A new survey from NASFAA member institutions underscores the precarious position many financial aid offices found themselves in as a result of staff departures and difficulty filling openings amid the coronavirus pandemic.
More than three-quarters of respondents said they are concerned about their ability to be administratively capable and more than half are concerned about their ability to adequately serve students, as staffing has generally decreased while the amount of aid disbursed has increased. A follow-up to the original survey that NASFAA sent to noncompleters, asking them to share one reason why they didn't submit a response found 78% of the 50 respondents said they did not have the time needed to gather the information for survey completion. Fifty-six percent of those indicated they were operating at a reduced staffing capacity, but 22% were operating at a full staffing capacity.
"We are sounding the alarm bells that many financial aid offices are critically short staffed, which could create cascading issues for those colleges and universities, both in their ability to remain compliant with federal and state rules, and in their ability to adequately serve students," said NASFAA President Justin Draeger.
The survey found more than half of the 500 respondents reported operating at a 75% staffing capacity for both award years 2019-20 and 2021-22, showing that while the staffing issue existed before the onset of the pandemic, the challenges accelerated as the national emergency stretched on.
Notably, a significant majority of respondents reported having to fill on average five to six open positions for both award years 2019-20 and 2021-22, and 40% of respondents indicated they do not currently feel they can maintain administrative capability standards — which are required by federal law — at decreased staffing levels.
More than half (56%) of respondents said they were concerned about their ability to serve students amid these staffing shortages — a concern that past research supports. For example, NASFAA's 2020 Administrative Burden Survey report found that the student services most often reported as "greatly affected" when institutions face resource shortages included financial literacy, outreach efforts, and target population events.
The survey findings underscore how the "Great Resignation" has impacted financial aid offices and how they are adapting to new challenges, such as filling open positions and handling remote work policies.
An overwhelming majority of respondents reported they did not receive enough qualified applications for open roles, and 67% felt the salary they were offering potential hires was not competitive. Those findings are particularly salient as inflation spiked in the last year and higher education as a whole struggled to fill vacancies.
"NASFAA also heard from several member institutions that they are experiencing more difficulty than ever related to staffing now, in the 2021-22 award year," an executive summary highlighting the survey findings notes.
While this survey did not collect data specific to the 2021-22 award year since it has not yet concluded, when asked about current vacancies many reported two vacancies, and more than one-third (41%) indicated their vacancy had been unfulfilled for three months.
As for the departing staff, the main reason for leaving was finding another job with a higher salary or better benefits, with more than two-thirds of respondents citing that as the top reason, according to the survey. No longer having the desire to work in financial aid, and moving to a different office at the same institution were the next most cited reasons for leaving.
The findings come as the Department of Education (ED) has signaled it will be applying increased scrutiny on financial aid offices.
NASFAA also identified some areas of focus that aid offices can take to help stave off staff turnover and make filling roles an easier process, such as working with senior level administration to address any misclassification of financial aid staff and the salary categories they fall within.
"This could assist in retention efforts and hiring while addressing one of the largest obstacles to filling vacant financial aid office positions," the summary noted.
NASFAA also said it will work with presidential higher education associations on these issues to drive home the importance of adequately staffing the aid offices, and highlighting the many negative consequences that can come from chronic understaffing.
"College presidents have a lot on their plate, and while they are often rushing from fire to fire, this is one area that should not be overlooked," Draeger said. "Chronic understaffing will increase the odds of potential fines and liabilities for noncompliance with federal and state rules down the road, and even more importantly, likely means students will face reduced service."
Publication Date: 5/24/2022