Casual observers of the 2013 National Association of Student Aid Administrators conference in Las Vegas this summer may have felt as if they were seeing double, with all the talk of “prior-prior year” income tax.
NASFAA released the results from its recent study examining whether using two-years’ prior income tax data on the federal student aid application could potentially provide students and their families with early award notification. That could be just the assurance they need that they can in fact afford a college education. The current window to apply for financial aid is a tight one, since most families don’t have their income taxes completed and filed by the time they submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Preliminary results of the NASFAA study, funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, indicate that moving to prior-prior year (PPY) could help families make good fiscal decisions earlier in the process.
The study analyzed financial aid records of more than 70,000 students from a variety of institutional types across a five-year timespan, including the 2008-2009 recession. Dependent students from very low-income families and independent students with dependents of their own could be ideal candidates for PPY. This is because their incomes are so low, some income variability from year to year does not affect their aid eligibility. Other students would experience various levels of variability in their financial aid packages from year-to-year.
The conference, held July 14 to 17 at the ARIA Resort & Casino, started with a presentation by Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. In being named one of the Top 100 influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2012, Hrabowski was lauded for “turning a humble commuter school into one of the nation’s leading sources of African Americans who get Ph.D.s in science and engineering.” He shared his personal story and took questions from the audience of financial aid administrators.
In another keynote, NASFAA President Justin Draeger led a group of thought leaders in a discussion about financial aid program funding and ideas for policy reform. During the session, Draeger announced the formation of a new task force that will develop standards of ethics for campus financial aid practices. “Failure to stand up for our own profession leaves us open to federal intervention,” he said. “We embrace the idea to hold ourselves accountable, first and foremost.” The task force, a subgroup of
NASFAA’s national board of directors, will update standards of ethical conduct and allow institutional-level financial aid administrators to tell other campus officials, if necessary, that a particular action is “not in keeping with my profession’s ethical standards.”
In “Top 10 Audit and Program Review Findings,” Renee Gullotto of the U.S Department of Education presented the top financial aid process problems that occurred most often during FY2012.
Those included calculation errors, funds distributed late, Pell Grant overpayments or underpayments, verification violations, student credit balance deficiencies, and entrance or exit counseling deficiencies.
Some of these issues, such as the return of Title IV funds made late, occur because of a lack of communication between offices at an institution. One office, for example, may know a student has withdrawn but may not have informed the financial aid office. Other featured sessions included a “diversity caucus;” a presentation on what size financial aid staff is needed to get the job done; and a U.S. Department of Education open forum.
Communication across campus
Among the regular breakout sessions was “How to Advocate for Your Department on Your Campus,” presented by Karen Krause, executive director of financial aid, scholarships, and veteran’s affairs at The University of Texas at Arlington, and Taina J. Savoit, director of financial aid at McNeese State University in Louisiana.
One reason administrators in other departments need to be aware of what’s going on in financial aid is that every institution with Title IV funding must fill out a program participation agreement, they said. That agreement is touched by multiple offices: the president signs it, and the CFO and financial aid director are noted.
“This is an institutional process,” Kraus said. “Your institution, not just the aid office, will incur liability.”
At UT Arlington, the vice president of academic affairs came up with the idea of combining financial aid appeals with academic planning, with both responsibilities falling to the individual colleges, Krause said. The effort is a way to monitor satisfactory academic progress, which is required for federal aid. “That monitoring is happening in the academic colleges, and to me that’s where it should be happening,” Krause said.
In addition, the academic deans are implementing a policy that allows a student to withdraw from only six courses in their time at the institution. For the seventh, a $50 withdrawal fee will be assessed. “It’s about how we can make our students more accountable for our institution,” she said. Another new policy gives students a “WN grade, “or withdrawal for nonattendance. A $50 fee for that grade helps encourage students to attend and, if necessary, officially withdraw from any course—making record keeping easier for financial aid.
Krause and Savoit also spoke about the need to share information and keep everyone on campus informed. To encourage student workers to file financial aid applications for the following year and get their work study jobs back, for example, the financial aid office at McNeese State enlists the help of work study supervisors.
The institution also uses campus listservs—one for students, one for employees, and one for faculty. “We’ve reminded [faculty] via their listserv that it’s almost the end of the semester and we’ll need last dates of attendance,” Savoit said.
McNeese State has a registration task force. This group of 20 to 25 people makes decisions on everything that happens with the registration process. “It’s been amazing the changes we’ve implemented,” Savoit said.
The team explores barriers the school may be creating for students and how the various departments can be more responsive to students. “A timeline gets shared across campus so everyone knows when registration opens, when it closes, when is the last time to apply for admission, when disbursements will happen, when you have to submit an appeal by, for example,” she explained.
Krause also offered some basic rules for building a network across campus and using communication effectively. Be nice to colleagues at all levels of the organization, stay in touch with your campus network regularly, and be a supportive colleague were the big takeaways. “If we can’t be supportive,” she said, “we can’t expect to be supported.”