After helping thousands learn how to afford college, Susan Fischer to retire

September 29, 2015 By Greg Bump

Susan Fischer has helped countless UW–Madison students navigate the complicated student financial aid system over the last three decades. One could say that thousands of degree holders would not have achieved their higher education goals without her and her team of dedicated colleagues.

Photo: Susan Fischer

Susan Fischer

So it may seem surprising that the woman who has dedicated most of her working life to helping others get the funds they need to attend college had never heard of financial aid when she was a student.

“Didn’t know it existed,” says Fischer, who is retiring at the end of this month after 11 years as director of the Office of Student Financial Aid at UW–Madison. “Going to undergrad, I worked while in school along with the help from my parents and my grandmother. Back then, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, with family kicking in some modest amount of money and work, you could get by without financial aid.”

Fischer earned a degree in natural resources and soils from UW–Madison, and after a short stint mapping soils in Indiana, returned to pursue a second undergraduate degree in natural resources and landscape architecture.

In 1979, she entered the financial aid office’s orbit. She had run out of money to attend school and was working a series of jobs when a friend told her that the UW financial aid office, then located behind the University Club, needed workers. She caught on as a limited term employee.

“I initially worked in processing, then the file room, and also managed a small state loan program; back then the budget wasn’t a whole lot better than it is now,” Fischer recalls. “I remember folks hoarding paperclips. I remember when the office purchased the first touchtone phone, you had to put your name in a hat to see who got it, and it was a used one. Everyone else was using rotary phones.”

“I remember when the office purchased the first touchtone phone, you had to put your name in a hat to see who got it.”

Susan Fischer

She discovered that she liked the work and was hired on a permanent basis in 1983. Over the years, she worked her way up the ladder, eventually becoming associate director in 1992 before applying for the director’s position a dozen years later.

“Working in financial aid is not intuitive,” she says. “The best training you can get for this job is being trained by financial aid people while working in a financial aid office.”

Having a grasp of numbers is helpful. But to work in financial aid, you also have to know how to listen, Fischer says.

“You will have a lot of hard conversations. While the amounts we are able to provide have improved dramatically over the last decade, it’s still not enough and you will have to counsel people who are going to be very disappointed in the amount they are getting,” she says. “If you don’t like students, we don’t have a place for you here. This is a student-centric office.”

Fischer is most proud of the collaborative spirit and team-oriented culture among the financial aid staff.

“Any success we’ve had as an office, or I have had as an individual in this office, has been the result of teamwork and all of us pulling together in the same direction,” she says. “I have been fortunate to have been surrounded by outstanding co-workers who care deeply about the students and our mission.”

“(Chancellor Blank) understands that we are not where we should be in terms of providing aid to students, and her plan to leverage funding through the capital campaign is an exciting opportunity.”

Susan Fischer

Fischer says while the amount of financial aid available has improved, there is still a ways to go to ensure cost is not a barrier for students who want to pursue a degree. With federal and state support remaining stagnant in recent years, the best hope for meeting future need is through endowment and scholarship funds, she says. For instance, the recently announced $50 million matching gift from Albert “Ab” and Nancy Nicholas will provide hundreds of new scholarships.

“Chancellor Blank wants every smart kid in Wisconsin to come here,” Fischer says. “She understands that we are not where we should be in terms of providing aid to students, and her plans to leverage funding through the capital campaign is an exciting opportunity. If it is successful, and I hope that it is, more Wisconsin students will be able to access a world-class education with less debt.”

Provost Sarah Mangelsdorf praises Fischer for her expansive knowledge of the constantly changing landscape of federal and state regulations governing financial aid.

“Susan is an incredibly engaged leader in financial aid matters at the state and national level, and has kept campus informed of impending changes,” Mangelsdorf says. “She also is one of the most humble and unassuming campus leaders, and her sense of humor always brought laughter to meetings. We will miss her spirited advocacy for need-based aid and her focus on serving students first and foremost.“

“I’m told by a few people who have retired, ‘You will not be bored — although initially I’d like to be a little bored.”

Susan Fischer

Fischer will retire on Oct. 2. She says her immediate plans include catching up on sleep, reading for pleasure, spending time with her grandson, and travel.

“I need to rejuvenate a bit,” she says. “Not checking email every 10 minutes is an exciting thought.”

She doesn’t plan on being a stranger to campus, and is looking for classes to audit. She plans to volunteer in prison ministry outreach through her church, and to be active with a local Girl Scouts chapter and the Humane Society.

“I’m told by a few people who have retired, ‘You will not be bored,’” she laughs, “although initially I’d like to be a little bored.”

Steve Hahn, vice provost for enrollment management, says Fischer’s work will influence the campus long after she retires.

“Susan has been a great director, a wonderful advocate for students, and a national voice in financial aid,” Hahn says. “I, along with her colleagues all over our campus, will miss her passion, advocacy, warmth and sense of humor.”