10 Rules for a Solid Admissions/Financial Aid Partnership

10 Rules for a Solid Admissions/Financial Aid Partnership

Collaboration and communication between these departments help an institution thrive.

In virtually every facet of our professional lives, teamwork is seen as a necessary ingredient for success. Business and industry place a high value on recruiting new employees with solid team-building/participating experience. The military prides itself on fostering team spirit. And certainly, professional sports have proven that spending money without teamwork is not sufficient.

Likewise, in today's climate, colleges and universities can't effectively compete without the Admissions and Financial Aid offices functioning as a team. Yet, there are often barriers to getting there, namely: old habits; different, unclear, or even conflicting goals and reward structures; and constrained resources.

Here are 10 principles for a healthy Admissions/Financial Aid partnership:

Timely aid awards are
"priceless," and the bestlaid
admissions strategies
won't produce optimal
results without them.

Mutual respect must exist between the offices. In this regard, reporting lines are less important than shared goals. As enrollment management consultants, we are often asked, "What's the right organizational structure?" We don't believe any one model is universally superior. Effective partnerships can work even when Admissions and Financial Aid report to two different senior officers. For example, if Financial Aid reports to the chief financial officer and Admissions reports to the chief academic officer, the trust and respect just has to be stronger and the communication more formal.

In contrast, hard feelings often exist between Admissions and Financial Aid when the offices are brought together under an enrollment management model in form but not substance, where one office merely has operational oversight of the other. The key is the relationship between the leaders in each office and how they model behavior for their staffs and set expectations. If they respect each other and regularly get their staffs together to share goals and schedules, and to just get to know one another, any organizational structure can work.

Too often, Admissions views its goal as the number of new students (or the quality, or the diversity, or the equity of students), while Financial Aid sees its goal as simply staying within the budget. Why? Those offices are merely responding to the penalty-and-reward system that has been put in place. That is, if Admissions is only asked, "What are the numbers?", and Financial Aid is only asked, "Did you stick to the budget?", the attention is placed accordingly.

Admissions and Financial Aid should be held jointly accountable for the success or failure of reaching enrollment goals and, in particular, the common denominator of net tuition revenue. Beyond that, it is important for the goals to be well understood throughout the organization, not just among the leadership.

When Financial Aid staff members don't know or appear to care about the value and criteria of merit programs and the Admissions office yields to Financial Aid on all questions regarding need-based aid because they don't know how it works, it is very likely that net tuition revenue is not being maximized.

It's fine if the Admissions staff is responsible for merit award decisions and the Financial Aid staff awards need-based funds, but collaboration and coordination are key. It's also fine if the Financial Aid staff awards all institutional aid. But strategies need to be based on shared goals and grounded in data.

At the same time, awards given for different purposes (merit vs. need vs. performance) need recognition of how the whole package comes together. The family's enrollment decision will be based on net costs after all grants and scholarships have been deducted. Having several funding centers (e.g., coaches, academic departments, Admissions, Financial Aid) without coordination or collective understanding of how these monies are coming together in an individual package almost guarantees bad things will happen. Too much aid will fail to attractive candidates who may already have a high probability of enrollment.

An institution has no way of determining whether it's awarding too much or too little money to students (that is, whether it's being effective and efficient in influencing probability of enrollment) without merging the files of the Admissions and Financial Aid offices and analyzing the influence of quality, need, and other factors as well as the grant offered. Aggregating and segmenting data, and then putting data through regression analysis and modeling and simulations, is best.

When asked by students and parents about financial aid, too many Admissions recruiters at colleges and universities have basically two responses, neither of which is sufficient. First is to "run for the hills" and indicate that students and their families will have to communicate by phone, e-mail, or in person with the Financial Aid office. The second is to talk about process--deadlines, forms, etc.

Higher education is certainly a big-ticket purchase for a family. The inability to talk about financing it is a major shortcoming in higher ed. Admissions officers should have, at their fingertips, sample packages of students from different socioeconomic family backgrounds. They should know the income distribution of the new class and the average indebtedness of their graduates who borrowed.

Students and families need to be helped to "see themselves" on the campus. Are there students from families like theirs attending in significant numbers? The goal is to provide families with a sense of confidence that, if accepted, there's a good chance the finances will be within reach. Specific aid awards, of course, come together after acceptance, but the confidence for affordability needs to be secured early in the process.

Transfers need to receive timely and appropriate packages. Too often they're a low priority for Financial Aid because they're wedged between freshmen and renewal crunches, or aid is delayed because credit evaluations are slow. Similarly, transfers often don't receive the attention they should from Admissions because the institutional reward structure is built on freshmen numbers and class profile.

But it's not just new students needing attention. Retention isn't routinely on the Admissions radar screen. And attrition is a double blow. Not only do more new students need to be recruited as replacements, but also attrition is likely to produce "negative recruiting," especially in an institution's primary markets. Consequently, both Admissions and Financial Aid should think about the impact of aid renewal policies on retention.

For example, if the numbers suggest that attrition spikes when unmet need exceeds a certain level, this must be addressed.

At the end of the day, not only should Admissions and Financial Aid be held accountable for the net tuition revenue generated by new enrolling students (freshmen and transfers), but they should also be part of the institutional team focusing on data analysis and intervention strategies to improve retention.

Neither Admissions nor Financial Aid should add unnecessary steps to their processes for students. Admissions shouldn't request letters of reference that aren't used. Financial Aid should examine whether an institutional aid application, signed award letters, or 100 percent verification of continuing students is needed.

To help serve students better, the offices should share training on critical dates and processes, FAQs, etc. Fully coordinated and complementary communications (content as well as timing) can result.

Too often, one or both of these two critical offices are absent from the pricing, budgeting, and enrollment decision-making process. They may be involved in gathering information and even rendering opinion, but if they aren't present when values are weighed and tradeoffs discussed, the institution is leaving itself exposed for unintended consequences. The expertise of these front-line managers, who (if they are doing their job properly) have their fingers most on the pulse of the marketplace, is an invaluable institutional resource that needs to be fully utilized.

Too often, the tendency is to hoard resources, not share. But in a given budget year, the most significant budget enhancement for an Admissions office might be an additional Financial Aid staff member to process aid applications because of an increase in volume. Timely aid awards, in the language of the commercial, are "priceless," and the best-laid admissions strategies won't produce optimal results without them. It's just one example of the importance of a shared approach to resource allocation.

In May, when freshman class enrollment goals have all been met and the president calls the director of Admissions to say he wants to host a lunch for that office to celebrate accomplishments, the director of Admissions should say, "The Financial Aid office will be there too, right?" That doesn't always happen. But if teamwork is championed, then the reward/penalty structure has to be based on the entire team's importance, rather than individual offices.

Kathy Kurz and Jim Scannell are partners in the enrollment management consulting firm Scannell & Kurz. They can be reached via their website, www.scannellkurz.com.


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