Every person has life-altering moments that are key turning points in their life—moments that shape and change the path they will take moving forward. Some moments are more significant than others and impact not just individuals but families, communities, industries, and nations. Often, these experiences are relatively quick, taking place over a matter of hours or weeks, and these are the ones we recognize through hindsight and reflection. Rarely, however, these moments are so much larger that their magnitude is noticeable instantly. For example, my parents will forever remember where they were when they heard JFK had been shot. I know exactly where I was on the morning of September 11. Both examples are significant, yet relatively quick and finite moments in time, events in our history that forever changed and shaped the lives of many people forever.
We currently find ourselves in the middle of an unprecedented and life-changing event. The coronavirus pandemic is something that will change each of us personally, as well as reshape the profession and industry of higher education. We are in the middle of a scale-tipping event that offers institutions only two choices: evolve or die. What does this mean for financial aid offices? I wish I knew with certainty exactly what the future will look like. I don't, but I do know there are a few things we can be sure of.
Is Your Aid Office Prepared?
The current health crisis has shown that a vast majority of schools and aid offices are not prepared to meet the needs of students. The loss of in-person interaction, physical access to phone systems, mail and fax machines, and the need to work from home have caused tremendous interruption to so much more than aid delivery. Institutions are scrambling to put together quick fixes and patches to try and keep student services afloat. However, these quick and temporary fixes have proven to be insufficient.
We need to focus on ensuring that systems and processes offer dependable student support and service through varied methods that can be used anytime, anywhere. Think cloud-based services that allow for safe document upload, video counseling and conferencing, chat support, and VOIP phone services. Not only is this about the students, but the staff as well, many who continue to report to campus due to limited technology that does not allow them to work safely and securely from an alternative location.
Several industries will be able to pick up where they left off when they return to work. This is not to say they will be unaffected, but in general, a restaurant that reopens will function much the way it did before the outbreak of COVID-19. The same cannot be said for financial aid offices. Aid offices will feel the financial impact—both on their budgets and the resources for their students—for years to come. Now is the time to anticipate student needs and build processes that are scalable and student-centered.
Think about professional judgment processes in particular. We hear predictions of unemployment hitting 20+%. During the last downturn in 2008, when unemployment topped out at 10%, offices saw appeals volume skyrocket for both unemployment and underemployment. Given the predictions show an impact of double (if not triple) that amount, it will translate into an exponential volume of appeals to adjust expected family contribution. Is your office ready for that? Can students easily identify when, why, and how they should request an appeal? Can they complete it on their own without requiring an aid officer to walk them through each step? Are your policies aligned to ensure maximum access to funds with the least burden to students? These are all questions we need to ask ourselves. Even in the best of times, we know that overly complex processes in the aid office can act as a barrier to higher education. We need to spend time tearing down barriers for the betterment of our students and our nation.
Create Efficiencies & Work Smarter
During the recovery efforts from COVID-19, you will be asked to do more with less. A recent Moody’s study found that approximately 30% of public and private colleges they track were running operating deficits, and the agency expects those institutions will have difficulties weathering an economic downturn. I know some of you may be thinking you can’t get blood from a stone, but we need to continue to create efficiencies and allocate resources in new and smarter ways. In order to weather this financial storm, we should ask ourselves where we can purchase technology and invest in automation to ensure the student experience is improved and the number of students who can afford college goes up.
Aid offices are resilient. And the people who work in aid offices are dedicated and passionate. The current economic and health crisis offers one more opportunity for these individuals to show how integral their role is in making the dream of higher education a possibility for millions of students every year. The coming weeks, months, and dare I say years in higher education are not going to be easy. However, I do think they will make us better and stronger than we are today. I encourage those in the industry to use this opportunity to move beyond financial aid professionals who process transactions to embrace the discipline of student financial success where we educate, coach, guide, and support students in ways that reduce barriers to financial resources making higher education a reality that will shape their future.