As the novel coronavirus continues to temporarily shut down institutions and move instruction online, colleges, universities, and their financial aid offices are having to adapt to a new reality for higher education — such as addressing students’ unique financial aid needs remotely, or with very limited staff on-site.
While some institutions have the capacity for the entirety of their financial aid staff to work remotely and assist students via email and social media, others have required that some employees rotate spending time in the office to answer phones and process mail — especially as some schools have yet to close.
For those offices that have gone fully — or mostly — remote, they are working each day to find innovative ways and workarounds to best serve students who need extra help. For example, one institution told NASFAA they are toying with the idea of using video tools such as WebEx or Skype in lieu of in-person counseling and advising sessions. That same school relayed it is also currently looking for ways to ensure phone calls coming into the financial aid office can be redirected to ring on staff laptops, or have phone messages immediately transcribed to email so staffers can respond to students quickly.
At the same time, institutions have been experiencing some unforeseen challenges with having staff work remotely. One institution, for example, told NASFAA they are struggling to secure students’ signatures from private lenders that still utilize paper checks, despite the fact that students are off campus.
“With students being told to go home and leave the residence halls, securing their signature when they are no longer local has created a conundrum,” the school said, adding that it has since changed its business practices to ensure the financial aid office tells students there will be a delay in receiving their funds due to the hurdle of having to acquire their signatures before an aid administrator can certify the loan, which allows them the option of securing a lender that does not use paper checks.
With regard to addressing security issues for staff working remotely, most institutions said they require staff to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN), with some also instituting a two-factor identification to log into the school's system, or issuing university laptops with encrypted disks. Some institutions, however, are finding that some employees do not have reliable internet at home to properly continue with their current responsibilities, and as a result, as one institution put it, they have had to “be creative in who we assigned remote access to when it comes to [ensuring] critical [functions] are still being performed remotely.”
In addition to addressing issues surrounding remote work as they crop up, some financial aid offices have found that their business continuity plans have prepared them for the closures caused by COVID-19, while others have found their plans to have fallen short and in need of rethinking. NASFAA has examples of institutions' business continuity and teleworking plans in its Member-Generated Content Library.
“Establishing a business continuity plan that allows us to ensure we are meeting the administrative capability requirements to participate in the Title IV programs is important,” one instution told NASFAA. “Since we are not allowed to give 100% of our staff system access to work remotely, we have identified key individuals within the office who need access to keep the process working, and people with access who can serve as their backup.”
On the other hand, another institution told NASFAA that it discovered its continuity plan only addressed situations such as hurricanes and loss of basic services like water and power. As a result it has had to design a new path forward with the virus outbreak and longer-term effects in mind.
Institutions also stressed to NASFAA how important it is to ensure that partners on campus — such as the business office at the university — are aware of, and on board with the financial aid office’s continuity plan. As one the school explained, “if the financial aid office is prepared for this, but the business office/finance site of the university is not, then you will not be able to continue disbursing/returning aid no matter how solid your business continuity plan is.”
“University system capacity for increased remote access of students and employees is a challenge. Trying to take a brick and mortar university of 20,000 plus students and 5,000 employees and turn it into an online school ‘overnight’ is no small task,” one institution said. “This is the time to ensure your business continuity plan is sound, and also to be willing to be flexible as you may need to modify it as the situation progresses.”
Stay up to date on the latest developments with the new coronavirus outbreak and its impact on federal student aid by visiting NASFAA’s COVID-19 Web Center.
Publication Date: 3/25/2020