For institutions, the issue of staffing has become more acute with the dramatic changes in the job market. And while the terrain might seem treacherous, Blue Icon Advisors has been successfully navigating institutional needs by bringing flexibility and high standards to the financial aid profession.
For Wes Brothers, assistant vice president for finance and operations for Columbia International University, a steady guide through these uncertain times has been his work with Blue Icon as an independent consultant.
“They're kind of like a travel guide,” Brothers said. Once he expressed an interest in an area of consulting, Blue Icon helped pick out the destination. “[Blue Icon] provides resources, guidance, if needed. Otherwise, they give us the freedom and flexibility to serve the client based on our knowledge and expertise.”
Following the completion of a given assignment, there’s then a thorough debriefing, which allows Brothers to move on to his next project with a stronger sense of how different institutions conduct their operations.
Blue Icon recruits and hires practicing financial aid administrators, as well as financial aid professionals who made the decision to become full-time consultants. The full-time consultants fill the full-time staffing and leader roles, while currently practicing aid administrators support interim staffing needs when you have flexible, part-time, or remote opportunities available.
During these transitional periods the role of a consultant can offer flexibility.
Scott Morrison, prior to joining Blue Icon at the start of his retirement, was the director of financial aid at Bridgewater College. He’s able to work up to 19 hours per week for consulting, conducting all his work remotely via Zoom meetings and email — an attractive part of the opportunity, he said.
“It was a good role for someone that had just recently retired and just kind of wanted to work in a semi-retired part time capacity,” Morrison said.
Emily Sillcocks, who is now retired has experience at both public and private non-profit colleges and universities and was most recently a senior financial aid director at the South Texas College of Law-Houston, said that the added flexibility of the work allows consultants to be more responsive to the needs of various institutions still sorting through the working landscape of in-person and remote operations.
“You have to be able to adjust to what the school needs because that's who we're here to serve,” Sillcocks said. “It may not work out as a remote job; it may be that you do need to be on campus once you figure out what the issues are at school, so flexibility is a key.”
Sillcocks added that she’s especially drawn to the Blue Icon team’s high standards. In previous roles with other consulting firms, Sillcocks recalls being left feeling unsupported.
“This is completely different. I am required to report weekly, I'm able to use all of the NASFAA tools that are available, the P&P Builder, and all of the different tools that Blue Icon allows a consultant to use,” Sillcocks said.
Having these standards helps promote retention and stability, two key factors that Brothers said are integral to meeting staffing needs in this challenging climate.
“When I was running my department, one of my greatest resources was within the university,” Brothers said. “I would hire student workers, of course, and then work diligently to build a really great culture that they hopefully wouldn't want to leave too soon. … In my five years, I had three student workers that became three full-time employees when I moved on to the next university. “
As offices adjust to the institutional changes brought on by the pandemic, where fewer student workers have contributed to the stressed pipeline of onboarding new staff, Blue Icon seeks to provide stopgap services and much needed training expertise.
“The financial aid office is really busy doing the day-to-day operations,” Brothers said. “So bringing in a consultant to offer training to new employees, I think that can be something that would really provide a good service, as you're going to have many new employees with this great resignation.”
The challenges facing financial aid offices are not likely to be abated in the years to come, as some in the profession leave for higher paying jobs and institutions are left jockeying for a shrinking labor pool.
In order to meet these needs of postsecondary institutions, Blue Icon is bringing on more experienced consultants to help address the needs of varying institutions. Seasoned financial aid professionals with more than 10 years of experience would do well in consulting, Morrison added.
Consultants are able to build relationships, their network, and have new experiences to stay current with the latest financial aid systems utilized by institutions.
“If I wasn't consulting, I wouldn't have been exposed to as many senior information systems or financial aid management systems that I have seen, and how people use them,” Brothers said. “I've been serving clients with the same financial management system that I've used for 11 years now and the way that they've set theirs up is totally different than the way we’ve set ours up.”
While institutional needs are always at the forefront, the primary focus for consultants is meeting the needs of students and ensuring that financial aid is not a process so complicated that it ends up hampering access.
“We are expected to be at the top of our profession, and we are, and we want to continue to do the best that we can for students,” Sillcocks said. “Our students are always first and we are looking to assist schools so that in the end, we can make education more accessible to students — and that's the bottom line.”
Publication Date: 2/14/2022