Ray Holbrook counsels for financial aid success

He’s not a basketball coach, but Tennessee Tech University Financial Aid Director Ray Holbrook knows everyone needs to make a rebound sometimes.

That’s why, at the end of each semester, he counsels groups of students whose poor academic performance or class attendance has put them in danger of losing financial aid.

“They essentially get letters presenting them with a second chance,” he said.

Holbrook says the inspiration for his unique policy came partly from principles in the book Success is a Choice by former University of Kentucky and current University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino.

“That book really made an impression on me because its principles apply not only to basketball, but to everything in life,” Holbrook said. “It teaches readers how to put themselves in positions to be successful, and that’s also the lesson I try to convey when I talk to students.”

Students are required to attend one of several prearranged meetings listed in the letters they receive, and at the end of the session they choose to attend, they must sign forms verifying they are aware of the criteria they must meet to continue receiving financial aid.

And it must be working because his financial aid counseling has a success rate of nearly 50 percent after being in practice for only three years. “We sent out 172 letters at the end of the Fall 2003 semester, and out of that number, 80 students complied.”

Holbrook’s incentive for establishing the policy was a 1996 Department of Education decision to take away federal financial aid of students moving unsatisfactorily toward earning a degree.

Performance is considered satisfactory if the student has a 2.0 or better grade-point average and has successfully completed a given number of classroom hours depending on his or her classification.

The new regulation requires colleges and universities to monitor students’ class attendance and grades more stringently. “And we were somewhat surprised to find that some students with high academic histories — for example, ACT scores of 32 — were performing relatively poorly,” he said.

Holbrook says he realized that TTU accepts only students who possess the skills to earn a degree — and that each university employee works to see each student graduate.

“Therefore, I wondered why so many students don’t reach the finish line, and decided it’s because something — personal or family illness, work conflicts, poor time management or simply too much socializing — stands in their way,” he said.

So at each financial aid session, he tells students about the Counseling Center, Career Services, faculty advisers and other campus offices that can help them be more successful in the classroom.

“Teaching them to eliminate their obstacles to academic success — and doing it with a positive attitude — will allow them to focus on what is most important and allow them to keep their financial aid and earn their degrees,” Holbrook said.

“Students who do well or poorly are easily noticed, but those who are in between don’t get the same attention,” he continued. “And this practice is not only an intervention to help stop problems in their formative stages, it also supports the efforts of advisers, faculty, staff and administrators in all other campus departments.”

Rebecca Tolbert, associate vice president of Academic Affairs, agrees. “It’s a real team effort in student retention,” she said.

Holbrook says one of his future goals is to see the policy become even more successful.

“I’d like to see the success rate increase — but at least I know we’ve made an impact with half of the students that have been counseled,” he said.

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