We all likely know people who insist upon being the one who is right. While such individuals may come across as a bit difficult to interact with, the reality is that we all do want to be right. And, in our work-a-day world, it is important that we get it right in the critical areas of our profession. We work in a $150 billion dollar industry as financial aid professionals,1 so there is ample need for not missing the mark in operational accuracy and effectiveness. In this intermittent series on getting it right, we are highlighting some of the key areas in which it is critical to employ best practices in order to accomplish this goal. The components covered in this series are: the right people, the right service, and the right exposure. In this segment of our series we will highlight getting it right in regard to the service you provide.
In our last segment in this sequence we spoke to the fact that schools that participate in the Title IV Federal Student Aid (FSA) programs must meet the regulatory requirement in 34 CFR 668.16 that dictates that a school must demonstrate “administrative capability.” Although that regulatory cite addresses mainly the details of operating the FSA programs, some subparagraphs in the section do specifically, or by inference, address service to students (e.g., financial aid counseling—not just loan counseling). Actually, it is common for schools to think of service to their students. Some of that thought perhaps arises out of worry over the institution’s next accreditation review. (Did someone say they are anxiously awaiting their upcoming review?) But, hopefully, service to students is more of an instinctive desire of the school’s administration, faculty, and staff than simply a requirement that creates dread. When it is an innate matter, it seems that servicing students is the focus that automatically percolates to the top. So, how does an institution provide the right service? And, what does the concept of “right service” entail? Experience would indicate that to serve students appropriately requires a comprehensive view. Such an outlook would encompass at least four components that are critical to demonstrating the right service orientation and service ability toward students from a financial aid perspective. Those four components are customer focus, technology, reporting and documentation, and compliance.
Serving with Focus
Years ago a former colleague used a great phrase when responding to a request from the president of the school. He would say, “I’ve got that in focus!” Of course, the metaphor worked well for him as he was an accomplished photographer and taught photography classes. But, his statement is applicable to us as well as we ask ourselves: do we have a clear focus on customer service? Naturally, in the school environment our main “customer” is our student. (Yes, there have been debates in academe as to whether students should be viewed as customers. But, for our purposes, the key is that we need to focus on who we serve—students!)
As a school serving students, are the students’ perspectives considered? It is easy as the administrator or faculty to pronounce what the students need. But, to do this accurately and with legitimacy, the students’ perspectives and needs must be considered. Who is your student? Most schools know many of the demographics of their student body, but it takes more than the data to know your student. It requires talking with them, asking questions, and perhaps even—on occasion—sitting through a class that students have to sit through. What better way to know what they experience than to experience it yourself? Or, at a minimum, have you reviewed the syllabi of the courses the students take to understand the time requirements they juggle with the rest of their world? Data is regularly showing that more and more students are not the traditional age students of the historic Ivy League schools in years gone by. The average age at all schools is increasing. That fact frequently accompanies the additional challenges of perhaps a full-time job while going to school, and many times a family to support.
Another potential way to gain the focus of your customer is to include them in key areas such as student-centered committees. If your school is not yet “ready” to make that step, then as a starting point, a school can gain much input from students about the service you provide (or should be providing) via service “focus groups” or town hall meetings, depending upon the size of your population. At a minimum, you can conduct a student survey on key issues, always allowing room in such a survey for the student to give unsolicited input on other items not specifically addressed in your survey.
Thus, we have highlighted at least two ways in which we can demonstrate greater student focus as we work to get it right regarding service.
Serving with Technology
Those who have worked in a career field that utilizes office technology for more than a couple of decades recall the era of IBM® Selectric typewriters. Oh, what a revolution in office technology! This was especially the case when the Correcting Selectric II came out! (It could actually correct errors in your typing without using an eraser or liquid correction fluid!) But, alas, the Selectric was retired as personal computers and daisy-wheel printers came on the scene. Fortunately for students—and faculty and staff, postsecondary schools, generally speaking, have tried to stay up with the latest technology. For example, before the EDExpress software was available to schools from the US Department of Education, an enterprising individual by the name of Robert Pike (who was also a FAME employee in later years) developed a programmable calculator that would allow financial aid administrators to recalculate a student’s expected family contribution (EFC) at their desk. Then, later came that surfing craze! And, it was not as the iconic Beach Boys sang, “Surfing USA.” It was surfing the World Wide Web. Yes, it has only been in the last two decades that the Internet and “Web” pages came on the scene! The point being made is that technology has been in constant progress, and it appears that it will continue in that mode for the foreseeable future.
So, what does it take for a school to provide the appropriate service to students from a technological perspective? Do you remember when a school would use e-mail to expedite communication with students? E-mail was the quickest method of transmitting individual-specific information you wanted a student to see when he or she was not sitting in front of you. Obviously, the toolkit of options for communicating has expanded. Now there are the more varied methods of communicating electronically that may include (in addition to the functionality of your financial aid software system) texting, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, and others. Further, many schools will have kiosks or computer work-stations available for students’ self-service. Then, there is the possibility of a “live chat” feature in your Web site and other technology options to enhance service to students.
