For the first time in nearly two years, roughly 300 financial aid professionals convened in Washington, D.C. for NASFAA's Leadership & Legislative Conference & Expo to learn, network, and gather insight into what challenges current and future financial aid leaders are facing.
While a bevy of challenges and obstacles that have impacted the financial aid profession over the past two years were identified and discussed, the resiliency and toughness were also highlighted.
"I don't know how to describe this community in any other way than ‘heroic' over the last two years," said NASFAA President and CEO Justin Draeger. "This profession already had its back to the wall year to year just keeping up with normal day-to-day operations. Then it comes together to distribute $70 billion in new programs that didn't exist two years ago, with changing guidance from the Department of Education, spanning two administrations with different interpretations of the same law."
Attendees were given an update on where things stand in Congress, as lawmakers continue to negotiate a spending package to fund the government. The state of play on Capitol Hill is of note as many conference attendees have Hill visits scheduled this week with congressional offices from their home districts to advocate for key measures, such as doubling the Pell Grant, eliminating loan origination fees, and calling for the continuation of FAFSA verification relief provided to aid offices for this award year.
Draeger challenged those participating in Hill visits Tuesday and Wednesday to make a connection with someone to ensure financial aid priorities are top of mind.
"The thing that we love to hear when we go to Capitol Hill is, ‘Oh yeah, I know an aid director in my district. I know aid directors in my state,'" Draeger said. "So one of the main things I would ask you to think about as you go to Capitol Hill is making a contact and forging a relationship."
The multi-day conference separates attendees into four different pathways so they can further focus on honing their skills where it's most applicable for their respective careers and financial aid offices.
Over the next two days, attendees will have the long-awaited chance to network with colleagues from other institutions, learn new skills to serve as state and regional association leaders, better understand how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted enrollment management, and pick up new strategies for compliance management.
Attendees overwhelmingly expressed excitement to be back together in person again, trading notes and stories with colleagues and sharing how eager they were to learn from each other.
First-time conference attendee Jared Menghini, executive director of student financial services at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, said over the course of the past two years he tried everything to stay involved and network during virtual conferences and events, but lamented that they simply lacked the human connection.
"I'm a face-to-face kind of person, so I really prefer this format," he said. "There are people here that I haven't seen in years, so it's been great being able to catch up with them."
Menghini is attending the strategic enrollment management pathway of the conference. Because his region has several competing institutions of higher education, he said he wants to ensure his school is able to adapt to students' changing needs following a pandemic and subsequent reshuffling of the labor market.
He said more than ever, he's seeing 18-year-olds holding off on enrolling in postsecondary education as they are able to secure quality paying jobs out of high school in a competitive job market that has been a boon to previously lower earning fields, such as the hospitality industry.
"We're seeing students, specifically in our local backyard, that are going into a technical school. Or they're taking a gap year because they're not really not sure what they want," Menghini added. "So we're seeing less and less come from our local area and figuring out how to adapt to that."
Deedra Grant, the financial aid regional manager at Houston Community College, said she chose the succession planning pathway to learn new techniques to retain staff and cultivate a culture in her financial aid office of training newer financial aid professionals.
Like many financial aid offices across the country, Grant said the aid office at her institution lost several staff members amid the pandemic and struggled to replace them. Grant added that thinking about staffing issues from a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) perspective will help retain skilled workers and help her office better reflect the students they strive to serve.
One of the pathway's sessions touched on exactly that, with Dr. Donna Davis of Houston Community College and Dr. Ed Bush of Cosumnes Community College discussing successful DEI initiatives and how to build an inclusive environment in financial aid offices.
Be sure to keep up with NASFAA's social media channels throughout the week for updates and photos from the conference, and utilize the hashtag #NASFAALeads22 to keep up with what members are talking about!
Publication Date: 2/15/2022