Last week, I discussed three important strategies higher ed leaders—particularly those in financial aid—could (and should) be used to make the shift from a financial aid mindset to one of Student Financial Success. As we end #FinAidFeb, I want to highlight two more pivotal components to this mindset shift: Focusing on the things we can control and transcending beyond what we thought was possible for ourselves and our institutions.
The financial aid system has been built to punish those who make mistakes, leading many in the industry to feel pressure to achieve perfection. However, that is not possible, nor does this mindset benefit students. To progress and improve, we need to gain comfort in the fact that the first attempt to make this better will not be our last. Small steps and adjustments can be more advantageous in process improvement than a full rip and replace.
Begin with a single process that is causing challenges at your school: It could be verification, professional judgment, call volume or a dozen other things. Review your current process and workflow to identify the choke points for your students and staff. Measure where you stand at the current state with some simple metrics that can continue to be evaluated. Find modifications that can be made immediately and then implement them.
Take verification, for example. Did you know that the amount of time it takes a school to process verification can impact where a student eventually enrolls? In a recent survey conducted of current and former students, when asked how long they would wait for their first-choice school to process before they would begin to consider a second choice-school – 58% said this would happen within one month. Let's break that down: If your verification file review time is typically four to six weeks, more than half of those students are now considering attending a second-choice school. That is powerful and something that you can begin to address today.
Evaluating your verification process to ensure it is as simple as possible reduces the amount of time both students and staff spend in verification hell. Consider a holistic and straightforward review of your verification, where at every step of the process you ask, why do we do that? And what would happen if we stopped doing that?
We all know verification is a necessary evil in the financial aid process, especially for low-income and first-generation families who are twice as likely to be selected. As the ones tasked with processing verification, aid offices need to do a deep dive into their requirements and reduce them to address the minimum federal requirements.
Consider this: If a school has a blanket requirement to collect documentation that validates dependency status, this is potentially a case of over-verification and complexity that delays and de-rails the student. Fewer required documents means fewer documents that need to be imaged, indexed and reviewed by staff members.
Focus on the things you can control
In a world where people feel less control overall, focusing on what we can control has become a survival strategy, and it’s a key component in fighting burnout. Identification of what we can and cannot control is essential, but it must also be done judiciously.
Please do not use this as an excuse to blame everyone else for poor experiences and outcomes, while not taking any responsibility for things within our control.
Instead, we need to recognize that we cannot control certain things. That doesn’t mean we cannot influence and control our reactions. Financial aid offices have shown an eagerness to adjust and reduce barriers to college for students.
As a simple example, we cannot control changing requirements and guidance from the Department of Education. However, we can control how and when we communicate these changes to students. Generating clear communications, written in language that students understand—with clear impact and next steps can help improve awareness. Providing access to students through a virtual assistant allows students to ask questions in an anonymized environment.
In its simplest form, we can control the student experience. Financial aid employees control how they engage and communicate with students— they can ensure that communications are accessible to the student, regardless of financial aid knowledge and experience.
So, what does the student experience when they meet with a counselor? How long do students and parents wait to get answers to their routine questions? All these individual experiences are under the control of the aid office. They’re also ideal areas to examine when exploring how to iterate and improve. To be clear – I know that there are a lot of difficult time-consuming conversations that take place in financial aid. Are we approaching them in the most compassionate way we can? It is okay for a student to not like the information or answers they receive, but the information must be presented clearly, devoid of judgment and with clear next steps. This is well within the control of aid professionals.
Transcend beyond what you thought possible
I am sure that many of you look back over the past two years and point to countless changes and advancements you have made to support your students as we all navigate a remote world. No matter how much you have accomplished, there is more ahead. Higher education is at an inflection point, squeezed by a demographic cliff, reduced trust and belief in the return on investment in education and a looming end to pandemic-era dollars. We will be challenged to re-invent the institutions we serve, and the services delivered.
To transcend is to go beyond what was thought possible. And, if anyone is well-positioned for this challenge, it is financial aid professionals. I remember when I was told it was impossible to have a paperless verification process. The long-standing practice was that students would always visit the aid office, whether they liked it or not. But all of this has changed. All boundaries can be pushed, even surpassed, if we approach them thoughtfully.
Regulatory framework is the most common pushback I get when talking about revolutionizing finances and transcending our limits. Some of the greatest minds in financial aid have the best understanding of regulation – not so they can use that knowledge to say no to students. Instead, this deep is used to create new opportunities that unlock previously unavailable dollars for students.
At its core, we need to shift from a financial aid mindset to one of Student Financial Success. This methodology is the future of financial aid; a future where investment is made to address the number one barrier to college enrollment, retention and completion – paying for college.