It's spring, so Stanford's Mary Morrison must be giving away millions

L.A. Cicero Mary Morrison portrait

Mary Morrison administers about 1,100 scholarship funds in the Office of Financial Aid.

Mary Morrison, director of funds management in the Office of Financial Aid, gives away millions of dollars in financial aid to Stanford students every spring. It's a job she has been enjoying for 18 years.

Morrison, who also teaches a course on financial literacy for Stanford students, talks about Stanford's endowed scholarship funds, some of the more interesting restrictions donors have placed on them and the financial knowledge of Stanford students.


You oversee the distribution at Stanford of all undergraduate institutional, federal and state undergraduate financial aid funds. Exactly how much is that?

Last year, it was $115,490,000. This year, we think it will be $118 million. That's just Stanford's portion. The government's money is about $11 million.


How many scholarship funds do you administer, and how are they invested?

There are about 1,100. They are part of the endowment pool that is invested by the Stanford Management Company.

Few places have this many scholarship funds, so there aren't many people who have my job anywhere. Our largest fund, incidentally, generates more than $4 million annually in income. It was from R. H. Anderson, who never went to Stanford. He found oil in Texas. He explained that if his partner hadn't gone to Stanford and learned how to find oil, he wouldn't have been successful.


Some of the scholarship funds have specific requirements. What are some of the most interesting ones?

First, all of our scholarships are for people with need. Maybe half have an additional requirement, and we have some fun ones. I like the scholarship for a woman who is "serious, but not too serious." I get to decide who that is. We have a couple that must go to people who have never been arrested. Of course, we don't know that, really.

One of the sweetest is the Japanese Student Association Scholarship. That comes from Japanese students who, during World War II, were in internment camps. When they left campus in 1942, they gave everything from their club to a friend who wasn't Japanese. Forty-five years later, Stanford had a ceremony to give those students their diplomas. During this reunion, they were sitting around wondering whatever happened to their stuff. Turns out it was still in this guy's garage. They found the club bankbook, and the account had accumulated 45 years of interest. They donated it for an endowed scholarship for students of Japanese descent.

We also got a will recently with a first preference for people from Pocatello, Idaho, and Medford, Ore., who are clean, neat and well groomed. We make sure that it goes to people from Idaho and Oregon, even if we can't quite be sure the students completely satisfy the donor's first preference.


How do you match students to scholarship funds?

You try to match people who need a certain amount with a fund that provides it. That's so students getting the aid feel as though there is someone who is actually supporting them.

We send aid recipients a letter explaining who gave the fund. That's true even if the donor has long since passed away. We want students to know there is a real person behind the money. We'll ask them to write the donor. Most do, and the letters can be quite touching. In fact, people will call years later when they are writing their own wills and ask for the name of the fund so that they can contribute to it. We get calls from alumni who will say, "Now that I am older, I understand what was going on."


Are there also funds that help students in financial crises?

We have a couple. For instance, a living donor recently gave us money for former foster kids and orphans to pay for the things that a parent might cover. We used it to help one student replace broken glasses. Also, we used the money to help someone pay for taking the MCAT [Medical College Admission Test]. Someone else needed money to go to New York for a job interview. We often pay the co-pay on some of their prescriptions. We pay for the graduation cap and gown for some. We have a list of kids who are former foster kids or who are orphaned and quite on their own. I write them yearly and tell them about the fund.


What about your experiences administering financial aid prompted you to start teaching a 1-credit course on financial literacy for Stanford students?

It all started when work-study students asked me questions about their paychecks. One young student told me she was going to call the police because the payroll office was stealing money from her paycheck. I asked for the evidence. She explained that she had worked 20 hours at $10 per hour and only got $180. She had a conspiracy theory about how the payroll office thought people wouldn't notice a few dollars here and there. That's when I explained withholdings.

I started asking around and heard stories about students who didn't know how to deposit checks or didn't know the difference between a credit and debit card. I love to teach, so I envisioned a class for maybe 25 students. The first night, there were more than 100. It has always been that way. It really touched a nerve. Stanford students are smart enough to know they don't know something. The class is really for people leaving Stanford. How much is going to come out of your check? What kind of insurance do you need? What is the difference between a PPO and an HMO?


Over the years, do you find students are becoming more savvy about money literacy?

No, and I've been doing this for 12 years. Back then, with the dot-com boom, they all thought they would be millionaires before the summer was out. Then there was a period in which everything was hopeless. So I explained economic cycles. The mood has shifted. I think they are more serious now because some have experienced parents losing jobs. They are, perhaps, a little more realistic.


You speak to high school students and parents about applying for financial aid. How many talks do you do and what do you find confuses people most about financial aid?

I do maybe 15 or so. Parents who haven't had kids in college before often think that if the kid got straight A's in high school, someone is going to pay for their child to go to college. People don't understand about need-based aid.

Sometimes people are surprised to learn they are, in fact, wealthy by financial aid standards. They may have heard about an expected family portion, but some think that it is the difference between what they bring home and what they spend. That's not how it works. So I explain how the numbers are calculated. People often don't have any idea about the cost.


Several years ago, Stanford significantly enhanced its financial aid programs. What difference has that made for students and families?

It has saved the day for lots of families.