4 Lessons Learned From Applying For Financial Aid

 Voices - Masthead  

By Katy Hopkins, Communications Staff 

Practiced financial aid administrators are experts on regulations, processes, and customer service. But even experienced practitioners may be surprised at lessons learned from going through the process as an aid recipient.

Applying for financial aid yourself or with a family member can be illuminating, and may well strengthen your abilities as an aid administrator, NASFAA members said. Here are a few ways financial aid administrators have expanded their knowledge through receiving aid—and how you can strengthen your skills, too, whether you’ve been through the process yourself or not.

1. Reinforce knowledge: As a financial aid counselor at South Carolina’s Tri-County Technical College, Sharetta Bufford walks many students through filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). 

When she recently filed the FAFSA herself, she was struck by how quickly she was able to complete the form, with the help of the data retrieval tool and the tips provided to filers. 

“It shows that what I’m telling students is accurate,” Bufford said. “It helps me to say, ‘I know this process is difficult, but read those helpful hints.’” 

Though Bufford completed the form for a master’s program, it’s a good drill for anyone who wants to solidify his or her understanding, she said.

2. Expose areas of confusion: Your office’s informational materials may make perfect sense to you – but that doesn’t mean students and parents are as quick on the uptake. That’s a lesson Perry Diehm learned watching his daughter and wife begin the application process at his institution, MidAmerica Nazarene University in Kansas.

“They were struggling to understand exactly what the school was wanting and what we were trying to tell them,” said Diehm, who serves as associate director of compliance. “I realized we needed to adjust how we ask for documents, and what we said as far as awards.”

Diehm has since led his office in changing wording related to cost of attendance components, such as transportation, books and supplies, and off-campus housing, to make clear that those expenses won’t need to be paid directly to the institution. The office has also spelled out acronyms on documents to increase clarity. 

Any aid administrator can show informational materials to family members to get a layperson’s perspective – even if those kin aren’t in the midst of the application process. 

“I think it would be very good to ‘test’ any written documentation with parents and students before it is sent out,” Diehm said. “We have tried that with our work-study students in the past, but I think they even had enough of the ‘financial aid’ mentality where it was not as helpful as testing on people who had no experience in financial aid.”

3. Introduce new tactics: Of course, not every aid administrator will have a child enroll in his or her own institution. Don’t assume you know how other offices operate, cautions Priscilla Armsby, associate director of financial aid at Siena College in New York. 

As she helped her children, who eventually enrolled in Boston College and Fordham University, apply for financial aid, she underwent much different verification processes than her own office requires. 

“Even though you may have a perception of how things work, you have to check with each individual school,” she said. “Get on those colleges’ websites where your kids are applying and double check.”

Don’t be afraid to ask other institutions’ financial aid administrators for help understanding their processes, Armsby said. They may even be extra receptive to working with a fellow aid professional.

“I think there’s an instant camaraderie to say, ‘We’re in this together,’” she added. “We’re all doing this for the greater good, so it always helps to open that door.”

4. Humanize the process: Going through the financial aid process as a recipient or a parent can help aid administrators visualize what students struggle with.  

“Often once we have been in financial aid for a while we forget what it is like to be a student or parent with no knowledge of the process. When I feel this way I go back to an experience I had as a student,” said Chandra Owen, office of financial aid training coordinator at Michigan State University.  

In particular, Owen thinks back to a summer term when she was short on funds for a pivotal course. An understanding financial aid administrator provided information on alternative loans, moving Owen from the brink of tears to instant relief. 

“I try to relive that moment when I see the same look in a student or parent’s face, to remind me of how they are feeling and what I can do to help,” Owen said. “I think there’s great value in having experience from both sides."

If you're a financial aid professional who is also the parent of a financial aid recipient, or if you have recently received student aid yourself, lend your voice to the comments section below. What have you learned from being on the receiving end, and how has it informed your approach to working in financial aid?


Publication Date: 7/17/2014

Linnea T | 7/30/2014 6:42:45 PM

I have worked in financial aid administration for several years and recently went back to college to obtain my master's degree. Since I was already familiar with the application, completing the FAFSA was a quick and painless process for me. However, I was shocked at the EFC that was generated for me. We are a dual-income household without kids, but that has only been recently as I was often unemployed or underemployed due to changes in my husband's work assignments. When the FAFSA showed what we were expected to contribute toward educational expenses (the same amount as my entire paycheck, after taxes!) I about hit the floor.

Brenda M | 7/25/2014 10:5:05 AM

I found it enlightening to attend the many financial aid sessions offered at colleges which my daughter and I attended this past year. Sitting in the audience rather than being the speaker at such events provides a totally different experience. There is a wide variety of approaches. Some financial aid presentations consist of merely an introduction and a handout, while others attempt to cover every detail in painstaking fashion. My feedback would be that it is best to provide a brief overview along with a more detailed handout (there is too much information to take in during the visit day or registration day!) And, most importantly, use the time you have with the students and parents to answer their questions...let the questions steer the presentation, once you have provided a brief overview. Don't try to get through "your agenda" and not leave time for questions. You cannot assume which questions are lurking in the minds of your audience...you will be amazed at the questions asked!

David S | 7/22/2014 2:51:14 PM

What I've learned is that for all of my career-long commitment to focusing on need-based aid, merit scholarships are good too. Because that's all my daughter is receiving (in fact, a larger one would be nice). Another thing I've learned is that it's good to have a spouse who makes more money than a financial aid administrator.

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