By: Dr. Dawn M. Patak, Senior Consultant, FAS
When “retention” is mentioned in higher education circles, our thoughts turn directly to students, but should we be looking in more than one direction? What about the retention of employees? When should our thoughts turn to the retention of higher education professionals? It seems, given the large amount of higher education media on the topic, that it’s past time to turn our thoughts to our administrative professionals as often as we do our students, especially financial aid professionals.
In November 2021, Inside Higher Ed woke up the higher education world with the news that financial aid staffing shortages were on the rise. In the past three years, we have seen financial aid position openings double across the nation. Why is this so concerning? What makes financial aid staffing shortages alarming? Are upper administration officials of colleges and universities really understanding what can happen when a financial aid office goes understaffed for just weeks, let alone months or years?
Financial aid administrators shoulder the responsibility of awarding, disbursing, and reconciling federal, state, and institutional aid funds for their students. They must understand and strictly adhere to regulations, both state and federal and institutional policies. Their role significantly impacts enrollment and retention. The efficient functioning of the financial aid office is critical for students and the institution. 85% of students receive some form of financial aid, inadequate financial aid staffing can swiftly lead to disruption in aid processing and other regulatory complications.
The importance of financial aid administration cannot be overlooked. Staffing shortages result in neglecting tasks, a compromised level of customer service, and a decrease in administrative capability that will ultimately impact compliance with Title IV regulations. These shortages also directly affect student enrollment and retention, as losing experienced financial aid administrators means a decrease in the knowledge base that students, families, faculty, and staff depend on. Students who are confused and frustrated with the financial aid process and receive subpar customer service due to a lack of human resources within the financial aid office may choose to attend alternative institutions. Retention of students depends upon many factors, including the retention of financial aid staff.
What can colleges and universities do to retain their financial aid administrators? Here are a few ideas that may help:
- Provide a seat at the table for your trusted voices in financial aid. This helps to facilitate communication around their jobs and what they need to be successful and allows them to assist in policy-making decisions that will ensure Title IV compliance for the institution.
- Examine the reasons for staff departures as soon as they begin. Are staff leaving for something as common as moving to a better opportunity or is it indicative of an underlying issue? It’s never too early to find out.
- Once a decrease in staffing begins, meet with the financial aid staff to assess staffing needs. Discuss ideas to determine if it’s feasible to shift workloads. It is also helpful to let everyone know what is expected of them during a time of staffing shortage.
- If you determine shifting workloads is not feasible, do not delay in hiring interim staffing. Leaving a staff depleted for even a few months may have long-lasting effects on student customer service and Title IV compliance.
Financial aid administrators have been under intense pressure for years to keep up with changing regulations and conflicting information. They are the most regulated office on campus. The challenges they face while balancing federal and state regulations, decreasing enrollment, and the need for increased financial aid education while responding to student and parent needs and concerns can be overwhelming at best. Adding staffing shortages into an already stretched environment can create negative long-term issues for students, faculty, staff, and administration.
Prepare for the Enrollment Cliff:
It’s imperative that higher education institutions recognize the urgency of retaining financial aid administrators. Their administrative capability, expertise, and dedication are indispensable not only for students but for the entire institution’s success. By taking proactive steps to address staffing shortages and support these professionals, colleges and universities can ensure continued compliance, enhance student experiences, and bolster overall retention efforts.
Remember, retention is mission-critical. To understand how you can equip your institution for success, reach out to your Financial Aid Services, LLC (FAS) team today. Together, we can navigate the challenges, support retention, and secure a brighter future for both your institution and your students.