05 Nov Financial Aid Requires Comprehensive Collaboration

by Steve McDowell, Assistant Director, CT Community Colleges

Financial aid is a mutually beneficial tool to both the student/family and the institution. For the student, financial aid should be utilized as a vehicle to fulfill an educational goal, while simultaneously offering a foundation in personal fiscal responsibility. As such, it becomes inherently required that a responsible financial aid administrator serve as a conduit between the student and reaching this outcome.

Beyond the scope of a student’s perception of aid, the real meat of the subject requires aid to be a function of a variety of relationships within any institution, including but not limited to admissions targets, enrollment and revenue goals, retention goals, new academic programs, institutional budgeting, tuition pricing and discounts, marketing initiatives, graduation rates, and compliance policies. In reality, financial aid has a significant means of shaping the way an institution grows and develops. It is inherently this complex, multidimensional animal that requires buy-in from all of the departments which it comes into contact with. There is no other office on a campus that influences more departments than financial aid. This is evident in such fundamental examples as Title IV, where the scope of regulation extends beyond a financial aid office. That being said, it becomes crucial for some facet of financial aid, be it a Director of Financial Aid or Vice-President of Enrollment Management, to have a seat at the table to ensure financial aid serves as a compliment to institutional goals.

Fundamentally speaking, how can you measure success in financial aid without the assistance of admissions, budget and finance, and institutional planning offices (to name a few)? It simply cannot be done. You must strategically award aid to assist in meeting the admissions goals of the institution, which must be done to drive enrollment and retention, which drives budgets and revenue of the institution, which drives public data viewed by prospective and returning students. The reality is there are multiple characteristics related to financial aid that could shape net enrollment and overall institutional revenue, including but not limited to financial resources, academic program, geographic location and other demographic data. These factors, and more, may be utilized in statistical modeling to assist in the development and implementation of a practical yet effective packaging effort that is correlated to the student’s Cost of Attendance, which should in turn reflect the admissions goals of the institution as a driver for net enrollment and revenue.

Leveraging financial aid is a serious and strategic art form that requires skill, research, time, and participation. This begins with the development of a Cost of Attendance figure that can encompass a multitude of variables that may include academic program costs, enrollment level, and special allowances for educational expenses as needed. This may require information from the institutional planning department to derive targets based on historical data. While research shows that virtually no student enrolled in a US institution pays the full cost of attendance, it is still a requirement in order to fulfill the basic need equation while at the same time providing a foundation for a student to compare aid offers from the various institutions to which they apply. This is where technology becomes essential in financial aid. It should absolutely be utilized to accelerate the delivery of financial aid to students while simultaneously being used to provide data driven decisions in the formation of strategic student aid packages and communication.

From an operations perspective, sure it could be said that the aid office processed so many student aid applications, handled so many phone calls and emails, or resolved so many student complaints. But really what do those things measure? Obviously not something a prospective student has any interest in hearing about. What they could measure is an institution’s ability to work with a streamlined efficiency; being able to handle these daily matters which fit into the larger framework of the purpose of an aid office – to assist in the attraction and retention of students. How many of the aid applications actually yielded enrollment? What percent did we discount tuition to get these students to attend? What will it take to make them come back?

The operations of an aid office are obviously important, let’s not lose sight of that. Any seasoned financial aid professional will agree that financial aid is a complex business that can involve an aggressive and pressured environment in which stellar results are inherently desired. Nailing down the operations to make managing the office as simplistic as possible will not only benefit the students at the institution, but will strengthen the intelligence of your office staff as well by giving them fewer ways to “reinvent the wheel.” This becomes key when regulations change – which is with consistent certainty these days.

All in all, while the strategic application of aid may be different depending on institution type and enrollment targets, all financial aid offices need the support of the institution and wherewithal to be arguably the most important piece of an institution. The aid office can’t do it alone. The success they crave that will drive institutional success must be realized throughout the institution. It needs the support of everyone on campus, because everyone on campus is involved.