Summer is coming. For many, these three small words bring thoughts of vacation, evenings spent on the baseball field, trips to the ice cream truck and lazy days lounging at the lake or pool (or whatever cool body of water is nearby.)
For most, the beginning of summer is a time to relax and enjoy life after a long winter. However, if, like me, you live in Arizona, these simple words bring anxiety as you think of 110-degree days, scorched grass, sky-high electric bills, pools that can double as hot tubs and melted garbage cans.
Residents of the Grand Canyon State are not alone in their dread of summer. For our colleagues in financial aid, there is nothing relaxing about the summer months. Recently enrolled college students franticly try to finalize how they are going to pay for school in the coming fall. On top of all the normal frenzy and anticipation of summer melt, this year saw additional stressors.
Institutions must spend or distribute Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) dollars, file HEERF reporting, requirements to educate students about family contribution appeals and process an appeal volume that will reach record levels.
Summer stress is scary. But it’s also solvable, and these four strategies will serve you well as you navigate the coming months.
I know, I know... I just told you that there were all kinds of new things you were going to need to do this summer. But chances are you are going to be doing all those new things with the same staff you had last year. So, you really need to look at the work that is being done in the office and ask yourself, “what happens if I don’t do this?”
You might be surprised at the answer. There are many tasks we do just because we have always done them. If even one thing a day lands in the ‘nothing will change’ pile, you will have simplified your life a little bit.
Automation is your friend
When trying to do more with limited resources, you need to find ways to leverage the technology you have access to and consider investing in new resources if your current needs are not being met with existing tech.
There needs to be a shift that allows systems to process automatable transactions that free up time for staff to do the things that need a human touch. Even better, there are potential budget dollars available in HEERF II and III for institutions to purchase technology and resources that help carry out student support activities authorized by the HEA. Schools can also use these funds to direct outreach to aid recipients about the financial aid appeals process.
Consider tools that increase and improve communication, advance a self-service experience through the aid process and leverage artificial intelligence to answer student questions and allow for escalation to a live agent.
Do not be a victim of your own choices
The American Rescue Plan requires schools to do direct outreach to financial aid recipients about the opportunity to receive and adjust their aid due to changes in their finances. Hint: it also requires you to spend a portion of your allocation on this activity.
This outreach must be conducted thoughtfully and in coordination with other departments to achieve the best results. Ensure your communication is clear and covers what an appeal is, who may be eligible and what next steps a student needs to take. A focused and actionable notification helps ensure students get the necessary information and understand the next steps.
Consider sending these notices through electronic communication with embedded video and connection to a chatbot. A virtual assistant answers basic questions in real-time and escalates student conversations to live counselors as needed. A poorly executed outreach strategy results in increased workload, frustration and chaos for students, families and aid offices alike.
Make time for self-care
Since the inception of early FAFSA several years ago, there has been no downtime in the aid office. Summer has always been a busy time for this community. In the past, however, this hectic season was typically followed by a lull in the fall. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. Today, the stressful season carries on...and on...and on.
That’s why self-care is so important. Encourage staff to take time for themselves. Consider scheduling and encouraging activities that allow your team to relax and unplug together. A simple idea could be putting together stress kits for the staff. You can include snacks, drinks, fun activities and gift cards to show them you are thinking of them—and that you want them to think of themselves. You could even run the activity like a Secret Santa. Make sure to show them you care and are there with them.
After 16 years working in and around aid offices, I know one thing for sure: They are filled with resilient and dedicated individuals. The past year has provided a lot of opportunities for everyone to see this firsthand, and the coming year will provide even more opportunities as you help students and families find ways to pay for school. But burnout is real. So please take the time to do less by leveraging technology efficiently and intelligently. This will allow you time to focus on the well-being of both your team and your students with renewed energy and enthusiasm.