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Enhancing financial aid operations and processes

Wisconsin college employs Third Coast Higher Education for Financial Aid assessment and improvement project
University Business, July 2016
Wisconsin college employs Third Coast Higher Education for Financial Aid assessment and improvement project
Wisconsin college employs Third Coast Higher Education for Financial Aid assessment and improvement project

Times of transition are always a good opportunity for evaluating processes in a financial aid office. So when the director of financial aid at Beloit College in Wisconsin took a new position, leadership at the 1,350-student institution decided to examine that department’s business operations.

“We wanted to see if we were operating at best-practice level,” says Rob Mirabile, vice president for enrollment. “We also wanted help leading the office during the transition phase.”

A partner with a personal touch
Knowing the high importance of regulatory compliance to financial aid departments, it was critical to find consultants who had demonstrated expertise in this area. Third Coast Higher Education’s consulting services fit that bill with more than 40 years of experience in financial aid and enrollment management. And from the beginning, the partnership was a clear success.

“The team at Third Coast consists of not just financial aid experts, but experts in higher ed in general,” says Mirabile. “Third Coast began with an assessment of the entire financial aid lifecycle, which provided a roadmap for change and identified items for compliance risk and operational and system improvement.” Third Coast applies a decision-driven process to help institutions effectively implement and sustain mission-critical initiatives. They approach the business process improvement cycle with a combination of best-practice solutions that are based in the financial aid process, federal compliance and using a student information system.

One thing Third Coast does particularly well is collaborate with other offices on campus, notes CFO Laurie Stickelmaier.

“They bring departments together as a team,” says Stickelmaier. “They work professionally with the offices of Development, Alumni Relations, Student Affairs and Accounting (Bursar), and even other constituencies such as prospective students and board members, to affect change and improvement in all aspects of financial aid.”

Because of their wealth of expertise and experience, Third Coast consultants deploy very smoothly on campus, says Mirabile. “Once a vendor is on our campus, other departments expect them to be experts, and Third Coast more than meets those expectations. It was only weeks until it felt like we had been working with them for years. They listen to our needs and deliver processes and procedures that are tailored to our institution.”

Improving efficiencies
Among Third Coast’s services to Beloit have been removing manual processes, re-implementing their financial aid operations software, and creating a policies and procedures manual. “We are a high-discount school, so it is important that our policies are strong and well-written, and that our processing is compliant, automated and seamless for students,” says Stickelmaier.

Third Coast also prepared the financial aid department for A-133 audits, and ensured that all staff received strong, customized training. Beloit benefitted from having experts guiding the activities and anticipating the appropriate next steps to ensure a successful and low-stress response. Day-to-day operations are smoother, according to Mirabile. Financial aid packages are accurate and sent on time. FAFSAs are filed correctly, and customer service feedback from current and prospective students and parents has been strongly positive.

“All of the feedback we receive is that Third Coast is knowledgeable, and that whatever the activity of the day is, financial aid staff understand why and how it is getting done,” says Mirabile.

Above all, through the partnership with Third Coast, Stickelmaier feels Beloit’s financial aid department is more effective. Third Coast evaluated Beloit’s federal compliance and adherence to regulations and then helped mitigate that risk through well-designed and executed controls, particularly through more effective use of the financial aid operations software.

“It is not often you can create more efficiency, develop more accurate processes, write better policy and reduce risk—all in just three to four months,” Stickelmaier says.

For more information, visit www.thirdcoasthighereducation.org

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