180 Interstate North Parkway
Suite 550, Atlanta, GA 30339
By: Robert Heil, CEO
Students expect a combination of personalization with the speed that they experience from Amazon or DoorDash. Without that speed, students are less likely to stay engaged with you, and less engagement leads to recruitment and retention challenges. This can be especially challenging for financial aid and student accounts offices where speed + quality + accuracy must be delivered at scale.
Whether it be wait times, responding to their initial inquiry, offering admission first, or processing aid faster and sending an offer notice first–students reward speed.
If students love speed, what does speed love? Efficiency.
Providing a more efficient enrollment experience for students and parents must be a critical element in your comprehensive enrollment management strategy. No amount of marketing can offset an inefficient process. This is the pitfall too many campuses fall in. You can spend (or waste) hundreds of thousands of dollars on enrollment marketing, yet your greatest competitive advantage may be uncovering the efficiency and organizational capability needed to deliver customization and speed at scale.
You may not consider your financial aid and student accounts offices as major brand influencers, but you should. Mistakes and complications damage your brand. Your brand is not driven by US News & World Report rankings. Your brand is shaped by the student experience you deliver. When students and parents receive a streamlined, accurate experience, you strengthen your brand every time.
Websites that do not load in less than 6 seconds are usually abandoned. In the same vein, dissatisfied students will go elsewhere. Outside of academics, no other two offices on campus shape the student experience more than the financial aid and student accounts offices. Do your strategic investments in recruitment and retention reflect that?
Without speed + accuracy + quality, you are operating at a disadvantage.
Here are two ways we are helping our clients:
At FAS, we’ve spent 32 years mastering a model connecting the best people, processes, and systems to help our clients gain a competitive advantage. Our Outsourced Processing service combines our consultants, analysts, industry-leading practices, lean process methodology, and meticulous quality controls. These coupled with our technology platform provides the speed, accuracy, and quality your students expect. Using this service, your financial aid office can process aid exponentially faster with accuracy giving you a major competitive advantage with recruitment and retention.
Want to know where you stand? Our Organizational Capability Reviews for financial aid and student accounts offices can measure your business processes against best practices to discover where the major efficiency gains can be found. How well are you optimizing technology? How do your staffing levels stack up against benchmarks from peer institutions? Where can you improve the student experience? Don’t think of it as an audit. The goal is not to point out mistakes. The purpose is to find opportunities. We are “peer educators”. Our consultants come alongside to teach, coach, and roll up their sleeves to help.
To learn more, contact FAS to uncover how you can strengthen your financial operations, optimize enrollment, and enhance the student experience.
At FAS, we believe your financial aid office and student business services should be activated to become your top advantage, generating greater enrollment, easier operations, and an elevated brand. To achieve those goals, leaders need trusted sources for innovation and insight. That is our intent for this “CEO Corner” of Innovations + Insights – to create a hub for emerging trends, case studies, creative ideas, and innovations that power new possibilities for you, our clients, and the students you serve.
Hosted by our CEO, Robert Heil, with both original and shared material, this is forward-thinking content that is relevant and practical for university Presidents, CFO’s, VP’s, Board members, and higher ed CEO’s. No matter how great the challenge, the solution is within you. It often just requires the right insight and innovation to unlock the solution. Doesn’t every leader want to discover that?
Our mission at FAS is to empower colleges and universities to strengthen their financial operations, optimize enrollment, and enhance the student experience. That mission is significant. We’re not chasing small aspirations. FAS was founded on an innovative approach and this same spirit of innovation propels us to new ways of thinking today.
Trusted by over 1,800 university clients and fortified with over 1,600 years of industry experience, we uncovered the most successful models and frameworks that can be applied to any campus. Whether you are traversing necessary strategy shifts or navigating operational challenges, our aim is to share a compelling inside view on how to strengthen your advantage.
Want to join the discussion? Let’s get started.
