Relationship and Coalition Building: Communicating and Managing Up

Managing up is essential for the financial aid office to effectively convey its role, value, and importance to the institution. Cultivating an understanding of what the financial aid office does and how it connects not only to the mission but also to the lifeblood of the institution requires consistent, thorough communication and nurturing relationships with those who have senior-level oversight of the financial aid operation. This toolkit section covers strategies for effective communication and managing up to building relationships with senior leaders to ensure the financial aid operation aligns with the institution's mission and objectives. Communicating and managing up includes strategic positioning, communication, and personal effectiveness.

Strategic Positioning  

  • Highlight why the financial aid office is critical to the university. 
    • We must be viewed as equal partners. The key words are equal and partners. For example: 
      • We are equal partners with enrollment/admissions, for without financial assistance, those in need of it would be unable to attend. 
      • We are equal partners with accounts receivable, for the revenue brought in through financial assistance is a significant source of cash flow for the institution.
      • We are equal partners with registration/student records, for the compliance nature of our work is often directly connected to and with external data reporting that is federally required.
    • The financial aid office's multiple partnerships with other offices on campus are integral to the institution delivering on its mission, and therefore, the financial aid office should be involved in major decision-making.
  • Champion how the financial aid office is critical to the university. What happens without it? Know your data (percent of students receiving financial aid; cohort default rate; campus-based program allocations; administrative cost allowances provided). 
    • Be ready to explain how financial aid efforts fit in with larger university-wide initiatives.
    • Have key metrics easily accessible. Key metrics could include enrollment, percentage of students receiving aid, indebtedness upon graduation, percentage of Pell Grant-eligible students, average net price, and total federal aid dollars to the institution. 
  • Be prepared to articulate and provide feedback on decisions that affect the financial aid office, such as new academic programs, changes in the academic calendar, and tuition rates. 
  • Understand the scope and demands of your supervisor's job. 
  • Be responsive to campus partners.
  • Find ways to establish and strengthen relationships with other campus leaders. 


  • Establish regular one-on-one meetings with your supervisor.
  • Ask how your boss best likes to communicate, and identify how your communication styles complement or hinder your working relationship.
  • Be attentive and present in meetings with your boss, and practice active listening. 
  • Ask clarifying questions, provide feedback on initiatives. 
  • Use simple, plain language — do not assume everyone has all the context.

"Explanations fail when we are unable to translate the language of our work to the language of an uninformed audience." - The Art of Explanation

Personal Effectiveness 

  • Know your values. 
  • Take responsibility for mistakes you've made. 
  • Be organized.
  • Take ownership of your working relationships.  

Data Analysis Skills

Hardly any office on campus is immune from calls for data analysis and assessing outcomes, but the financial aid office is often one of the most measured. Ensuring that you can create the right data questions, understand the data being presented, and understand the underlying research methodology is critical. Additionally, knowing where to find the latest research and keep up with the current discussions will serve any financial aid office well.

Elevating the Financial Aid Office to the E-Suite/Senior Administration

Having a seat at the table when the chancellor/president, provost, and other university leaders meet to discuss the future of your institution can be one of the quickest and most effective ways to move the financial aid office into a position of influence. However, to do that, the financial aid director will often need to convince those leaders that the work in a financial aid office goes beyond the compliance issues with state and federal aid, and that the office is comprised of leaders who are looking to move the school forward. Being seen as a partner who is willing to "get to yes" will go a long way.

Evolve from an office of "no" to an office of "know" — becoming a bridge rather than a barrier.

  • Instead of "no," use phrases like "no, but…," "here are some things to consider," "I love this idea, here is what we will need to accomplish this and ensure compliance" (then provide guidance, requirements, guard rails), etc.
  • Be a source of truth, clarity, and authority. This means being transparent and providing context, but also translating information into easily understandable terms (e.g. removing jargon).
  • Don't guess when you don't have an answer right away — commit to doing the research and following up, then do it!
  • Connect guidance to the common purpose and values of supporting students and protecting our students' ability to continue utilizing Title IV, state, and other financial aid.
  • Save "absolutely not" for when it is completely necessary.
  • Look for ways to be flexible with financial aid regulations:
  • Ensure that financial aid programs serve both recruitment and retention goals:
  • Understand the job above you:

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