Given federal and state regulations, especially now, there are many policies and procedures related to applying for, awarding, and disbursing aid that can’t be avoided. Still, in our travels, we often see aid offices making unnecessary extra work for themselves or students by clinging to outdated procedures or implementing policies for the entire student body because of concerns that impact only a select few. Scannell & Kurz has compiled this “hit list” of time—and money—wasting policies and procedures that should be reconsidered:
1. Requiring a signed award letter. Federal regulations required this many years ago, but it’s no longer necessary. Most institutions have moved to “passive acceptance,” in which students are told their aid will be processed and disbursed unless they notify the aid office that they do not want a particular fund.
2. Printing out ISIR summary sheets. The electronic copy is sufficient for audit purposes, so a paper copy is not needed.
3. Not fully utilizing auto-packaging functions. Many offices still hand package each award, even though they have a packaging policy that could be automated, or they keep a manual record of an auto-packaged award. Although the initial setup of the packaging protocols in the system can be time-consuming, it is well worth the effort in the speed and accuracy of packaging.
Time-consuming double-checking of every file tends to find only a small percentage of errors.
Some that have automated the financial aid packaging process still require counselors to write down the award on a summary sheet to have a written record of changes. However, most financial aid systems have very adequate audit trails that capture all changes—along with information about who made the change. Electronic comment screens also are typically available if a counselor needs to make notes about why a change was made. Relying on the system to track changes and comments not only saves time when awarding, but also enables anyone in the office to see what was done and why without having to pull a physical file.
4. Requiring an institutional aid application. In some cases, this is necessary. A good example would be if you’re serving a nontraditional population and need the application to know which terms students plan to attend and how many credits they plan to take. But most of the time, institutional financial aid
applications are simply asking questions to which the answers are already known.
5. Doing 100 percent verification. For those awarding significant amounts of institutional aid, it may make sense to verify all incoming aid recipients. But, many of those institutions continue to verify all returning students as well, rather than focusing only on students with substantial decreases in expected family contribution, where additional aid might be awarded.
6. Double-checking verification and awarding for every file. Internal checks and balances should be done to ensure that all counselors are handling files consistently and accurately, but checking a sample of records is likely sufficient to identify any areas of concern. In most cases, S&K has learned, extensive, time-consuming double-checking of every file finds only a small percentage of errors.
7. Requiring students to apply for endowed scholarships rather than identifying eligible students. Not only does an application process for endowed scholarships add steps for students—and those who must review the applications—but it also makes it difficult for institutions to exchange funded dollars (endowed scholarships or annual gifts) for unfunded dollars, thus freeing unfunded dollars for other purposes. Students can be identified using data such as GPA, major, or hometown. And for anyone thinking “but what about good stewardship?,” note that this more-efficient approach can still result in satisfied donors. The office can simply inform students when they first receive their aid package that their generic “institutional grant” may be sponsored by a donor and that they will be given their donor’s name in the fall and asked to write a thank you note.
Of course, there may be a few scholarships where donor restrictions are so specific that a good match can’t be found by simply using data in the system—but these should be handled as exceptions, rather than the rule.
8. Checking every file to identify those in need of adjustment rather than using exception reporting. A surprising number of aid offices (usually at small schools) will check every record to see, for example, if a student is making satisfactory progress or is registered for the same number of hours they were packaged for.
Using the system to identify files that may be problematic is a much more efficient way to ensure compliance with federal and state regulations. This also applies to posting aid to student accounts. Most student financial aid systems provide for rule writing that will prevent aid from posting if a student is not eligible.
9. Failing to balance funded accounts every month. Staff at some institutions wait until year’s end to reconcile Pell, Direct Loan, and other accounts requiring external reporting. This makes the reconciliation process far more difficult—and the school risks learning that students weren’t eligible for awards they received when it’s too late to recover the funds.
10. Not providing students access to their information through a student portal. Even when institutions have implemented online registration and allow students to get grades, transcripts, and other information online, financial aid and billing information is often not included. Making aid offers, missing item lists, and student account information available 24/7 through a portal can significantly reduce calls and visits to the office, leaving staff free to handle more complex matters.
There are other examples, of course, but these represent the most common. How many of the top 10 apply to your aid office?
Kathy Kurz is vice president of the enrollment management consulting firm Scannell & Kurz, Inc.