'I'm Not Afraid of Change' — How Automation Reshapes Financial Aid Offices

By Emily Isaacman, NASFAA Communications Intern

When Brenda Hicks first started working at Southwestern College 17 years ago, the financial aid office was crammed with 20 filing cabinets, brimming with paper files and documents, and had two storage rooms full of archives.

In a move she described as "critical," Hicks spearheaded a transition to paperless processing one year later. She is still working on computerizing the forms students submit, but the office's processing and communications are completely electronic.  One filing cabinet remains — for office supplies.

"I'm not afraid of change," Hicks said. "All this change we deal with from Congress on a regular basis — we exercise that muscle quite a bit."

The McKinsey Global Institute projects that by 2030, automation could displace between 400 million and 800 million workers worldwide. But as technology replaces humans in certain roles, such as predictable labor and fast food preparation, new jobs will arise, some say.

For financial aid administrators, automation provides an opportunity to spend less time on menial processing and more time assisting students.

"Technology and automation is the key in financial aid," said Amy Glynn, vice president of financial aid and community initiatives for CampusLogic.

In the month after Western Governors University implemented StudentForms in 2014, a CampusLogic service that allows students to submit financial aid forms on their mobile devices, Glynn said incoming calls to the financial aid office decreased by 55 percent.

Bryan Alexander, a freelance writer on the future of technology in education, said automated systems could also improve the information financial aid administrators provide to students and families.

Predictive models could project information along the lines of a student's likelihood to pass or fail a class, Alexander said, enabling financial aid administrators to accurately foresee a student's timeline for degree completion. And by making data easily accessible, families can proactively formulate questions and engage in deeper, more effective conversations with financial aid counselors.

But as automation streamlines some areas of the profession, new tasks demand attention.

Billie Jo Hamilton, associate vice president for enrollment planning and management at the University of South Florida and 2017-18 NASFAA national chair, said the way technology normalizes immediate responses leads students to expect "lightening service" from the financial aid office. Even with a staff of 50, Hamilton said the speed students desire is not always attainable.

Shannon Crossland, interim executive director of student financial aid and scholarships at Texas Tech University, said she spends the majority of her time monitoring the office's processing systems to make sure they are working properly. Thirteen years ago, Crossland said, she only allocated 15 percent of her time to monitoring and was otherwise occupied with developing policies and procedures. These shares are now switched.

The development of more sophisticated technology, though beneficial, raises additional challenges within financial aid offices. Many are developing close relationships with IT professionals to ensure their systems are up-to-date.

Hamilton said her office has increased its pure technical positions to almost 15 percent of the financial aid staff.

And Hicks, who serves in an office of five at an institution with nearly 19,000 students, said she relies on the college's IT staff to alert her to technological advancements. Due to limited financial resources, she prioritizes high quality foundational software and takes advantage of free programs like Skype.

"You just explore, and you tweak, and you figure out what works for you," Hicks said.

Alexander, who also previously served as a senior fellow at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE) for nearly a decade, said financial aid administrators can stay abreast of trends in the field through professional associations and social media, and should consult with other offices on campus to gain a fuller picture of the student population. For instance, talking to a student life office about their observations could help financial aid administrators overcome a perpetual source of vexation: improving student outreach.

In that vein, Hamilton's office runs an annual student survey to identify its most effective communication methods. And Hicks said her office tested online chat for exit counseling last year, and is creating video tutorials to replace website content at orientation. In fact, technology company Cisco predicts video will comprise 82 percent of global internet traffic by 2021.

"You need to go where the students live: on their phones," Hamilton said.

Given the emotional stress of discussing finances, Alexander said, some students might prefer interacting with a screen to talking with a person.

If automation does eventually diminish the need for their services, Hamilton said financial aid administrators will simply find other ways their expertise can help students. Perhaps the field would focus more on spreading financial literacy, she speculated.

But Glynn of CampusLogic said automation will never replace human interactions; she views technology as a tool to enhance the profession. Many offices already have a wealth of data, Glynn said, but their busy schedules don't afford them the time to delve into it.

"Their focus will hopefully shift," Glynn said. "It will allow them to become more engaged with students and families."

A 2015 study from the Community College Research Center found that students accept technology for formulaic tasks, such as course registration, but prefer in-person guidance on complex decisions, such as defining career goals.

In the landscape of declining enrollment in higher education, Alexander said advising services present a valuable opportunity for colleges to differentiate themselves when competing for students.

"If you pay to go to a university, you want that face-to-face experience," Alexander said.

Hicks said these interactions are, by far, the most fulfilling part of the profession. She recalled a two-hour conversation last week with a student on the verge of tears, preparing to drop out of school. He returned a few days later, smiling, to inform Hicks about his plans for the future based on options she helped him realize.

"I think there will always be a place for people like us," Hicks said.


Publication Date: 7/17/2018

Robert P | 7/20/2018 12:42:02 PM

I have seen federal financial aid go from the BEOG and National Defense Loans with no Verification or SAP requirements to the complicated mass of financial aid programs with various monitoring requirements. The automated systems that have come into place are needed just to keep up with the monitoring of all the complex programs and local, state and federal requirements. The way to create more time to work with students is to reduce or eliminate the complexity of applying for financial aid and relief from the administrative burden requirements of constantly changing regulations. Technology really will not be useful to financial aid offices until it creates a time machine for financial aid offices. There are still only 24 hours in a day and more work than there are hours.

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