Rob Kniss brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the executive director position for Student Financial Aid and Scholarships.
“This is really where I wanted to be.” Kniss told me earlier this week.
Kniss comes to Texas Tech with over 17 years of experience in higher education; most recently from the University of Memphis where he served in the same capacity.
While at Memphis, he was responsible for the oversight and administration of more than $240 million in total disbursed aid, including $38 million in Pell Grants as well as exceeding amounts of $1 million in Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG), $105 million in federal loans, $8 million in private loans, $1 million in work-study and $90 million in institutional scholarships and grants.
Kniss began his work in higher education as an admissions advisor at Baker College of Owosso from 2005 to 2006 before returning to his alma mater, Michigan State University where would serve in various capacities for the next 11 years. He then moved to Albion College in Albion, Michigan serving as director of student financial services for two years before moving to the University of Memphis.
I sat down with Kniss to get his perspective on joining Enrollment Management.
Do you feel there are misconceptions regarding financial aid and if so, what do you hope to change?
I want our office to be seen as a collaborator across campus, and not as a roadblock to students. We are a service office that helps students. The misconception is that we don't help, which is incorrect. I want to work with other departments so we can create better plans moving forward.
I've always taken the approach that we are the helping hand. We must guide students along because they're not necessarily going to know everything about the financial aid process.
We've got to be very good at helping students navigate the process. We've got to make those federal sites more accessible. We must make ourselves more accessible. We've got to be at the forefront for the students.
Can you explain the relationship between scholarships and financial aid? Can a student utilize both at the same time?
Every student at every institution is given a cost of attendance based on different variables within the school. You build your cost of attendance on what the school charges for tuition and fees, room and board, books and personal and miscellaneous expenses that a student can incur. We take those components and build a cost of attendance, which is the maximum amount of financial aid a student can receive.
If a student brings in a scholarship, we apply it off the top. There are times we package financial aid up to the cost of attendance and then a student brings in a scholarship - maybe we don't find out or they got something from the department and didn't let us know right away – in which we must reduce something. Those conversations with students can be kind of difficult. They think they have this scholarship and are going to have an extra $2,000, and then we reduce something that they already had. You must explain to them they can't exceed the cost of attendance.
What made you decide Texas Tech would be the best fit for you, and how did you learn of the opportunity?
I knew Texas Tech would be a good fit for me because it is like Michigan State in relationship to size and student needs. I love the appeal of a large institution where I can make a lasting impact on positive, student-focused outcomes.
I heard about the opportunity from a colleague at another university. They contacted me telling me I would be a good fit.
How has your family adjusted to the move?
We moved to Shallowater. My wife and I have a daughter in college at Michigan Tech, a son that will be a junior in high school at Shallowater High School, and a daughter who will be a freshman at Talkington School for Young Women Leaders.
Coming from Memphis, it is nice to be out of the congestion of traffic as it took us an hour to get anywhere. We love the Lubbock area so far.
How beneficial has it been to start in the summer and not during a fall semester?
In financial aid, it doesn't matter because it's intense all year round. It's good to keep busy when you can be at a point of awarding, closing out and preparing for four different aid years all at the same time.
Audits usually hit in the summer, so we have to work around that as well. However, my favorite time of year at every institution is fall move in, seeing all the students moving in and their parents leaving them for the first time. The excitement and anticipation of a new school year makes our job worth it.
When you arrived at Memphis, you were charged with quite a bit which led to a promotion and eventually the opportunity to come to Texas Tech. Can you compare those situations and what differentiates the two?
Somebody asked me what the difference is between the Memphis and Texas Tech. I told them, for me, Texas Tech is a destination, it's not a stepping stone. This is where you want to be.
I loved my time at The University of Memphis. I had a great office and eventually a great team that I worked with. But I am someone that is constantly working toward better, and I saw things at Memphis that needed to be improved so we worked on them. I accomplished a lot of goals at Memphis, and I plan to do the same at Texas Tech.
Texas Tech is a larger institution than Memphis so there are a lot more students that I have a chance to positively impact and help succeed. I like that. My team and I will develop a plan that allows us to be effective and help students. That is our ultimate goal.
Did you have a specific set of expectations coming into the job and has your vision coincided with what you have experienced thus far?
I did not have a specific set of expectations. I know this office and division (enrollment management) has been very successful. My job is to help lead my team in continuing success while creating collaborations across campus.
My experience thus far has been that this is a great team and I am excited for the things we will accomplish.
It seems at your core, helping students reach their potential is your primary objective. Where did this passion come from?
There were times I was struggling undergraduate student, and my drive comes from that experience. I met a lot of people that cared about me as a student and helped me along. I want to be that guiding light for students and have our office there to help students be successful.
For you, what are some the top priorities to address heading into the fall?
Getting my family settled, my son and daughter into their new schools; fall registration; scholarship awarding; financial aid award letters; October 1 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) opening; packaging aid; sending out letters; conferences; outreach events; travel with admissions; vet school visit; staff appreciation; Texas Tech football; Texas Tech basketball.
Everything is a priority. I put family items first because I always tell my staff, “Family first, work will always be here.”