GIVEN THE CURRENT ECONOMIC CLIMATE, stress levels for parents and families contacting the financial aid office have never been higher. At the same time, staffers are facing higher volumes?of FAFSA filers, appeals, and loan applications, for instance?than ever before. Without the proper training, systems, and protocols, this can be a recipe for disaster. The following pointers represent 10 effective practices to support customer service that have served financial aid offices well even during this most hectic summer and fall.
When financial aid offices fall behind in any step of the awarding process, whether it be verifying files, packaging aid, or certifying loans, it has a snowball effect. Families call when processes are delayed, and staff must handle those calls, which further delays processes. Therefore, keeping on top of the processing flow is critical?even if it means having to hire temporary staff or pay overtime.
Review every required form you have to be sure you really need it. Even if the forms are electronic, they add steps to the process for both students and staff and can contribute to delays and increase frustration levels. For example, many institutions still require a signed award letter before releasing funds, even though federal requirements regarding signed acceptances were changed several years ago. Similarly, many institutions have separate applications for awards guaranteed to students based on information that could be captured in other ways. Institutions that offer sibling discounts, for instance, should capture that information on the admission application and then confirm it by checking registration records. No separate application should be necessary.
In future years, consider taking it one step further. If you require an application to award institutional aid, consider whether you really need that application, or whether the FAFSA and the admissions application provide you with sufficient information to make the awards.
Frontline staff members are the office as far as many students and parents are concerned. They should be encouraged to go beyond the specific question asked, provided there is time. It’s also critical that these positions are filled by helpful people who provide accurate information and know when they don’t know an answer to a question. (Student peer counselors can make excellent frontline workers, but they need to be carefully trained and supervised to ensure they are accurate in their answers and sensitive to confidentiality issues.)
In addition, when a student is in the office or on the phone, frontline staff should take advantage of the opportunity by checking the student’s record to see if any materials are missing. If the student can complete the necessary forms during that visit, or at least be told that they are missing, the student will feel well served, and the office will complete files more quickly.
At many institutions, the admissions staff have been trained to handle basic financial aid questions. That training gives them the ability to make outreach calls to incoming students to walk them through their award letters and identify students who may need to talk with a financial aid counselor or submit an appeal. This not only strengthens the relationship between the admissions officer and the students they are recruiting, but it also frees financial aid staff members to address more complex questions in a timely manner. Similarly, cross training between financial aid and bursar staffs can keep the student shuffle between offices to a minimum.
A surprising number of aid offices still package manually, rekey data into different systems rather than uploading it, keep shadow systems for data that should be tracked in the main system, and do not provide online self-service (e.g., the ability to check missing items, submit forms, view aid offers). In most cases, it is not because the office is unaware of or resistant to these opportunities but is because the office needs assistance from IT to implement systems enhancements, and the IT staff is overloaded. Some institutions have found outsourcing certain system enhancement projects has produced significant benefits in terms of cash flow as well as student satisfaction.
Often when a staff is small, members are expected to juggle customer service tasks, such as answering the phone, with processing tasks, such as verification. Providing a schedule that allows them to alternate between being “on call” for service and focusing on processing tasks will improve both customer service and processing accuracy.
Students are often reluctant to go into great detail about their family circumstances in front of other students, so review the front-office setup to see if students can be afforded some privacy at the front desk. If this isn’t physically possible, train staff to be aware of this issue and refer students to a counselor to discuss sensitive topics.
Even at peak times, the office should attempt to respond to phone calls and e-mails within 24 to 48 hours. In addition, the director should establish methods of periodically checking to ensure that the office protocols for response times are being met.
More and more financial aid offices are calling or e-mailing students to resolve issues?particularly if they have been unresponsive to standardized correspondence or have large unpaid balances. Ideally, the financial aid office would have access to parent e-mail addresses as well so that parents could be contacted when appropriate to address problems with the student’s file.
Many aid offices also offer on-campus workshops to help students complete the FAFSA, understand financing options, learn how to get an on-campus job, etc. Working with current students actively to ensure they submit required paperwork as early as possible will help the office avoid backlogs right before classes begin in the fall.
Financial aid officers need to be well versed not only in traditional financial aid programs but also in payment plans, financing options, opportunities to reduce debt after graduation, options for shorter time to degree, and other programs that could help students minimize their costs and pay over time. The economic crisis has put a spotlight on the increasing gap between charges and family ability and willingness to pay, particularly for private school tuitions.
But this is by no means a new problem, and many in financial aid offices began to think of their departments as “student finance offices” some years ago. However, with credit less available, and families more concerned about their financial future, financial aid counselors have to be prepared to help families think through options for meeting their share of educational expenses. This is critical not only from a customer service perspective but also to meeting enrollment goals at many institutions.
Kathy Kurz and Jim Scannell are partners in the enrollment management consulting firm Scannell & Kurz. Mary Piccioli is senior enrollment management consultant. They can be reached via their website, www.scannellkurz.com.