But, what is the best technology for a school to utilize? While there are some basic requirements, for the most part that is a question with a flexible response. A big part of the answer is dependent upon your institution’s student population. This also relates back to our earlier discussion about knowing your students. Granted, the type of technology utilized on your campus is seldom in the purview of the financial aid office. However, it could be argued that the financial aid office should definitely be a source for informing those responsible for the campus technology decisions. After all, the financial aid office is probably the office on campus that has the most interaction on an ongoing basis with the majority of students over the course of a school year, and for all years of the student’s tenure at your school. Also, the technology capabilities of the financial aid office are likely responsible for generating more funds coming in to the school than any other office of the institution. Finally, as one last note of no small importance, ED has mandated certain electronic capabilities of all institutions that are Title IV-eligible since the November 29, 1996, regulations that added this aspect to the administrative capability standards. [See 34 CFR 668.16(o).] Therefore, it is certain to be a good move to ensure your institution gets it right in matters related to serving your students with its technology capabilities and standards. It is important to make a concerted effort to consider technology options that are available in today’s world and determine which will best serve your students in matters related to financial aid. A goal is to have the high-tech functionality while retaining and enhancing the high-touch in “feel” (user friendliness and service orientation). Some schools have found that the use of third-party services such as what FAME offers helps them maintain the high-tech functionality and empowers them to enhance their user friendliness and service.
Service through Reporting and Documenting
Having to document and report on what is done in financial aid is just a part of life. Truly, the financial aid office must certainly be the one office on campus that is more scrutinized than any other. How many different ways and to how many different entities can the same data be presented? Federal Pell Grant and Direct Loan reconciliations monthly and annually, FISAP, IPEDS, Gainful Employment (GE) disclosures and reporting, Net Price Calculator template, Cohort Default Rate (CDR), annual audit, and on and on. (We have not mentioned any non-ED required inquiries, e.g., institutional, state, and accrediting agencies, etc., in addition to the possible magazine surveys….)
Perhaps one of the best ways to ensure you are optimally serving your institution and students through reporting and documentation is to have a plan and process in place. In a quick glance at the concept, it would seem that reporting and documenting should be straightforward tasks. But, with a more considered view, there are several components to this aspect of service. First, consider who the appropriate person is to report the information. The fact that an item may have some reference to financial aid does not create an automatic directive that the financial aid administrator is the one that is required, or appropriate, to report the necessary data. The institution must evaluate all types of data that are reported to various entities to determine who the most suitable individual is for reporting this information. Next, it is important to determine what the array of purposes for the data is, or the intended use of the supporting documentation. Will it be data that is used only on campus? Or, is it a federally required reporting function, or one necessitated by your accrediting agency, or perhaps even, a request from a periodical, whether a consumer or professional periodical? The answer to the preceding questions helps define who the audience of the data will be. When the audience is known, it enables a better formatting of the data and information in the mode that will best present the data.
The key take-away is that in the world of financial aid, there will be the demand for reporting. Therefore, it is important to serve your office, your institution, and your students in an accurate, efficient, and timely manner when reporting.
Service through Compliance
Compliance is a necessity in order for a school to have the ability to serve its students. A school participating in the Title IV Federal Student Aid programs typically is doing so to provide financial opportunities for students to attend. Without the assistance made available through Title IV programs, many students would not be able to enroll and persist through to graduation.
Title IV by its nature requires an environment and culture of compliance. This culture should pervade to such an extent that it is the mindset of all employees. While the desired state is that every staff and faculty member of every institution is so consumed with personal and institutional integrity that non-compliance would never be a possibility, reality has demonstrated that there are numerous instances of non-compliance in matters related to the Title IV programs. Almost without exception, a diligent auditor, federal program reviewer, or quality consultant (e.g., members of FAME’s Consulting Services department) will be able to find some item of non-compliance on any visit to any institution. The story relayed by an ED official describes how he had been asked by a school to come for a visit and review their files and operations because they knew he would not be able to find anything wrong. Needless to say, the ED official said that he went to the school, determined to stay until he did find something wrong—and he did. (Do we learn a couple of lessons here? One, it may be the wisest choice not to volunteer for a federal reviewer to come visit for the purpose of doing a compliance review. Perhaps use a private reviewer/consultant if you are interested in affirming how well you are doing. Two, the wisdom of the ages proves true: pride comes before a fall!)
Compliance takes commitment, and work! But, it pays huge dividends. A mindset and culture of compliance provides an intangible benefit that contributes to ongoing service to students by ensuring the institution remains eligible to participate in the Title IV programs. And, a side benefit is that you can sleep well at night!
Getting it right takes a comprehensive view of service that includes both, being service-oriented with an appropriate service mindset, but also the school’s actual service ability or capability. The right service incorporates customer focus, technology, reporting and documentation, as well as compliance. When a school and financial aid office has this service component mastered in each of its various aspects for its assorted publics, it will notice a favorable impact on its exposure. In our next segment of this series, we will explore the importance of getting it right with your exposure.
1Per Federal Student Aid’s Web site at https://studentaid.ed.gov/about on March 10, 2015.
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An excellent resource for regular training on subjects applicable to student financial aid administration is FAME’s annual Financial Aid and Management Conference. The 2015 annual conference will be held April 13-15, 2015 in Ft. Lauderdale, FL.
This article is presented for informational and educational purposes only and should not be considered to be giving legal advice.