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Characteristics of a Top Notch Financial Aid Director

Six key elements to seek when filling this role
University Business, May 2012

Today’s financial aid director wears many hats: counselor, manager of budgets, supervisor, implementer of regulations, and keeper of data, to name a few. As the role of financial aid director has become increasingly complex and challenging, so has filling this position. A job posting could read something like a hybrid circus performer: juggler/tight-rope walker/magician with excellent communication, supervisory and financial management skills, and at least five years of experience in financial aid.

Although the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators is now offering a professional credentialing program, there are no undergraduate or graduate programs leading to a degree in financial aid administration. Samantha Veeder, director of financial aid at Nazareth College (N.Y.), describes how she and many others like her began their careers as students in the aid office. For her, it was 1987 while at Ithaca College (N.Y.). “At first, it was just a work-study job to earn extra money. Then it became something more,” shares Veeder, who held her first financial aid director job at age 23. “I created a support network by becoming active in professional organizations. The mentorship I received from this support system was invaluable in growing into the profession.”

Aid directors are now often expected to engage in data analysis and strategic projections.

Evidence of active participation in professional organizations can be a gauge for a candidate’s ongoing commitment to developing as a financial aid professional. How else to identify an effective leader for the financial aid office? This is an especially challenging task since most financial aid professionals are either new to the role (five years or less), or highly seasoned (20-plus years), with many nearing retirement. Mid-level, up-and-coming professionals can be hard to find, internally or externally. Whether the position is filled via an external search or internal talent is developed, there are six key elements that make a quality financial aid director.

Customer Service Orientation

With ever-increasing numbers of aid applicants, aid applicants in need of professional judgments, and aid applications selected for verification, a focus on serving families is arguably the most important trait of the aid director. 

Discussing finances with families has always been a sensitive topic, and aid directors must overcome mistrust. Increasingly, institutions aren’t able to meet financial need, and families are conditioned to appeal the first financial aid offer. Navigating these difficult discussions without making adjustments to awards takes special skill. Besides sensitive counseling, clear information, prompt responses, and accurate processing are critical in meeting families’ expectations. Excellent customer service is an important piece in enrolling and retaining students.

Supervisory Ability

Financial aid offices are frequently under-resourced and under-staffed. Serving families well under these conditions requires careful management of both budgets and personnel. Directors need to keep staff motivated and working at optimum levels, especially at peak times, and establish a customer service-focused culture, balanced with accurate processing. Continual training and education of staff is needed, especially since the recent Reauthorization and its many policy changes.

Christine Saadi, director of student financial planning at Alvernia University (Pa.), points out that part of successful management of the aid office includes effective delegation. “Being able to relate to your staff is crucial. You have to delegate and develop your staff so they can keep the workflow going at all times. I am pulled in many different directions, and consequently, not always in the office, but know I can rely on my staff to keep things running smoothly. There is also a need for balance between work and life outside of work. Sharing responsibility makes this possible.”

Analytical Skills

Over the last 20 years, the growing need for analytical skills represents perhaps the biggest change in the financial aid profession. Aid directors used to be primarily focused on operations, but are now often expected to engage in data analysis and strategic projections regarding budgets, enrollments, and the strategic use of financial aid. Providing senior leadership with feedback on potential impacts from changes in pricing and discounting as well as changes in government aid funding levels is commonplace. The financial aid director is also frequently tapped to complete surveys such as the Common Data Set, as well as NCAA and FISAP reports.

Ability to Understand and Manage Regulations

Year-round Pell (started then almost immediately eliminated), changes to verification, updates to Satisfactory Academic Progress policies, gainful employment reporting, and other regulations not related to awarding aid (and likely involving other offices) such as incentive compensation and misrepresentation are just a partial list of recent, significant changes to federal aid policies. At times, it can seem like the aid director needs a legal degree to understand and implement all the changes to federal regulations for Title IV funds. Ensuring compliance is critical to an institution’s viability—since without Title IV fund availability, most would not be able to enroll enough students to generate sufficient tuition revenue.

Here, the ability to research regulations and to connect with a professional network is critical. As Veeder notes, “My colleagues at other institutions and I talk over the new regulations and their impact frequently, sometimes weekly. Financial aid professional organizations provide frequent training about regulations. Sadly, new financial aid professionals tend not to get involved; the best aid directors make good use of this valuable resource.”

Ability to Streamline Operations, Use of Technology

Streamlining processes using automation and self-service is a must in the financial aid office. Database conversions or upgrades are nontrivial, and not all aid directors have adequate IT support. Making full use of systems capabilities allows for auto packaging, generating missing items letters, exception reporting, and student access via a portal for self-service. The aid director needs not only to be comfortable navigating the database, but also designing processes, data queries, and maintaining system integrity. Some aid offices are fortunate to have a staff member dedicated to financial aid operations; however, in small offices, it is often the case that the director is the office’s “super user.”

Communication Skills

Far from being a cliché, strong communication skills link the above attributes. Internally, aid directors are a pivot point for many administrative areas and externally serve as a critical point of contact between the institution and families.

Financial aid officers must be equal partners with their admissions colleagues in managing enrollment and net tuition revenue goals. They also must work effectively with student accounts and the registrar both to provide quality customer service and coordinate efforts to optimize operations. In addition, the aid director collaborates with the development office in making the fundraising case and is typically involved in retention efforts.

Connecting, mediating, coordinating, and providing information are all in a day’s work for a financial aid director.

Externally, directors of financial aid need to be able to translate the application process for families, explain financial aid award letters and financing options, and work with families experiencing challenging financial circumstances. Connecting, mediating, coordinating, and providing information are all in a day’s work for an aid director.   

A quick internet search produces a striking number of directors of financial aid retirement announcements, along with many position openings. We know of some institutions that have taken as long as two years to fill leadership positions in the aid office, since finding an aid director with the necessary skill set can be challenging.

Saadi recounts, “I never thought or planned to be a director, and I would have been perfectly happy as an assistant or associate director, but circumstances can change quickly.” Consequently, even if your financial aid director isn’t thinking of retiring soon, he or she 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 stay in the profession.

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