Q&A with the Man Behind 7 Easy Steps to the FAFSA


Dr. Michael “Mike” Miller is more than the Director of Financial Aid and Scholarships at University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). This 18-year veteran of financial aid is also the idea man behind the 7 Easy Steps to the FAFSA video, a student’s guide to the application. Learn more about the video, how it came about and how this technologically-advanced DFA thinks financial aid is changing and will continue to evolve in the next few years.


Tell us how the idea for 7 Easy Steps to the FAFSA came about:

The idea for this project is actually kind of funny. I was at a professional conference in San Diego and after a long day of meetings, I grabbed my laptop and went to CNN.com to read the day’s news. A story caught my attention and when I clicked the link to read the story, I found no text, only video. It got me to thinking about user habits and how few people take the time to read anymore.

At that point, I started thinking about how that related to my work here at UCSB and the mistakes made on the FAFSA or even worse, those families that failed to complete the FAFSA because they found it too intimidating. From there the concept was born, and we released the first tutorial. The feedback we received from the financial aid community was overwhelmingly supportive, so we have continued to produce the tool every year since. The 2015-2016 release was our seventh, so it is pretty exciting for us.

Is the video just for UCSB students?

The video is available to the entire financial aid community, and it has really made our staff feel good, because we know we are helping students from across the country.

What do you believe is the greatest barrier to financial aid students?

From my perspective, the biggest challenge for students is navigating the financial aid application process. We have made great strides in the area of simplification, but there is still a lot of work to do.

Additionally, I’d love to see initiatives like prior-prior year and multiyear awards move forward. I’m just not sure how we expect first generation and low income students to navigate some of these processes and plan for their future at the same time. That is a big reason why we created the Seven Easy Steps to the FAFSA, A Student’s Guide to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid tutorial. We wanted to help families navigate the complex application.

How can financial aid departments combat [the barrier above]?

As financial aid administrators, I think we owe it to our students to be able to explain complex concepts in an easy-to-understand manner. By using online tutorials, we have accomplished that; students and parents can watch the tutorial while they are working on their FAFSA application. We have created other tutorials for processes like the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, and the verification process as well. Overall, we have had great success, and we have seen a notable decline in errors and questions.

[Tweet “”Multimedia tools…that is the way students are consuming information these days.” -DFA Mike Miller”]

What role do you think video will play in financial aid in the future?

I’d love to see the Department of Education come up with a series of short videos on various topics to make the application process – as well as things like loan repayment and consolidation – easier to understand. There is a great deal of opportunity with the use of multimedia tools, and that is the way students are consuming information these days.

What other efforts does UCSB make to educate students on financial aid?

Great question and one we are always evaluating. We offer standard services like online counseling, newsletters, direct emails and a terrific website, but I still feel like our best education comes when we get to interact face-to-face with our students. Given the cost of higher education, financial aid issues have been on the rise here at UCSB. So, we have really tried to increase our visibility by offering office hours throughout the campus. That has helped in a number of ways, including student relationships.

How does USCB’s financial aid department leverage technology?

We have a very talented and smart IT group here at UCSB. I live by the saying, “Hire smart people and then get out of their way,” and it has really helped.

I am so fortunate to have people like Lisa Goto, Logan Franken, Nathan Cook and Jason Valencia on my team. They are brilliant minds and they are constantly looking for ways to leverage technology. We are currently in the process of implementing a new financial aid system, so it is an exciting period for us. We are really examining our business processes and looking for ways to improve the level of service we provide the UCSB community through the use of technology.

What else would you like to say about financial aid in 2015-16 and beyond?

I go back to multiyear awards. It is so difficult for families to plan for the ever increasing higher education costs, especially at a four-year institution. Families commit to an institution with just one year of funding in most cases. I’d love to see us rethink our financial aid programs so that at risk students know they have the resources to start and finish their degree objectives. I can’t think of another business that operates like financial aid in that it is so difficult to map your four years financially. I truly love my job, so thinking about future financial aid options and programs is exciting and fun for me!

See 7 Easy Steps to the FAFSA video here.


Dr. Michael “Mike” Miller grew up on the Skokomish Indian Reservation. He attended Linfield College in McMinnville, OR and received his doctorate from Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara. He has three daughters, Olivia, Emma and Tiger. He is a first generation college student and is grateful for what higher education has provided for him and his family.


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