tampabay.com

They dine on lender dimes

Sources of student loans routinely sponsor events for college aid officials.

By TOM MARSHALL
Published May 16, 2007


Student Loan Xpress pays for breakfast and Sallie Mae springs for lunch.

That has been business as usual for the state and national associations of college financial aid officials, which have traditionally let their students' lenders pay most of the costs for their annual meetings.

Even in the midst of state and federal investigations this spring into the links between colleges and lenders, those arrangements have continued.

When the Florida Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators meets for a three-day spring conference next week at the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel and Marina, lenders including Bank of America and Nelnet will pay $128,000, around three-quarters of the conference bill, for everything from meals to speakers.

At the national association meeting this summer in Washington, most sponsorship opportunities -- from badge lanyards to beverage breaks -- have already been sold. But for $6,000 the right lender can still sponsor the final breakfast and speaker, with the "option to provide a gift" to attendees. Top sponsorship billing costs around $12,000.

Lenders are told their contributions could make or break their business deals with college aid officials.

"These decisionmakers need to purchase your products and/or services and they are more likely to buy from companies that have high visibility at our conference," the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators Web site urges. "Increase your exposure by becoming a sponsor."

But such benefits wouldn't cause most university officials to recommend some lenders to students over others, said a spokesman and past president of the Florida association.

"There's not a lunch in the world that could buy my business," said Bill Spiers, who also runs the financial aid office at Tallahassee Community College.

He said many other professional associations rely on sponsors, but his was already talking about how to run meetings without so much support from lenders, even if that raises member costs and results in fewer big-name speakers.

"If we've done anything that creates the appearance of impropriety, we're going to attempt to fix it," Spiers said.

The Florida organization has been talking about the ethical dimensions of its work, including its links to lenders, for years.

But he said the group didn't anticipate the scope of this spring's investigations, in which lenders and colleges are being investigated by Congress, the federal government, and Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum over potentially illegal revenue-sharing or other agreements.

At their 2003 annual meeting near Orlando, members heard a keynote address on "The Financial Aid Profession and Everyday Ethics" by Robert Lavat, senior vice president and general counsel for Sallie Mae.

Afterward, Spiers acknowledged, "Some lender did pay for the lunch as a contribution to the association."

Meals and cruises

Such contributions have also been common at the regional and national associations.

At its 2004 executive board meeting at the Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa in St. Petersburg, the Southern Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators reviewed a budget that included $137,950 in sponsorships for an annual meeting that cost $159,682, according to published board minutes.

Student Loan Xpress, Sallie Mae and Bank of America handled the meals.

At the 2005 meeting of the national association, J.P. Morgan Chase footed the bill for a $74,000 dinner cruise around Manhattan, where "financial aid officers dined on five spice quail and filet mignon," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, who is leading one investigation.

Among the participants on that cruise were two representatives from Florida Community College of Jacksonville, said Rachel Racusen, a representative for the committee.

A spokeswoman for the national association said it was currently reviewing its business practices and planned to develop a code of conduct.

Such free meals -- whether in New York or Florida -- would likely be illegal under the Student Loan Sunshine Act, which bans all gifts and revenue-sharing agreements between schools and lenders. It passed the U.S. House of Representatives last week by a 414-3 vote and is being considered by the Senate.

"These are not charitable organizations," said Luke Swarthout, a higher education advocate in the Washington office of Florida Public Interest Research Group. "This is an effort to buy access to people who are very influential in the student loan process."

But Spiers, spokesman for the Florida association, said the lender-funded conferences provide essential training opportunities for financial aid officers.

"I'm not going to tell you at night there haven't been conga lines," Spiers said. "But you spend your day listening to topics that are sort of like watching grass grow."

He said his organization was sensitive to the influence of lenders. When former president Tom Judge, a financial aid officer at the University of Miami, took a job with lender Wells Fargo, the association insisted that he relinquish his position, Spiers said.

But he acknowledged that it saw no problem with allowing a Sallie Mae executive to serve as "special assistant to the president" during Judge's eight-month tenure.

"Do we need to make some changes?" Spiers asked. "We probably do. Are there rogue members? Yes.

"(But) as a body, I think we represent one of the highest ethical positions in the United States."

The Florida association lists 50 sponsors for next week's conference, including most of the large lenders now doing business in Florida.

Sponsors are invited to contribute at levels ranging from bronze ($750) and gold ($5, 000) to platinum ($7,500 and up.)

But as a result of the recent investigations, the association decided recently to make all sponsorships general, rather than tied to specific meals or other functions.

"We've had a reduction in sponsorships, and we've had to make reductions," Spiers said. "It's had an impact on the revenue stream."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.