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Oceans of Data

Financial aid offices are drowning in a sea of reports, but the right tools and strategies can throw them a life raft.
University Business, September 2012

The maxim “publish or perish” may be associated with the way faculty operate, but financial aid office administrators would likely agree it describes their situation, as well. Rather than publishing academic work, these employees are tasked with producing reports critical to their continued operations. And as anyone who has worked in student financial aid for even just a few years will vouch, the number of reports they’re running has become a veritable deluge.
In this era of tight budgets and rising tuition costs, part of the reporting frenzy is driven by a need for greater accountability, management, and transparency. But a certain amount of this activity is being propelled by software that makes it possible to generate ever more exacting reports.

Just ask Carolyn Jones, financial aid technical coordinator for Collin County Community College (Texas). Jones has been in financial aid for 17 years and in her current position for about 12. She runs every single financial aid program for the entire college, which has three campuses, and uses Banner.

“We’re running more and more reports,” says Jones, who works out of the McKinney campus. “Anytime you get a more complicated software system capable of generating lots of data, you end up running more reports, and you have to write even more reports to make sure everything is correct.

“There’s also a huge amount of work that’s technical that used to be with the programmers,” she continues. “But now this is with the financial aid offices because of software changes.”

Not only have reporting demands escalated, but at the same time, the college is dealing with the same issues facing most institutions of higher education, community colleges in particular—increased enrollment sparked in part by the economy and people seeking retraining. Also as is typical, staffing hasn’t expanded at the pace enrollment has.

Ad hoc requests are an additional challenge, says Dean Kulju, director of student financial aid services and programs for the 23-campus California State University. Systemwide, CSU distributes $3.1 billion in financial aid to more than 280,000 students.

“For example, someone at the chancellor’s office requests a special report. The challenge comes in defining and working out the specs of what is to be pulled,” explains Kulju, who is based at the chancellor’s office in Long Beach. “And this is highly dependent on the staff and their expertise, and how well they can understand and articulate the request to the programmers.”

The various CSU campuses report their student financial aid data to his office, which does a great deal of analysis and reporting to state legislation.
“A lot of times this is just to inform policymakers of what has happened,” Kulju says. “But we also look at trends and provide projections related to specific aid programs. [And] we work a lot in advocacy at the federal and state levels so they understand the impact of proposed policy changes.”

It’s a huge amount of work already, but if enrollments continue upwards—along with requests for financial aid—the demands on student financial aid staff could become even more intense than in the present time.

So what can beleaguered student financial aid offices do to function as efficiently as possible, and ensure their reports are the most useful they can be for the institution, its administrators, and its students? Following are three ways to make it all happen.

Find the Right Tools

“We have a lot of technology available, and we need to help financial aid employees be successful. They need a lot of smart processing software to help them streamline the process for financial aid,” says Bob Evans, president of EC Group LLC, a Lincoln, Nebraska-based consulting firm that helps colleges and universities implement software, and provides assistance in data interpretation and compliance.

Software should do much of the thinking for you, as Bob Brender, president of ComSpec International, provider of the EMPOWER Student Information System puts it.

For example, financial aid counselors shouldn’t have to run special queries seeking applicants who are missing a particular piece of information, says Brender. Instead, their system should alert them to missing or needed information. Additionally, all the standard and required government reports should be provided, he says.

What else?

“It’s extremely useful to have some pre-built reports addressing the top 10 or 20 requests commonly received from across the institution to use as a reference point,” advises Andy Sprague, executive vice president for Denver-based Sigma Systems, Inc. Look for packages that offer a high degree of reporting flexibility and customizability, that provide the ability to add or remove common filters, change sortings and groupings, and change the presentation type, he advises. Such “flexible reference reports” can sometimes yield answers without the need to develop a report from scratch.

Although Kulju likes the flexibility of CSU’s software (Oracle PeopleSoft for the majority of campuses) and the ability it gives them to customize, he’d still like to see more movement towards providing universally accepted or required reports being used by institutions nationally.

“It can be time consuming to figure out the kinds of reports needed, and some of our smaller campuses may not have as much IT support, so I’d like to see more generalization and more out-of-the box reports,” he says.

Financial aid administrators should view reporting “more in the context of business intelligence—taking data and transforming it into information that can then be used for further analysis and for strategic decision-making,” says Gary Allen, senior strategy manager for Oracle Higher Education. This requires tools that enable users to interact with data, and manipulate it or present it in different ways.

Financial aid office teams should understand the type of aid a student has received and what costs the loans are supporting, says Evans. “This helps educate [students, families, and financial aid offices] as to how financial aid resources are being used and also helps students understand what they’ll need to pay for their education. It’s very important for schools to be open and transparent and to describe how the financial aid office is supporting students.”

Many higher ed institutions are doing this, Evans says, but the challenge comes with managing data and finding time to create this total picture. The ability to compare school-specific to national data also offers greater relevancy. He believes this kind of analysis requires an enterprise solution with dashboard capabilities.   

Think Long Term

Financial aid data is complex and should be studied over a period of time, adds Evans. Administrators should conduct trends analysis and look at data on how students progress through the course of their education.

Chesa Stanfield, executive director of solutions and sales for Global Financial Aid Services, explains the importance of this strategy. “Monitoring progress across the student population at key milestones will quickly isolate students who have stalled and may need outbound contact or an appointment to advance to the next step,” says Stanfield, whose company provides back-office financial aid administration and hosted financial aid software. This kind of reporting enables schools to establish benchmarks, driving better student outcomes, she says.

Define and Manage Reporting

“What’s happening now is that everyone is going crazy with reporting,” says Brender. “Departments are getting inundated with ad hoc requests, and these take a tremendous amount of time to crank out.”

In fact, he continues, because of the sheer number of reports they’re being asked to run, more schools are being forced into creating institutional research departments, which creates more costs.

Identifying key performance indicators (KPIs)—no more than two or three per department—and focusing on these can help financial aid offices get out from underneath, Brender says.

“Your KPIs should be what triggers a query, not everyone’s whims for what they want analyzed,” says Brender. “You need to establish benchmarks and be consistent, and not jump from report to report. [Otherwise], you can’t get a good long-term understanding of performance. Reporting for the sake of reporting doesn’t do much; you really need to go back to the KPIs.”

Financial aid offices can manage better outcomes by knowing their audience and what will make the most sense to them, says Allen.

As he explains, a mistake common to these offices is overwhelming users with data unaccompanied by a summary or overview, making the results less accessible to those who may lack the background to understand what they’re looking at­—such as a university executive, or students and their families.

The same know-your-audience advice applies to data presentation, he continues. “While the same data can easily be presented in a pie chart, line chart, bar graph, or a table, they all do so with a slightly different nuance,” Allen explains. “Therefore, there are different formats that should be used for different scenarios; they’re not interchangeable.”

In light of the quantity and diversity of data, that can “overload and dilute the value to those in different roles across the campus,” Sprague suggests that financial aid offices seek institutional support for segmenting operational reporting versus summary reporting into separate data stores.

“There are many pieces of financial aid data extremely useful to financial aid administrators, yet potentially misleading to people not as familiar with the detailed data,” he explains. “This distinction can help avoid many issues related to misunderstanding the results that are ultimately produced.

“By carefully selecting the data made more publicly available across the institution so that it’s slightly more abstract and very clearly defined at the meta-data layer,” adds Allen, “many mistakes can be avoided.”