As the summer comes to an end, many college campuses across the country are preparing for the return of students. And while the majority of students’ tasks involve last-minute things like financial aid paperwork and decisions about classes, financial aid offices have been planning for weeks, and in some cases months, on ways to help set students up for success ahead of the fall semester.
Students at Michigan State University, for example, receive their fall bills toward the end of July, Office of Financial Aid Training Coordinator Chandra Owen said. For many students who are missing pieces, such as verification documents, the early delivery of the bill is the “trigger” they need to complete the process, she said, adding that her office also works to reach students even earlier in the process.
Phone calls to the financial aid office from incoming students “start to pick up” in March, so Owen’s office began hiring temporary staff to help field the calls, she said. And the investment appears to be paying off. Owen said that the numbers show her office is “ahead of the game from last year.”
In addition, the office engages with students via email, pulling queries for students who need to take action and following up with phone calls or paper letters. Social media has also been a beneficial tool for “less targeted communications” and general reminders, such as billing announcements, changes to grant and scholarship programs, and FAFSA filing.
“Even though it does take time and people away for a while, [the planning and effort] pays off in the end,” Owen said, adding that students get better service and more immediate information, which allows the office staff to spend more time counseling students who need it.
Elaine Henrie, director of the Office of Financial Aid, Scholarships, and Veterans Services at Emporia State University, said that at this time of year, students “really need to start making sure that they have everything in order,” from how they will purchase books to submitting paperwork for housing. The key, she said, is to understand that communication is not “one-size-fits-all” and that communication with students needs to be a multi-prong approach to reach as many as possible.
Her office uses everything from paper letters to email to documents posted to the student portal. In the month before school starts, Henrie’s office “go[es] with the more personal touch” in the form of phone calls with students because they are often “in a frame of mind to be more aware and receptive to things they need to do,” she said.
Though providing that personal touch is time-intensive for staff, “it’s kind of a trade off,” Henrie said, adding “We spend the time reaching out to students in advance or spend our time frantic before schools starts.”
One way to help support staff in these endeavors is by creating partnerships with other offices on campus like the student success center that can reach out to students with information and reminders, Henrie said.
“I try to tell folks kind of tongue-in-cheek that [the financial aid staff] are the hornets at Emporia State,” she said, noting the play on the school’s mascot. “When there’s a task, people in our office ‘swarm’ to do it” and if you help them, they will, in turn, help you when you need it.
Students at the Carolinas Campus of the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine use this time of year to focus on the completion of the award acceptances, online entrance counseling, and master promissory notes, according to Director of Financial Aid Jan Price. Her office communicates with the campus’ 650 students primarily through email but will also reach out via phone for the “final few” who need extra reminders.
Many assume that medical and graduate students do not need as much attention due to their age and maturity when compared to typical undergraduate students. However, Price is quick to point out that many are going through the financial aid process on their own for the first time and need just as much personal attention for a variety of reasons.
Having a small student population is helpful, Price said, because they are more likely to know who she is and what her office is responsible for and, therefore, more likely to follow up on her emails. Her office also uses Facebook for general reminders and, in limited cases, will reach out to students via text messaging “to encourage our students to stay in touch,” she said.
“I think when it comes down to it, the financial aid staff thrives on contact with the students we serve,” Price said. “Having their questions answered before they have to ask them is my goal. It’s a high bar to set, but anytime a student walks away satisfied, I’m satisfied too.”
At Augsburg College, the financial aid office uses communications during this time of year to help students address the gap in what they owe for tuition and what they have been awarded, which can have a dramatic impact on their behavior leading into the fall semester, Director of Student Financial Services Carly Eichhorst said.
While some students appear to be more on top of the financial aid process than others, “navigating our world is complex for all students,” Eichhorst said. It’s important that communications coming from the aid office are timely, clearly worded, and do not make assumptions about a student’s knowledge of financial aid, she said.
Her office also uses an all-of-the-above approach to communicating with students and prepares for busy times of the year by including mailings and email campaigns on the office calendar so that they are not missed in the grind of the office.
Eichhorst often involves other departments and groups on campus, including athletic directors and coaches. “I think we need to ask for help when we need it and get as many people engaged in talking about” financial aid to students as possible, Eichhorst said. “Financial aid administrators may be the experts on the details, but lots of people can talk bigger-picture things.”
The most important thing to keep in mind, she said, is educating students about financial aid.
“I believe any of us who are drawn to this field, we’re not doing this because we like Pell reporting,” Eichhorst said. “You do it because you care deeply about students and believe education is valuable.”
What does your office do to communicate with students prior to the start of school? Share your tried and true communication efforts with your colleagues in the comments below!
Publication Date: 8/6/2015