Make Sure Your Financial Aid Office is Doing These Ten Things

John W. Dysart
President
The Dysart Group

We are beginning the fourth month of the new financial aid cycle and it is a good time to pause and evaluate financial aid operations.  The higher education market is competitive and price can be an obstacle for most families.  Enrollment leaders and Presidents should take the time to touch base with their financial aid professionals to evaluate preparation for the recruitment cycle.

1. Ensure that packages for new and returning students have been going out since October 1, 2017.

We are now into the second year of the new financial aid calendar.  Congress specifically changed the timetable for financial aid so that packages could be sent much earlier to provide families with additional time for informed decision-making and financial planning.

Find out how many applicants for admission have been packaged for Fall 2018.  How many of your currently enrolled students have award letters to show them how they can afford to re-enroll next year?

By this time, depending on the size of your institution, you should have packaged hundreds to several thousand students for Fall 2018.

2. Check to verify that the Financial Aid Office has a plan in place to use paper and technology to encourage students to apply for financial aid.

Your college or university should have in place an aggressive approach to encourage new and returning students to apply for financial aid.

  • Use your website to notify all students that financial aid season is underway.
  • Take advantage of your internal email communication system to encourage currently enrolled students to re-apply for financial aid.
  • Text messaging is an immediate and effective way to encourage students and families to apply for financial aid.
  • Mailing periodic postcards or letters to students can also be effective.
  • Coordinate reminder activities with your Student Services Personnel and Resident Advising staff.
  • Be sure that financial aid reminders have been incorporated into your systematic communication plan for your admission applicants.

Early application means early packaging and this is the best scenario for both institutions and the students they serve.

3. Review mechanisms in place to track success in securing financial aid applications and sending financial aid packages.

Having a Financial Aid Office prepared to award students as soon as they apply for financial aid is great.  A multi-tiered reminder system for both new and returning students is even better.   It is important, however, to also have in place some kind of tracking system to monitor the rates at which new and returning students apply for aid and are packaged.

A weekly report shared with the leadership can help administrators evaluate the process throughout the cycle.  If the report reveals any short-comings, tactical changes can be made.  For example, if the current approach is not encouraging enough returning students to apply for financial aid, perhaps you should consider a telephone reminder campaign.  If students are applying early but there is a backlog in packaging, the Financial Aid Office may require additional resources such as technology enhancements or extra, temporary staff.

4. Package returning students without waiting for grades for the Spring semester.

I am surprised that so many colleges and universities still delay packaging for returning students until Spring grades are recorded.  This is done to make sure that students are not packaged only to find out that they run into satisfactory academic progress issues after the fact.

Waiting to package returning students is never a good idea.  It is possible that you may package some students who run into academic difficulties by the end of the Spring term.  If this occurs, simply withdraw the initial package.  Making all of the other students wait until the end of the Spring term to find out how they can afford to re-enroll just does not make sense.

5. Examine your financial aid award policy every year for appropriateness for the market you serve.

It is always a good idea to evaluate your financial aid packaging policy every year.  Markets and situations can change so you must be prepared to alter your packaging policy if needed.

  • Has the ability to pay for your students changed?
  • Has the percentage of students eligible for Federal Pell Grants increased or decreased?
  • Has the average or mean EFC increased or decreased?
  • Are there material changes in the percentage of students enrolled from outside the state?
  • Have any significant changes been made to your federal allocations or to your state grant program?

If your market conditions have changed, be prepared to adjust your packaging policy.

6. Do everything possible to simplify the process of applying for financial aid.

Conduct a detailed audit of the financial aid process and all documents required in the process.  Eliminate from the process any documents or steps not specifically required by federal or state regulation.

7. Discuss the institutional plan to guarantee that neither new or returning students miss state deadlines for financial aid.

It is distressing that so many eligible students miss out on state grants because they fail to meet the published deadlines.  Colleges and universities should be doing much more to make sure new and returning students apply for financial aid in time to meet the deadline.

In-state students can be tracked as a separate entity.  The communication plan for these students should be more aggressive.

Missing deadlines for state aid can increase institutional discount rates or negatively influence recruitment outcomes and retention.  While it is obviously the ultimate responsibility of students and parents, Financial Aid Offices can play a vital role ensuring that all eligible students meet deadlines for state grants.

8. Discontinue institutional deadlines for applying for financial aid.

While encouraging students to apply for financial aid early in the cycle is important, deadlines are not the most effective tools.

  • Deadlines often affect first-generation students the most because they are unfamiliar with the application process.
  • Denying institutional aid to prospective students with high financial aid need will adversely impact recruitment.
  • Removing institutional aid from currently enrolled students is likely to have a negative impact on retention.

Tracking, intervention, systematic reminders, communication and pro-active outreach are much better mechanisms to encourage students to apply for financial aid.

9. Coordinate financial aid packaging with your Business Office.

Stay in communication with your Business Office throughout the Spring term to identify any students with significant outstanding balances and students who are not keeping up with their payment plans.  There is still time to address such issues before they become barriers to re-enrollment.

10. Actively consider financial aid appeals.

There are often signs that new and returning students are not happy with their financial aid packages.  Look at the signs and actively initiate appeals rather than waiting for the students to come to you.

  • New students who have been packaged but have not deposited may have affordability issues.
  • Packaged returning students who have not registered for the Fall 2018 term may not be able to afford to re-enroll.
  • Admission counselor may be aware of prospective students who have expressed concerns.
  • Faculty and staff may be aware of students who have said they do not know how they can afford to re-enroll.

It is not necessary or even desirable to enhance financial aid packages for these students.  It does, however, make sense to be aware and at least consider additional action.