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  • Writer's pictureSarah Camp

30-Year Industry Expert Shares Her Knowledge

30-year industry expert shares her knowledge

We recently had a chance to sit down with Karen Cooper, the Manager of ELM's National Service Center, the country's leader in private student loan processing - to talk about how she's seen this industry grow and shift in the 30 years since she first started as a student worker. Karen has seen quite a bit during her career in the alternative loan space and has much to share, including tips for any new Financial Aid Office Advisor. Grab a cup of coffee and enjoy this Q&A with Karen Cooper.

How did you begin your journey into this industry?

Karen Cooper: I started as a student worker at Milligan College in Tennessee and interned for Public Relations with the Financial Aid office my senior year. I was intrigued by the ability to assist students in paying for college so that they could make their dreams a reality. I was also fascinated by how the financial aid office had to wear many hats – counselor, mathematician, legal aid (to interpret all the regs), advocate, public speaker, and more – all in one position. Those two years working in the Financial Aid office at Milligan began what has now been a rewarding 30 years in the industry.

What are some of the most notable changes in this industry since you started?

KC: I am probably giving away my age here, but in a relatively short time (30 years), we have come from using carbon copy loan applications and stuffing overnight envelopes full of paper applications to certifying with a mouse click. Before the extended right-to-cancel regulations, a school could certify a loan one day and have the funds in the student's financial aid account the next day.

How did you go from the Financial Aid Office to ELM?

KC: I attended an in-person conference hosted by ELM in 1999. While there, I found a great team of dedicated people that believe in the mission of ELM. I met ELM's VP of Operations and decided that I wanted to be her when I grew up. So, I decided to apply for the Regional Service Manager. Interestingly, when I started at ELM, we would travel to the schools, install the software on their computer, and then train the team in the office. Of course, this was before internet-based software.

Given your role focuses on relationships and support for schools and lenders at ELM, what commonalities are you seeing across the country right now?

KC: As with every industry, we find that our Financial Aid Officers want and need answers fast. Even though there is never a hold time on our phone lines, we see more schools using our chat feature to get answers quickly while continuing to work simultaneously. That is a considerable change over the last five years.

We also see that many young Financial Aid professionals don't stay in the same job long term while those that have been in the Financial Aid industry for years tend to remain.

Our focus with new FAOs is to ensure they know that we are here for them at the beginning of their introduction to ELM and throughout their entire tenure at their school. With so many folks working from home, that relationship becomes increasingly important. It's building that relationship that matters and becoming a resource for the long term.

What are some critical tips for new financial aid professionals?

KC:To stay in this industry long-term, you must see Financial Aid as a vocation, not an avocation. When I worked at one college, I posted a sign on the wall where I could see it daily.

It read,

"A student is not an interruption of our work – he is the purpose of it. We are not doing him a favor by serving him- he is doing us a favor by giving us the opportunity to do so. A student is not an outsider to our work – he is the purpose of it".

I see every meeting, phone call, and conversation in that light.

Saying "I don't know" is okay. We put so much pressure on ourselves (especially in this information age) to have the answer at our fingertips. People will respect and trust you more if you say, "I don't know, but I'll find out," and then do it. It's also okay to admit you've made a mistake – taking responsibility for an error is not a sign of weakness but of humanity.

Use all the resources available to you. You can be part of many great websites, conferences, webinars, and forums. Sites like Federal Student Aid Partners ( and NASFAA ( are great resources. Take the time to learn the sites and what information is available.

There are also state associations where you can make connections with colleagues. And if you have a Financial Aid Management system like Ellucian or Oracle, there are forums where you can discuss similar processes and find ways to make your work more efficient.

Make time for yourself and draw a line between work and home. A lot of people have shifted to working from home, and they aren't used to it. I've been working from home for 23 years. I had a 4-year-old and a 1-year-old when I started working from home, so I understand the challenge. If possible, set up your workspace in a place you can walk away from at the end of the day. Treat your home office as off-limits during family time. And during work hours, treat your home office as if you are not home.

Multi-tasking is a lie. People who "multitask" are great at moving quickly from one thing to the next but are still only dealing with one thing at a time. Frantic bouncing from one thing to another won't help in the long run. Focus on what you are doing at the time and finish it, so that you don't waste time bouncing back and forth.

What motivates you to stay in this industry?

KC: I love that the industry keeps changing and growing. Each day there are new people to meet or a new puzzle to solve. If you are the type of person that gets bored quickly, I recommend a career in Financial Aid. Just about the time you get used to doing things a certain way, the regulation changes, or a student presents a new challenge.

I also love teaching folks how to use ELM to make their lives easier. Knowing I am making a school task easier makes my day. Training, troubleshooting with a lender, or helping someone reconcile funds disbursed is very rewarding.

About Karen Cooper:

Karen Cooper, From ELM Resources at her desk

Karen Cooper has been a critical member of the ELM Team for 21+ years, providing training and support to ELM's school and lender clients. Before that, she enjoyed her work in the Financial Aid offices at Milligan College in Tennessee and Wheaton College in Illinois. She loves working at ELM because it allows her to help schools and lenders in their mission to assist students in making their dreams come true. Outside ELM, she spends time with her husband, two grown children, and friends. She is passionate about singing and helping others be/do their best.

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