Let’s set aside the five minutes it takes you to read this blog to be completely honest with each other. I am concerned about the financial aid offices that support the 20 million students enrolled in college. Staff members are stretched to their breaking points. Colleges have been failing their students through a lack of investment in technology, human capital, and simplification in aid offices. The result is that 40% of low-income students accepted never make it to campus and 3 million more drop out each year due to financial issues. Take note: I did not say that financial aid offices are failing students.
Financial aid offices are doing all they can within the confines of a highly regulated and under-resourced framework. They are left to cobble together resources like staffing, freemium services, and outdated technology to try to keep schools afloat, but this is not sustainable.
Along came COVID-19
And shining light on all these issues? The COVID-19 crisis. I fear this pandemic is the figurative straw that broke the camel’s back. While financial aid offices have been muddling through using manual, paper-driven processes, COVID-19 has proven that the only way offices can function efficiently, stay connected with their students, and keep processes moving forward is with virtual technology. Now, not only are financial aid teams forced to reflect on how their processes function in-house, but they must also determine whether they are prepared for the next emergency that arises.
Campuses scrambled to move academic delivery to an online format, but even more difficult than that was the transition of traditional support services like financial aid. Why? Because the elimination of a physical office, phone systems, and fax machines left staff members without access to the lousy tools they were accustomed to using. This left financial aid offices little opportunity other than simply surviving during office closures. I beg administrations to take notice of this.
The only way to address the enrollment, retention, and graduation issues on campus is to first address the ability of students to be financially successful. I do not know of a single student who can graduate college if he or she cannot pay their bills. Financial aid offices are forced to exist in a world of outdated technology and limited resourcing, but the only way to create the financial aid office of the future is to make smart investments in people, technology, analytics, and automation. To be clear, COVID-19 did not create this problem for schools. Instead, it gave visibility to an already-existing issue that financial aid offices have been dealing with for quite some time.
Gone are the days when physical lines out the door are an option. We can no longer ask students to print out and fax paperwork. We’ve moved past the point when all advising will happen face-to-face. Students will no longer accept wasteful and impersonal interactions. Financial aid is changing, and offices that keep up with modern needs will be the most successful in retaining and graduating their students.
The Marist Mindset List points out several facts about the graduating class of 2023. These students were born in 2001, and interestingly enough, they have never shared the earth with Joey Ramone, George Harrison, Timothy McVeigh, or Ken Kesey. But you should also know this about the way they see the world:
- Thumb, jump, and USB flash drives have always pushed floppy disks further into history.
- The primary use of a phone has always been to take pictures.
- They have outlived iTunes.
- Apple iPods have always been nostalgic.
- Face recognition technology has always been used at public events.
- They have grown up with Big Data and ubiquitous algorithms that know what they want before they do.
- There have always been “smartwatches.”
- Blackboards have never been dumb.
What is my point? Students are digitally engaged in just about every area of their lives, and they have expectations about how, when, and where they can engage with the financial aid office. If you want your office to go from surviving to thriving, you will need to embrace every opportunity to meet your students where they are—and that means meeting their communication needs through technology.
Your students need to be able to engage with you 24/7/365 from anywhere in the world as if they are on campus. Remember all the technology mentioned above? All those things are part of everyday life for your students. Your students spend their days getting information in mere seconds—when and where they want it. When they interact with the financial aid office, they don’t want to step back in time and learn how to use fax machines, stand in lines just to talk to a person, and be put on hold when they just need the answer to a routine question. It’s time to move document collection, communication, and counseling interactions to a personalized, virtual setting that can streamline the financial aid experience for every student.
Personalize and automate
Think about the way your students shop for goods and experiences today. Big data and algorithms seem to know what they want even before they know. Because of consumer data that is collected and shared, companies can now predict which products and services specific individuals will want to purchase. It’s almost as if big data is teaching them not to think about purchases.
Now think about the size, nature, and complexity of the purchasing process for higher education. The last thing we want is for students to tune out and not pay attention. Instead, we need to build personalized experiences that leverage artificial intelligence (AI) to guide the student financial aid experience—mirroring the automated experiences they are accustomed to in other areas of their lives.
Financial aid is changing to keep pace with the rest of the world. Institutions that lean into change will be the ones that see more student satisfaction, higher enrollment numbers, and boosted retention. It’s time to step into the future and personalize the financial aid experience—for the good of every student in higher education.