To Samantha McCarron, NIU is home.
In her new role as director of NIU’s Financial Aid, she wants to help students and families feel the same way.
“My big goal is to demystify financial aid and make it more relatable, understandable and approachable,” she said.
Earning her master’s degree at NIU, McCarron has worked on campus for more than a decade. She officially became the director of Financial Aid on Sept. 1, after serving as acting director since Oct. 1, 2020.
It’s not a position she necessarily thought she’d end up in when she took an entry level job in the Office of the Bursar years ago. She’d just moved to DeKalb with her husband, James, who’d been admitted into NIU’s College of Law.
Within a couple years, McCarron had transferred to Financial Aid, where she steadily advanced from counselor to assistant director to associate director and eventually to acting director.
“Since last October Samantha has done a tremendous job of leading the office in an acting role, despite the many challenges and impacts from COVID-19. She has an immense knowledge of financial aid practices and regulations, as well as experience at NIU, including almost ten years of increasing leadership roles within the Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships,” said Sol Jensen, vice president for Enrollment Management, Marketing and Communications.
“I am impressed with Samantha’s vision for the future of the office, including strategies for utilizing financial aid to attract students and ensure their success at NIU. She is collaborative, analytical, a creative problem solver and is passionate about assisting students in achieving their academic aspirations. NIU is in a great place and will benefit from Samantha’s vision and leadership.”
McCarron may not have expected to end up where she is today, but she can’t imagine her journey at NIU taking her elsewhere.
She remembers first coming to DeKalb with her husband, a young couple “with no money in our pockets.” She knows the value NIU’s Financial Aid offers and is committed to helping students and their families navigate through their options.
She doesn’t have control over certain factors, such as the amount of federal and state funds given to each student, “but I can control how we interact with students, and how we provide our services to be consumable for students,” she said.
“We’ve done a lot of work over the past 10-ish years to make that better, but there’s still a lot more to be done,” she said.
In the past couple years, she said, the Financial Aid and Scholarship Office has revamped the way in which students are notified of aid offers and has worked hard to clarify for students the differences between forms of financial assistance, including grants, scholarships, loans and work opportunities.
The office also has worked to develop clear guides for students and families on understanding costs and financial aid, how to apply for NIU’s scholarship and financial aid, next steps and how to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.
McCarron’s office also screens for common mistakes and tries to weed them out.
For instance, she says, “We sometimes see students who accidentally enter parent tax information as their own, which could cause them to have decreased eligibility for certain types of aid, so we ask for clarification.”
She also recommends families review the information being entered on the FAFSA, which uses tax information from a previous year. When a student is filling out the FAFSA for the 2021-22 school year, 2019 tax information is used. However, many families experience a change in circumstances from year to year.
“A lot of people don’t know they can contact their school to request an adjustment based on their current income,” McCarron said.
Her next general piece of advice to students is to read through their emails and ask questions.
“We always want them to talk to us, to be proactive, and use the Financial Aid Office as a partner,” she said.
As the director of Financial Aid, McCarron said she serves three populations—the students and their families, NIU and the federal and state agencies.
“We have obligations to all three of those parties,” she said. “Trying to be creative to come up with new ways to maximize enrollment and help to students, while staying within our budget, certainly keeps you on your toes.”
Still, she’s up for the challenge.
“I have more than a professional investment in NIU,” she said. “This is our home.”