It is inevitable: all employees eventually move on to a new job, a new campus, or a long-awaited retirement. Turnover in a key position such as bursar or student financial services director is both a challenge and an opportunity. Continuity is vital so no important tasks are overlooked. You may be lucky enough to have an experienced staff member primed to take over. Or you may be ready to rethink the role and would rather fill the position temporarily.
Step 1: Prepare for the departure
When you receive any employee’s notice, have them identify and document critical functions and current processes. A long-serving bursar might maintain detailed mental checklists without physically documenting this information. Your institution’s official process documentation was likely accurate at one time, but is it still? Procedures have likely evolved over time and critical details could be missing.
Don’t let decades of knowledge walk out the door with the departing employee.
Have your departing employee gather all relevant business process and procedural documentation. Ask them to update instructions, document all processes, and include any helpful context. This should include screenshots and system navigation tips. The overall objective is to document processes and the logical thought process they follow for troubleshooting and researching questions.
Have the employee create or update checklists that account for their daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly (or semester), and annual tasks. The lists should include both internal and external deadlines and recommended dates to begin the work. Key contacts and any necessary external systems or website links should be included. It is good practice to ask other employees who participate in business office functions (i.e., assistant/associate bursar, account representatives, functional analysts, etc.) to make their own list(s) to cross-reference.
If you find that your organization does not have up-to-date written cash handling or accounting processes and procedures, make documenting these activities a key priority.
Consider any necessary updates to system access and security protocols. Identify all software and third-party logins used and establish an alternative user or new primary administrator. Make sure you test all login credentials prior to the departing employee’s last day. Cross-reference these items with the checklists and procedure documents to verify all access points are addressed. System access will likely include the student information system, accounting software, banking accounts, and third-party service providers such as payment processors and credit card vendors. Consult with your IT department or service provider to ensure all security protocols are considered and addressed.
Don’t forget to close out the departing individual’s access.
Consider the departing bursar’s key relationships, such as impacted campus partners, vendors, and bankers. It is important to inform them that their point of contact will be changing. Avoid leaving them with outdated contact information or no one to call about unfinished items. Who will they reach out to in the short term if needed? These individuals or firms can serve as a bridge and help you through the transition.
Step 2: Assess your business office operations for potential gaps or areas of weakness and opportunities for process improvement
Next, consider key functions to identify areas for improvement. You may have staff leaving for jobs they perceive to be easier or less stressful. While there are many root causes for this perception, in the day-to-day operations of a business office, staff frequently attribute their greatest stress to chasing deadlines constantly, inefficient processes, outdated or underutilized technology, and being short staffed. It’s important to uncover and proactively address such challenges. Assessing these with an open mind can help position your institution to grow and thrive.
These questions are a starting point for identifying opportunities to improve your business office functions:
Step 3: Determine what you truly need from your student business office
With a better understanding of your current operations, it’s time to assess the staffing and skills your institution truly needs—not necessarily what will maintain the status quo. By their nature, student financial service operations must coordinate closely with other offices, notably student financial aid and the registrar, to ensure good service and regulatory compliance. In addition to accomplishing the day-to-day critical tasks proficiently, your staff should be capable of providing timely reporting and updates so senior administrators can make informed, strategic decisions and provide the best experience for students.
Turnover provides the opportunity to revisit the qualifications and experience that are needed to maximize the value of your business office operations. Do you need accountants, collectors, customer service representatives, or technical support staff? Maybe you need components of all these fulfill the institution’s mission and serve its students.
Step 4: Evaluate the value proposition of alternative strategies
Finally, consider if this staffing change can serve as a catalyst to explore alternatives to continuing what has been done the same way for years. A targeted assessment may be the key.
Consultants are experienced professionals who easily identify quick wins and recommend broader initiatives to bring about longer lasting value. They also help develop the roadmap for navigating the transition. Sometimes, the forced change caused by turnover is an optimal time to move your processes forward and set up your institution for long-term success.
