Making a Living, by Giving

Jeff Zahn (Financial Aid) has had the pleasure of helping more than 18,000 St. Norbert College students benefit from more than $1.2 billion in financial aid and grants in a career that has spanned three decades – exactly.

Zahn’s tenure as director of financial aid will come to an end with his retirement Aug. 1, 30 years to the day from the date he joined the college in that role.

“We’ve touched a lot of lives and given out a lot of money,” says Zahn, who always uses the collective “we” when referring to the financial aid office. “One of the reasons we’re so successful is we’re all about ideas. It’s not about hierarchy. It’s the idea that counts, not the position of the person it’s coming from.”

Zahn’s title has been one of the few constants in a department that sees change as part of the territory and thrives off the dynamic that creates. From federal programs that come and go every few years to Title IX equity requirements and other legislation-mandated rules, Zahn and his team make it their mission to reduce stress levels for students and their families.

“The premise is still the same in that we try to make a complex process easy to understand for the families and students we serve,” he says. “We don’t allow that [legal] language and process to get in the way of their feeling comfortable applying for aid.”

Technology has brought about some of the biggest changes to the financial aid world. The amount of available electronic data has exploded in just the past few years, creating what Zahn calls a blessing and a curse for financial aid professionals.

Some of that data helps the 20 percent of St. Norbert students who fall into the neediest economic categories. A similar percentage of applicants are first generation college students.

“Despite the public perception that only rich kids come here, we service a population of kids that are needy, and without the assistance we provide, would not have the opportunity that this institution offers,” Zahn says. “Our goal is to make it possible. Sitting across from a family that is just so happy that this is possible is the reward in the end.”

Financial aid deals with both continuing and new students. Zahn says the number of applications has increased with the announcement of the college’s partnership with the Medical College of Wisconsin.

The office processes approximately 3,000 FAFSAs (Federal Applications for Free Student Aid) annually, and touches those documents perhaps double that amount because of the changes students make to their applications.

Zahn, who was a multi-sport athlete at Waterford High School in southeastern Wisconsin, enjoys following the Green Knight teams and expects to remain connected with the college in retirement.

“This place will never be out of me,” Zahn says. "Nobody ever grows up wanting to be a financial aid director. Thank God these kinds of professions find us, because this is what I was meant to be.”


July 9, 2014