Profile of an Effective Financial Aid Director

Profile of an Effective Financial Aid Director

We're growing a new generation of financial aid leaders, and they'll need these five skills

Let's put it plainly: The role of the Financial Aid office in higher education has fundamentally changed its focus from supporting a national goal of universal access and choice in higher ed, to supporting institutional enrollment and net tuition revenue goals. Clearly, as the role of aid changes at institutions, so changes the role of the financial aid officer.

But what, precisely, have those changes been? Aid officers have always had to balance the competing demands of multiple masters: students and parents, sponsoring agencies (e.g., governments and donors), and the institution that writes their paychecks. They have always had to be both good counselors and effective stewards of funds. But more and more, aid professionals are becoming their institutions' pricing experts in a competitive and complex market environment. In addition, they must manage this new role with increasing dependence on technology, and frequently with limited staff resources. This may explain why it is becoming harder and harder to fill open leadership positions in the aid office. Some have even observed that across the country there is a missing generation in aid offices. Increasingly, aid office staff members are either new to the profession (with less than five years' experience) or they are among the most veteran staffers on campus (20 years or more in the business). Consequently, the profession is in the process of growing a whole new generation of leaders. With this in mind, what are the skills most critical to successful leadership of today's Financial Aid office?

Simply put, the director of financial aid must have her finger on the pulse of the needs of prospective and enrolled students and their families, and strive to put processes in place to consistently meet or exceed those needs. But it's important to note that increasingly, we don't have the luxury of talking about "financial need" here. In fact, fewer and fewer institutions are meeting full financial need. That makes it even more critical that other needs-the need for clear information, the need for prompt responses, the need for accurate processing, the need for sensitive counseling-are met effectively. For example, this year, Jean Main, director of Financial Aid at the University of Connecticut will send all award letters to upperclassmen via e-mail. Main explains, "University Communications did some research in the fall of 2002 and found that 81 percent of students surveyed said that e-mail is the best way to reach them, so we decided to take a new approach. We then blitzed the campus with ads (in our university newspaper and on our campus buses, for instance) to alert students to the change. Early feedback is very positive."

More and more, aid professionals are becoming their institutions' pricing experts in a competitive and complex market environment.

Financial aid officers must be equal partners with their admissions colleagues, in managing to enrollment goals. Not only must their systems be linked to ensure the smooth transfer of information between offices, but directors of admission and financial aid must be aware of each other's policies and goals to ensure they are mutually supportive, rather than in conflict. For example, it is not uncommon to find aid offices holding to a requirement that incoming students complete the verification process before receiving an aid offer, in order to ensure that the offer is accurate. Unfortunately, such a policy puts an institution at a competitive disadvantage by delaying aid letters to students who are receiving estimated awards from other institutions on a much earlier timetable. Effective teamwork can ensure that these kinds of disconnects don't take place.

In order to strategically deploy institutional resources-both aid funds and staff resources-financial aid directors must be able to use data effectively. First and foremost, in order to best target funds to achieve institutional goals, they must be able to empirically study the impact of financial aid on the enrollment behavior of both new and continuing students. They must also be able to identify trends, forecast expenditures, and monitor office activities-all through effective collection and use of data. Efficient financial aid planning models must be built that consider the key variables affecting enrollment, retention, and financial aid costs, yet are not so detailed that no one can understand or trust the results. Finally, the Financial Aid office must be able to provide data to Admissions that will help that department make the case for affordability and value.

Financial aid directors must be sophisticated process managers, comfortable with technological resources. Financial aid processes-perhaps more than most others on a university campus-lend themselves to computerization, process-flow diagramming, and, consequently, improvement. With constantly changing federal and state regulations, it is easy to have new steps layered onto old processes without ever taking the time to step back and ask, "Why are we doing it this way?" or "Why are we doing this at all?" Therefore, it is critical that office leadership be able to identify opportunities to streamline operations, and create an environment that empowers everyone in the office to look at existing procedures with a critical eye.

At some institutions, these re-engineering efforts have led to merged offices of Financial Aid and Student Accounts, where all of a student's financial and financing needs can be met. One of the best examples of a successful merger is the Student Financial Services Office at St. Edward's University (TX). Upon admittance, students receive a letter from their personal financial adviser, who works with them throughout their time at the school. Doris Constantine, director of the merged office at the university, also notes, "Bringing the offices together has enabled us to eliminate redundancies and provide better information to students, yet still keep the internal financial controls necessary for proper aid administration."

Finally, given the complexity of the aid world today, financial aid directors must be able to serve as "translators"-not only helping students and parents negotiate the application process, but also: a) helping university leadership to understand the implications of institutional as well as federal and state policy decision; b) helping fundraisers make the case for supporting financial aid to major donors, foundations, and corporations; and c) working with federal and state partners toward continued support of publicly funded programs in a time of increasing fiscal challenge.

The impact that the various partners financing higher education have on one another (as well as on families), and the links between financial aid expenditures and enrollment results, are typically not well understood outside the Financial Aid office. As a result, policies can be set without the policymakers understanding the potential impact of their decisions. That's why the financial aid director often needs to play the role of educator. This need for effective communication with policymakers was recently highlighted when the board of a small institution with whom we were working set the growth in the aid budget at one percentage point above the annual increase in tuition. They thought that because they were increasing the aid budget (proportionately) more than they were increasing tuition, they would make themselves more accessible to needy students. The following arithmetic, put together by the aid officer, helped convince them otherwise:

Once convinced by the data, this board moved forward with a more realistic view of what their policies could and could not be expected to produce.

Finding an aid director with the requisite skill set can be challenging. Some schools we know have taken as long as two years to fill leadership positions in the aid office. What does this mean to you? It means that even if your financial aid director isn't thinking of retiring soon, he should be developing new leadership within the office by providing training both on and off campus, by delegating appropriately, and by encouraging promising young staff members to consider making financial aid their career.

Kathy Kurz and Jim Scannell are partners in the enrollment management

consulting firm, Scannell & Kurz, Inc. (www.scannellkurz.com).


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