Transition and change in your business office can be challenging. Whether you are losing a staff member, or you want to be proactive in addressing opportunities for improvement, FAS’ Student Business Services can help. We are experienced in performing operational or targeted assessments, developing a strategic plan, and identifying new opportunities for institutions to achieve their goals.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a final rule on December 9, 2021, amending the customer information safeguard requirements under the federal Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA), also known as the “Safeguards Rule.” Since 1999, the GLBA has set the standards for maintaining customer data for financial institutions, including colleges and universities that participate in the Title IV federal student aid programs.
While the revised Safeguards Rule took effect on January 10, 2022, schools will have until December 2022 to implement most of the required changes in the rule. Some of the notable mandates include:
Because higher education institutions are frequent targets of hackers and victims of data breaches, a strong and well-understood infrastructure and program to maintain and protect student information is critical. These programs require institution-wide accountability. It is vital that all employees be aware of changes and take responsibility to protect personal data.
Marymount is a comprehensive Catholic university that offers a wide array of undergraduate and graduate degrees through the Schools of Design, Arts, Humanities, Business and Technology, Sciences, Mathematics, Education, and the Malek School of Health Professions. With its Arlington, Va., location, students have a wide variety of internship opportunities in Washington, D.C., from Capitol Hill and the Smithsonian to the National Institute for Health and international corporations. When the school’s financial aid director’s position became available, Dr. William Bissett, Vice President for Enrollment and Student Affairs, reached out to FAS.
“I knew about FAS because I had a good experience working with them at another institution,” said Dr. Bissett. “We had an inexperienced team at Marymount, and I knew they needed guidance while we searched for a new director.” FAS Consultant Ron Elmore, who was familiar with Marymount’s software system, stepped in for three months to direct and oversee day-to-day operations and mentor the staff. When a new financial aid director was hired, his engagement was extended so he could help with her orientation.
“FAS has the reputation for hiring very experienced, competent financial aid professionals who deal with a variety of situations, size up the issues and make an immediate impact,” said Dr. Bissett. He noted that Elmore’s recommendations and support kept operations running smoothly and helped improve student satisfaction. “In Ron, we not only found a good financial aid professional, but also were fortunate enough to find a good person who mentored and trained our staff with empathy.”
Founded in 1888 as Bishop Clarkson Memorial School of Nursing, Clarkson College is now one of the most thriving allied health care colleges in the region. Located in Omaha, NE, the College has doubled its enrollment over the past decade. When the College needed an interim financial aid director, Controller Megan Wickless-Mulder called on FAS after meeting company representatives at a conference.
With her strength in financial aid operations and regulatory compliance, as well as knowledge of the College’s PowerFAIDS system, FAS Consultant Kim Driggers was the perfect fit for her four-month assignment at Clarkson College. “Kim came in and was unafraid to dig down and find the answers if there was not a lot of documentation,” said Wickless-Mulder. “She was not afraid of any task or challenge given to her.” Driggers kept operations running smoothly by packaging and awarding financial aid for the upcoming year on time and ahead of schedule. She also helped with special projects, such as a grant application and provided assistance with obtaining Title IV funding for certificate programs, and offered recommendations for streamlining processes and procedures.
“Financial aid is a very important part of college operations,” said Wickless-Mulder. “We had peace of mind knowing that someone with Kim’s expertise was here.” She noted that Driggers was positive, personable and pleasant, and a supportive ear for the staff. “Kim was willing to do everything from verification to special projects to talking with students. She was a problem solver for the office. It was fun to watch her put the pieces of the puzzle together.”
In over 31 years, we have seen many trends in higher education that were shaped by financial aid. Each year, students go through the application process. Unfortunately, hundreds of those students never go any further. Financial aid offices typically send a request for information but do not actively recruit these students. Data we have monitored for several years shows a direct correlation between early action and high interest level. Students who respond quickly to a financial aid information request, even from a college where they haven’t applied or been admitted, are expressing excitement about the institution.
