you do for them?

Students whose parents have lost a job or have large medical bills or have had some other change in circumstances can file an appeal. We can sometimes adjust aid for those students. We can also adjust aid for students who may have broken with their families—for example, a gay student who's coming out and their parents refuse to acknowledge them. We have those every year.

It sounds like there's a real human element to this.

There is, because these are real students. Every single one has a different case. For example, students who are wards of the court have nobody to talk to if they're running short of money. It requires an incredible amount of energy and dedication for those students to be successful. And luck. There can't be a car breakdown. There can't be something like an illness in the family that calls them back home. As school becomes more and more expensive, those things create additional challenges.

We want to be sure they're given every opportunity. For example, low-income students who want to study abroad may not have the $400 deposit. We've built a bridge program for them, where we're essentially lending them the money before it would normally be available through their financial aid.

It's an art and a science.

Yes, it is. Many of these students are so young, and they don't know what they're getting into. We try to make sure they understand how important it is for them to do well. If they don't pass 75 percent of their classes, if they don't maintain a 2.0 grade point average, we can't give them more aid. The worst thing that can happen is when a student is not successful and leaves here with debt. That's always very difficult to see.

In your time at the U, how has the landscape of student finances changed?

It's a lot more expensive to go to school here, and the amount of aid that's available to an individual student hasn't gone up anywhere near as much as tuition and other costs. There are also more gadgets. Ten years ago you could use a computer lab and not have your own laptop. That's unthinkable now. Students are expected to be wired 24/7, so you've got to have a cell phone and a laptop. If anything goes wrong—you spill your coffee on your laptop—well, we only allow students to get one computer every four years with student aid. For a low-income student, that can be the end of the world.

How does scholarship support help?

Every student I've talked to who's received a scholarship is ever so grateful. From the student's perspective, $1,000 can make the difference between being able to stay in school versus having to leave.

We've done studies that show that students with named scholarships do better at school because they feel a connection with a donor. I've had the opportunity to attend a number of scholarship luncheons, and they're my favorite events because it's so great to sit with the students and listen to their plans and hear what scholarship support has meant to them. That's a fun part of my job, to listen to students going, "Thank you, thank you, thank you."

What do you do when you're not managing student finance?

I have two big dogs, a chocolate lab and a golden retriever. The lab's name is Moose, and he behaves accordingly. My husband and I travel a lot. I've been to lots of interesting places. People joke, "Where are you going next?" This year we went to Oman; we're hoping to go to Singapore next.