Financial aid awareness month is upon us. Though we should spend time increasing awareness of financial aid options to prospective and current students and their parents, I challenge you to create more awareness within your institutional community about your work in the office of financial aid and how others can provide support and collaborate.
Financial friction is the number one reason students do not enroll and complete their college degrees. This is no small problem, and it cannot be owned and solved by a single department on campus.
Often, financial aid professionals spend their days putting out the fires created by a complex, outdated and under-resourced profession. So much time, in fact, that it’s easy to get caught in old policies and procedures and miss the opportunity to move the profession forward. I like to think about the future of the financial aid profession as one branded Student Financial Success. In this V2 of fin aid, investments get made into the broader discipline to address the friction that students and staff face in our current processes. (Shameless plug: I believe in this so much I authored a book about it.)
But let's take this one step at a time: If your team is anything like the many financial aid teams I have talked to, between historical undervaluation of the profession, pandemic pressures, decreased enrollment, tightening budgets and the great resignation, there is a lot of burnout occurring.
With some offices reporting up to 50% vacancy rates, immense knowledge and energy gaps are being created; even as college affordability is called into greater question. Did you know that burnout is a diagnosable condition? It is caused by an extended period of stress often worsened when an individual does not feel they have control. Is this starting to sound familiar to any fellow financial aid lifers?
If we do not want to condemn future generations of financial aid professionals to the same level of stress, anxiety and burnout that we face today, we need to act. Let's talk about how we can start to make a first shift on our campuses to garner support for every aid office before it goes any further.
Share what you do with others
If your first reaction is to say, “Everyone knows what we do – we process financial aid,” that is not enough. And if you think everyone should learn to hand-calculate an expected family contribution, that is probably a little too far in the other direction. Instead, consider landing somewhere in the middle, where we start to educate about the broader financial aid system—demystifying the profession for colleagues.
Conversations should be relevant and tailored.
For example, enrollment, marketing, faculty and athletics all have different interests and interactions related to financial aid. But the one thing they have in common is that they can be both megaphones and allies to the aid office if you take the time to equip them with knowledge and resources.
Faculty and student affairs professionals see students on a daily or weekly basis. They are often the first person a student who faces challenges goes to. How many more students could you help through professional judgment or emergency aid if you equipped these points of contact with information about emergency assistance and appeals.
Enrollment and admissions professionals engage with new students traversing the college financing journey for the first time. These professionals could provide better support, potentially reducing the questions you get if they understand the FAFSA.
Being strategic about educating and sharing what you do can help create transparency, understanding, and a support network that can reduce the workload you face.
Highlight challenges and achievements
When financial aid wins, everyone at the institution wins. Without financial aid, it would be nearly impossible for most institutions to fulfill their missions, with 86% of students at four-year institutions being awarded financial aid.
Tuition revenue is the lifeblood of colleges, and it is exceedingly hard to educate students if they cannot afford to attend college. Everyone has a personal stake in operating efficiently and effectively in financial aid. The more accessible and transparent we can make the funding journey; the more students can enroll and graduate from college.
Aid offices may find that as they lift the curtain and let people into their world, the more support they garner from the institution. Aligning goals cross-functionally can help increase support and access to resources from budget to people to technology. As part of this, we need to be honest and open about our challenges. We need to engage in conversations about what is working well in our offices and seek improvements, too. Trying to hide the truth about students’ experiences with the aid office will only slow down needed transformations and improvements.
Instead, use data to frame discussions about challenges you face. New aid requirements may cause this; like changing definitions, increased student financial need or changing demographics. Consider changes slated for the 24-25 aid year. How will you explain potentially drastic changes in aid offers from year to year? How will your institutional methodology change, if at all? Can you manage the increased volume of student questions?
What about current students facing financial changes, due to unemployment or underemployment due to COVID? Have you estimated the increased financial aid appeal volume that will be coming to your aid office? Apply a burden effort and share this information with relevant verticals on campus. Help them understand staffing levels compared to jobs to be done within the aid office to keep the institution in good standing with the Department and dollars flowing to both the school and your students.
Now might be the perfect time to make a case for technology to automate and support the aid office to do more with less. Even more important, though, could be asking how we can do less? It sounds a little counter-intuitive, but it is a crucial question.
What happens if we stop doing X? Would it improve the student experience, or reduce the aid office's workload all while reducing compliance risk? It sounds crazy – I know – but it is possible!
Improve and iterate what you are doing
Once you have found some of the challenges that impact both students and staff, create a plan to improve them. All too often, we think that improvements need to fix 100% of the problem we are facing. This often leads to a level of paralysis as we try to identify the perfect solution. Winston Churchill said it best when he said, "perfection is the enemy of progress."