Financial aid is an important driver for college enrollment. In the past few years, as enrollments have fallen, getting the right financial aid into student hands has become more necessary to institutional viability than ever before.
The pandemic has dramatically increased the challenges financial aid offices face. When the national unemployment rate rose to over 10% by mid-2020, colleges saw an increase in requests for financial aid appeals—students requesting additional aid and amended packages. Even as the unemployment rates have dropped, the appeals numbers from 2021 were nearly identical to those in 2020.
In a survey conducted by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, more than half of institutions surveyed said they received an increase in requests for professional judgements. One in five schools saw a 50% increase in request rates. To respond to these requests, financial aid staff must manually review and adjust awards on a case-by-case basis.
As financial aid offices see workloads expand, it’s becoming increasingly important to find ways to create more efficient processes. Luckily, there are modern solutions out there to help financial aid offices work more efficiently. As institutions undergo digital transformations, they can access new technologies that can help automate many processes that used to be manual. When used effectively, financial aid software can reduce the burden financial aid offices face.
Change is hard, especially when we’ve found a certain level of comfort in a tried-and-true method. No matter what circumstance we’re in, when we find ourselves under pressure, the last thing we’d want to do is enter more variables into the mix by changing methodology. But especially when dealing with issues in the financial aid process, it’s important to remember that pressures often mount because circumstances change. Old systems might not be equipped to solve new problems.
Software systems have improved markedly over the past few years, and they have become simpler and easier to configure. But not all software solutions are configurable. While change is inevitable with new software, not all your processes need to be innovated. You want to select a flexible financial aid solution that allows you to maintain those processes you wish to keep.
While you don’t have to change every process to fit new financial aid software, rethinking certain practices can often help you make better use of that software. The implementation phase is a great time to reevaluate your methodology and determine where it can be improved.
As institutions offer a wider variety of programs—full-term, short-term, and competency-based education programs, etc.—financial aid systems need to adapt accordingly. The ability to stay flexible and personalize offers can be critical for the success of the institution. When selecting a financial aid solution, look for one that allows you to configure your system based on the different types of terms your institution offers.
One of the key benefits of upgrading to a modern software system is the opportunity to introduce new levels of automation. Complicated manual processes can become simplified workflows. Not only should your financial aid software be able to manage the packaging process for different program types, it should also be able to handle more sophisticated processes, such as awarding Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants (FSOEG). You want to select a solution that contains analytics capabilities as well as a simplified process for double-checking accuracy.
The financial aid process is notoriously complicated not only for financial aid officers, but for students. Modern financial aid solutions allow you to simplify otherwise complicated processes. Take, for instance, the verification process. Verification can be arduous for both students and financial aid officers alike. Students can sometimes forget to upload correct documents, provide incomplete information, or input contradictory data across different forms. Financial aid offices relying on manual processes must sort these inconsistencies out by hand and reach out to individual students for the correct information.
Modern financial aid solutions can automate processes like verification by flagging inconsistencies and automatically “nudging” students with upload reminders. These systems should also be able to automate workflows around disbursement as well, checking errors and ensuring compliance.
Higher education institutions can’t afford to leave the status quo in place regarding their financial aid offices. Recent information published by the National Student Clearinghouse shows that enrollments dropped another 3.2% this fall, resulting in the largest two-year decline in enrollments the United States has seen in 50 years.
Despite COVID-19’s impact on these enrollment numbers, enrollments have been declining for a decade and may continue to decline in the years to come. Financial aid plays a central role in many students’ abilities to enroll in higher education, and it plays a central role in an institution’s ability to hit enrollment goals.
Especially recently, as colleges experience this uptick in both financial aid requests and appeals, institutions need financial aid solutions that are flexible, configurable, and allow for a more efficient financial aid packaging process. As challenges to financial aid mount, modern financial aid solutions have the ability to increase productivity, staff satisfaction, and, ultimately, enrollment.