After nearly 50 years working in financial aid, Sue Pedigo had earned her retirement.
She left Vol State Community College in Gallatin, Tennessee, in the summer of 2019 expecting to carry on the life of a retiree, no longer burdened by working long hours and keeping operations running smoothly at the financial aid office she had called home for 48 years, about 40 of which she served as the director.
But a little more than two years later, in the summer of 2021 when the country was still in the midst of a pandemic, Pedigo received a call asking her to come back to Vol State and assume the role of financial aid director she had only recently departed. To her surprise, the aid director who took her place had already left. Pedigo’s replacement had decided to retire early.
“I was happy to be retired. I needed to retire,” Pedigo said of her decision to depart the aid office. “I needed to do that for myself and my husband. And the school understood that and they wanted me to have that. It just ended up that they weren't ready for it.”
She has since returned to Vol State to guide the financial aid office while it again seeks a permanent financial aid director, a predicament all too many financial aid offices are dealing with as the higher education sector — and financial aid specifically — is facing staffing shortages across the country due to increased turnover caused at least in part by burnout amid the pandemic, an aging workforce, and several other factors leaving schools struggling to compete for skilled workers in a highly competitive job market.
“For the last several years, one of the items at the top of the board of director’s agenda has been succession planning and retaining staff,” said NASFAA President Justin Draeger. “You see that reflected in our trainings, conference tracks, and online forums because the stakes are high for schools that cannot hire or retain qualified staff.”
The issue is not unique to financial aid. Job openings are near an all-time high, according to the latest figures from the Department of Labor. But aid offices face a different set of challenges, as directors are often hamstrung by school policies and limits to what compensation they can offer new hires.
Aid administrators say it’s been difficult to cultivate a pipeline of young workers eager to learn the ins-and-outs of financial aid and pursue a career in the field. Many aid administrators start their careers early in life as work-study students in aid offices or as financial aid counselors in their first job out of college. They were drawn to the camaraderie of aid offices and a desire to help students achieve their higher education goals.
Some of that appeal has diminished due to the pandemic, which forced staff to work from home and spend hours on the phone with students, as opposed to connecting with colleagues and students face-to-face. But even before the onset of the pandemic, there were warning signs of a dwindling number of able and experienced aid administrators.
While Pedigo and Vol State’s story may differ in the details from other aid offices, increased turnover and a difficult time filling roles is a problem facing many offices, according to interviews with several aid administrators. Additionally, NASFAA’s Career Center has seen an increase in job postings for several months. While new job postings have been up compared to previous years, fewer job seekers are posting resumes.
A depleted applicant pool was often cited by aid directors as one of the biggest obstacles to filling open positions. Marvin Smith, the University of California - Los Angeles’ (UCLA) executive director of financial aid & scholarships and an FAAC®, said in his 30 years in financial aid, the applicant pool for open roles has never been slimmer.
His office has 40 full-time staff members, and of those positions, at one point over the summer he had nine vacancies, ranging from counselor positions to more senior roles in the office.
Smith said his losses have come from a mix of retirements in addition to workers moving on to other opportunities, sometimes within the university — an issue Smith says he hopes to work with his school’s human resources office to revise a complicated classification system to help boost pay in the financial aid office compared to other departments, such as admissions.
“Other departments can pay more than financial aid,” he said. “So that's one of the challenges that institutions can try to address.”
Elijah Herr, director of financial aid at Portland State University, found himself in a very similar position, having to fill roughly 10 positions out of a staff of 24 over the course of the pandemic.
To combat the churn, Herr said he reorganized the roles in his office, promoted a few counselors within his office, and put renewed focus into developing a talent pipeline.
“For leadership positions, we've had to really look for talent, and then just be willing to develop those people internally over the course of the next few years,” he said.
Across the board, aid administrators cited struggles in finding applicants with financial aid experience. And for an office willing to hire someone without any previous financial aid experience, they are aware of the undertaking that is required to train someone and bring them up to speed.
“It's a process to train people and it's a process because new people have different personalities, different learning styles,” said Jayme Jarrett, assistant director of financial aid at Ohio Northern University, a small private school in a more rural part of the state. “It's hard to know how much to throw at them and when.”
Jarrett, an FAAC®, said her small “one-stop-shop” aid office had about 25% of its positions vacant at one point.
She added that due to her school’s location, it's difficult to attract applicants and entice them to move there. While rural Ohio and UCLA in Southern California are about as different on the location spectrum as two places can be, both Jarrett and Smith said they’ve had a hard time convincing potential hires to move. Smith faces a high cost of living when recruiting workers, and Jarrett says her office struggles to persuade applicants due to the rural location.
“We're a very small town and so it's hard to attract people,” Jarrett added.
The rise of remote work adds another challenge for directors who must adhere to university policies regarding hybrid, remote, or in-person work.
However, the solution for both Jarrett and Smith — and practically all financial aid offices — is to establish a culture that is attractive to new hires by promoting things such as advancement opportunities, a quality compensation package including benefits, and work-life balance, they said.
A big component of finding a quality hire comes down to fit, Jarrett said. Financial aid is something “you get into it and you either love it or you hate it. It's not something that you really hang around with just for a job.”
Those that stick in financial aid — often for decades — develop a wealth of institutional and regulatory knowledge. When they leave, it's hard to overstate how much of that an experienced aid administrator then takes with them, Jarrett added, a notion underscored by Pedigo’s departure and subsequent return.
Nick Prewett, director of financial aid and scholarship services at Stony Brook University, said he tries to provide opportunities for staff to do what they enjoy most, whether it be customer service or working with numbers.
Aid offices “need to build to the strengths and need to provide opportunities for staff,” said Prewtt, an FAAC®. “I've seen offices function where somebody has to work for a significant amount of time before they're given additional authority. I think responsibility is something that is automatic and then gets taken away based on performance, or increased based on performance as opposed to earning the opportunity to do things.”
Acknowledging that financial aid is a complicated, rapidly evolving field with new regulations coming from the federal government, Prewett sees the benefit of having some staff specialize in certain areas, but knows there is a balance to strike when training staff between specialization and ensuring they have a general knowledge base.
On top of all the day to day tasks that keep directors and their aid offices busy it can be difficult to carve out time to prioritize training, but directors spoke to the importance of implementing training ideas to keep staff engaged, motivated, and ready to advance when the opportunity presents itself.
“Part of my goal is to make sure that we're mentoring and developing our staff, as part of our overall succession planning,” Prewett added.
While some aid offices have been depleted of talent and experience in recent years, all the directors interviewed for this article spoke of the dedication their staff have demonstrated by working through adverse conditions and picking up additional work during an unprecedented year.
“Staff that remained amid the turnover worked incredibly hard, did overtime work, and took on additional responsibilities,” Smith said. “Financial aid teams across the country have shown incredible resilience during the pandemic while managing staff vacancies.”
Publication Date: 1/7/2022