Also, some colleges have measures financial aid applicants must take beyond the federal requirements. Recent research suggests the result is fewer students enrolling and a heightened possibility of non-compliance with the federal regulations. For colleges that award a significant amount of institutional aid, additional information may be necessary. If a college primarily offers federal grants, loans and student employment, using standard federal requirements has multiple benefits. This simplifies the process for the students and helps to eliminate access barriers. It also reduces the possible liabilities associated with extraneous and conflicting information. FAS works closely with our clients to help administer financial aid in a manner that is compliant and student-friendly. Contact us about assessing. your overall process or to discuss offloading some of the most time consuming parts of your operation.
Nestled on a hill overlooking picturesque Montpelier, Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) offers artists and writers a transformative, progressive graduate education experience through its master of fine arts programs and unique master of arts program in art and design education. In 2008, VCFA acquired its historic Vermont College campus and three master of fine arts programs from Union Institute & University in Cincinnati, which had owned the campus since 2001. After the transaction, VCFA turned to FAS to administer its student financial aid.
“We never had a stationary moment since we became independent,” said VCFA Controller/Bursar Katie Gustafson. “It’s an incredibly dynamic place, whether we’re adding new programs for our 360 students or starting a fund raising campaign to renovate our buildings.” The college signed its first contract with FAS in 2008 to help implement its own financial aid process. Gustafson noted that for a period of time, the college had discussed bringing its financial aid in-house. “But as FAS and VCFA grew together, we saw that students were incredibly well-served,” she said.
“FAS is very good at decreasing the stress level among students and helping them understand how financial aid works.”
FAS Manager of Full Service Wanda McLaughlin and FAS Client Services Manager Daphne Parks worked closely with Gustafson to provide comprehensive financial aid remote processing. “Everything they do is so efficient,” said Gustafson. “We’ve had clean compliance audits every year, and it doesn’t get any better than that.” Every year, the trio reviews and tweaks processes to make sure that everything is working well. “We have a well-oiled machine,” Gustafson said. “While we are different from any other school, FAS’s willingness to engage with us in our culture is admirable. I think that’s what the broad FAS mission is all about. Any school would be smart to consider working with FAS, but nobody can have Wanda or Daphne!”
With more than 75,000 students and six campuses, Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) is the largest education institution in Virginia and the second largest in the U.S. NOVA is also one of the country’s most diverse colleges, with a student body consisting of individuals from more than 180 countries. For the past four years, NOVA’s financial aid office has been in a restructuring mode to better manage its double-digit growth in student enrollment and a dollar amount of financial aid that has tripled since 2008.
To serve students more effectively, NOVA contracted for a 24/7 call center, hired additional staff and reorganized its reporting structure. After working with a consultant, the college had not found the comprehensive support it needed with trained support people in one place to make sure everything was being done accurately and thoroughly. “We turned to FAS because it offered the whole package – professionalism, long-time experience in the business, a solid reputation and moderate cost,” said Director of Financial Aid Joan Zanders, a 26-year financial aid veteran. “We brought in FAS to provide analysis and file verification because we were not able to process the applications that came in during the summer peak season,” she said.
Zanders says the “domino effect” from working with FAS has positively impacted student enrollment at NOVA. “We are able to process more financial aid in a timely manner,” she said. “Because of the volume of work, federal regulations, and multiple reports related to the verification piece, we would have had to hire a whole lot more additional staff to keep all the balls in the air,” she said. “We have a close working relationship with FAS, including weekly recalls and status reports. We talk through issues and develop solutions.” Zanders is proud that a recent survey showed that 95 percent of NOVA students were satisfied with their financial aid service. Her office was ranked in the top five of all college offices for student satisfaction. “This doesn’t happen very often in financial aid,” she said. “FAS is extremely professional, and I can’t think of a better partner.”
180 Interstate North Parkway
Suite 550, Atlanta, GA 30339
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