Let’s face it, sometimes our campus colleagues don’t fully understand the work we do in the Financial Aid Office. We know how important administering millions of dollars of financial aid is to our institution’s enrollment goals, and how counseling students on payment options supports student success initiatives…we just need to find avenues to educate our peers and leaders. Here are some common challenges we have experienced and potential solutions to help.
Situation: Academic decisions are made that negatively impact a student’s or a group of students’ financial aid eligibility. This could be anything from allowing a student an extra semester of academic probation when it’s outside the scope of your policy, to creation of new degree programs without proper communication or required approvals. We don’t learn about it until it’s a done deal and the student has been harmed.
Solution: Identify the main decision maker in the process and volunteer to be a non-voting, subject matter expert on the committee or a resource outside the decision-making process to understand the impact of the decision on the student before communicating it. If you receive push-back, remind your colleague that you are offering to give your time to ensure there are no unintended consequences for the student that may put that committee or that office on the hot seat later.
Situation: It may feel as if the financial aid office is the last to get resources. In some cases, directors are struggling to access funds for professional development for their team and dealing with old systems and slow computers that impact productivity. It can be a morale killer for the staff and creates the illusion that the financial aid office has less authority than other departments.
Solution: Use data to state your case to the holder of the purse strings. If you don’t have a direct line to that person, recruit your boss to help. Some examples of useful data include, regulatory requirements for connecting with the Department of Education and its various systems (for technology needs); survey your staff about their working conditions and share the results (physical surroundings impact morale); survey students and parents (and keep a count of in-person visitors while you’re at it) about their impressions and share those results.
Situation: Other departments use incomplete or incorrect information about the financial aid programs in their own literature to be better able to meet their goals. They may be successful but the result is difficult conversations in the financial aid office.
Solution: This is a difficult one and may necessitate getting a campus executive who has authority over both areas involved. Again, having data is key. Here’s a real-life example…
“The admissions office was publishing a chart for prospective students that showed institutional scholarship amounts based on family income. Because there were so many other factors involved, most applicants who took that chart to heart were very disappointed in their awards and accused us of intentionally misleading them. We chose to live with it but what we could have done is tracked these unhappy callers to see how many chose not to attend our institution and then compare it to the overall yield. If it’s clear that this misinformation policy is causing people not to enroll, you have some ammunition to change it.”
In general, your best defense is a good offense (or marketing plan). Just as we discussed in our most recent HEAG webinar, reach out to peers in departments with processes that touch your own and start to develop those relationships. See if you can attend training on ‘managing your peers’ or improving your negotiation skills. Developing these skills will give you confidence and make this outreach more comfortable. Suggest the formation of an informal work group. For example, what if you invited the head of every student service department to eat lunch together once each month and share news from each office? Turn your peers into pals and negotiating will be much easier. If you need another department’s help to solve a problem only affecting the financial aid office, offer some resources to help like a work-study student to help with office operations or a subject-matter expert to aid on committees or creating collateral. By being proactive, vocal about your needs, and collaborative you can improve both the reputation and the standing of your office on campus.