Financial Aid Professionals Build Knowledge and Skills at NASFAA Leadership Conference

By NASFAA Communications Team

More than 370 financial aid professionals from across the country continued to network, learn, and build leadership skills on the second day of NASFAA’s 2020 Leadership & Legislative Conference & Expo.

Throughout the last two days, conference attendees took part in sessions intended to provide them with knowledge, perspective, and insight into certain leadership and management roles, such as strategic enrollment management, association management, compliance management, or delving into advanced topics in financial aid leadership.

Here are some takeaways from a few sessions in different pathways:

Advanced Topics in Financial Aid Leadership Idea Lab: Examining Leadership

The first step in learning how to successfully lead others is mastering how to lead yourself, Dr. Helen Rothberg, author of the "Perfect Mix: Everything I Know about Leadership I Learned as a Bartender,” told attendees of this session. Rothberg, a former bartender who has been a college professor for 35 years at multiple institutions, explained that the perfect “cocktail” for becoming a leader can be boiled down to the acronym “A.D.V.I.C.E” — or Action, Determination, Vision, Integrity, Communition, and Empathy. Rothberg told aspiring leaders that they must commit to doing more and talking less, and specifically to avoid throwing out suggestions for change instead of taking ownership over their ideas. This practice must be followed by seeing those actions through with determination, and ensuring that each project and goal is driven by a clear vision, or a “true north that guides you.” Rothberg said those looking to become leaders must also adhere to the truth and dismiss drama, and work on perfecting their communication skills both verbally and nonverbally, and recognizing when their message is getting lost on their audience. Finally, Rothberg told aspiring leaders that they must show great care in their work and always keep in mind how each of their actions affect others. Once they work on those steps, Rothberg said, aspiring leaders can begin to motivate others and bring them along on their journey. “If you’re leading yourself with determination, a vision, no drama … and make it your point to communicate, you make things happen,” she said. 

Compliance Management Idea Lab: The Lifecycle of an Audit: A Baseline for Continuous Improvement

Compliance audits and program reviews can be some of the most daunting tasks facing financial aid professionals. But rather than viewing the events as punishment, those in the financial aid office can instead use them as an opportunity to continuously improve and remain prepared for the next audit or review that comes down the road. Katherine Demedis and Dan Brozovic of Powers Law spoke to attendees in this session about best practices and tips to remain audity-ready. “Getting yourself into that mindset of continuous improvement, continuous compliance might take a little more work on the front end,” Brozovic said, but it can help save you and your staff headaches later on. Brozovic went on to recommend that aid offices review materials available to remain prepared and informed, such as the audit guide itself, to see the process from the auditor’s perspective. Other resources he suggested included the Department of Education’s program review guide, and the list of the top findings from audits and program reviews. Those findings are valuable not just in highlighting “where the pain points are,” but also in tracking where the audit community’s attention lies. 

Meanwhile, Demedis explained that doing a continuous, or even periodic, self-assessment can help ensure your institution doesn’t have repeat findings. “We know you’re busy, but this approach can really help you to put your school in the best position to be prepared for a compliance audit,” she said. Financial aid offices can also benefit from developing, updating, and utilizing a centralized policies and procedures manual, and maintaining an organized system of student files. “Reviewers are humans, too,” Demedis said. “If they are faced with messy and disorganized files, they’re going to be annoyed. They might not want to spend the time to find the answer even if it’s in there.” Demedis also emphasized the importance of ensuring the appropriate personnel are available to answer questions from auditors and reviewers, and that they are prepared and informed, whether those personnel are members of your own staff or leaders higher up within your institution.

Association Leadership Idea Lab: Beyond the Beltway: State-Based Advocacy

Often, by the time a significant policy change makes its way to the federal level, it has already been traveling through state legislatures across the country. Annual student debt letters, free college proposals, financial aid offer standardization, and student loan refinancing are all examples of policy changes introduced at the state level that are bubbling up to the federal level. But building a strong advocacy presence with state legislators can be difficult for state associations that may face challenges such as a lack of familiarity with the legislative process, an inability to speak out due to restrictions on campus, or a struggle to develop policy positions. In a session Tuesday afternoon, NASFAA President Justin Draeger and Vice President for Policy and Federal Relations Megan Coval spoke to attendees about how they can make their voices heard and leverage their influence at the state level — and how NASFAA can help them in those endeavors. “What’s been interesting for us over the last decade is seeing that states do become the incubators for federal policy,” Drager said, noting that state legislatures are often “far more productive” than the federal government, in part due to the fact that states are driven to make decisions to balance their budgets, and that partisanship is less extreme than at the federal level. “We’ve taken a harder look at how we can support state associations better as you navigate the advocacy landscape,” Draeger said. 

In that vein, the NASFAA Board of Directors allocated funding for a two-year position with NASFAA focused on state relations and advocacy. The person in this role will be able to keep a pulse on trends in student aid policy nationwide, track various pieces of legislation at the state level, and work to support state associations in their advocacy efforts. “We really do need all of you and your associations to get more involved in state policy,” Coval said. “More than anyone else, you know what is happening in your state.” Coval went on to share a number of tips to help association leaders develop and streamline their advocacy efforts, such as by keeping the topics local, personal, factual, brief, and targeted toward the proper audience. She also encouraged the leaders to create a set of advocacy principles that define key issues of importance for the association, serve as a framework for advocacy, and help prioritize member engagement on issues. Likewise, a “one-pager” on a single policy issue can be a handy tool to give lawmakers a succinct summary of the issue, while reiterating the “ask” both at the beginning and end of the document. “It can be a road map for you as an association that shows what’s most important to you and what you care about,” Coval said. 

Be sure to check out NASFAA's Facebook album throughout the week for photos from the conference and follow along on social media with #NASFAALeads20 to keep up with what members are talking about!


Publication Date: 2/5/2020

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