Financial Aid After 50 Years: How the Job Has Changed

By Allie Bidwell, Communications Staff

When Doug Severs began his higher education career more than 40 years ago, financial aid professionals were doing the job without even a computer monitor at their desks.

“There was not a copy machine. Fax machines were not available to us,” Severs said. “People were using Selectric typewriters – that was the state of art. We did have a mainframe computer, but it was not a computer system. It basically would take the CSS tape and print it out on the computer paper. And then they would take this computer paper and break them down into big books.”

“It was very ineffective,” he added, saying the financial aid office used to calculate students’ award letters by hand during the summer.

“We’d go line by line down these books,” Severs said. “And then we’d have someone write in what their award would be.”

Severs, who is now the director of financial aid and scholarships at Oregon State University, began working in the financial aid office at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the summer of 1973, just after he finished his undergraduate degree, and not many years after former President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Higher Education Act of 1965 into law.

But many things have changed since then.

“Of course, financial aid has grown since 1965—probably in ways President Johnson could never have imagined,” NASFAA National Chair Dan Mann wrote in a letter to members yesterday, on the 50th anniversary of the Higher Education Act, which also opened the door to the financial aid profession. “We know there are challenges to overcome as we collectively seek the best ways to serve students and ensure access and success. But on this day, let us celebrate how far we have come, together.”

With the help of technological advances and more sophisticated computer systems, financial aid offices are able to more easily track student statuses throughout the financial aid process. But even a small bug in a school’s computer system can throw off the process and delay student aid disbursements. Students, families, and policymakers also expect more of financial aid offices.

“You’re dependent on the system and if the system isn’t able to come through, you’re stuck,” Severs said.

Jane Hickey, director of financial aid and scholarships at the University of Maryland–Baltimore County, said she can remember how the political scene over the last several decades has influenced the direction – and “at times the misdirection” – of student aid programs.

Hickey said she watched as the Federally Insured Student Loan Program became the Guaranteed Student Loan Program, and years later morphed into the Federal Family Educational Loan Program, and then the Federal Direct Loan Program.

“I remember when a Basic Educational Opportunity Grant (later a Pell Grant) could cover 50 percent of a student’s cost of attendance,” Hickey said. “Now, for our poorest students, it barely covers a portion of tuition and fees at a public four-year institution.”

But change is inevitable, Hickey said.

“For much of my career, I have advocated for increased Pell Grants, but they did not grow into what they were intended to be. Politics and downturns in the American economy have impeded their growth,” Hickey said. “Loans continue to be popular and have expanded tremendously in these 40 years to what we all now know is to our detriment. But beyond all that, my greatest concern is the number of ways that, once students enter college, they can quickly lose their opportunity due to the unintended consequences of overregulation of the programs.”

One example of that overregulation, she said, is the Return of Title IV Funds – a regulation that she said was designed to control bad actors, but also causes “immeasurable difficulty” for some students.

The financial aid profession has also seen a shift in the way financial aid offices work with other departments within schools.

“For those of us fortunate enough to work at schools where the skills of a financial aid administrator are truly appreciated, we’re a key part of senior administrative and enrollment management leadership,” said David Sheridan, director of financial aid at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. “Once upon a time, we were seen as bean counters who spoke our own language and were best left alone. We did our work, and as long as there was no disaster, college presidents and trustees and deans and provosts barely needed to know our names.”

But financial aid plays a larger role in the lives of students and families, as well as the operations of different institutions. Financial aid offices at many schools also lend a hand in making decisions about enrollment management, student retention and success, marketing, and other university financial management issues.

Severs said as early as the 1990s, when he was hired as a director at Idaho State University, financial aid began to work more closely with enrollment management and admissions.

And with all the change over the last five decades, more may be on the horizon with the pending reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Both the House and the Senate education committees have released a draft of the legislation, and blueprints and hearings indicate college affordability, accountability, and transparency are high on the list of priorities, as well as efforts to simplify and streamline the financial aid application process.

“Despite its travails, I still believe that through these programs we are doing good in the world, and that we are helping people move forward who might not otherwise be able to,” Hickey said.

For more on the last 50 years of financial aid, check out our “A Look Back” video, which explores the history of the Higher Education Act of 1965 and its legacy that forever defined the financial aid industry.


Publication Date: 11/9/2015

Daniel R | 11/9/2015 12:29:58 PM

Great article! As someone who has been in financial aid for only a dozen years, this history, despite on-going challenges, is both intriguing and inspiring.

Aesha W | 11/9/2015 12:4:18 PM

Thank you all for sharing a bit of history and context with those of us new to the profession.

You must be logged in to comment on this page.

Comments Disclaimer: NASFAA welcomes and encourages readers to comment and engage in respectful conversation about the content posted here. We value thoughtful, polite, and concise comments that reflect a variety of views. Comments are not moderated by NASFAA but are reviewed periodically by staff. Users should not expect real-time responses from NASFAA. To learn more, please view NASFAA’s complete Comments Policy.

Related Content

Quiz Show: Test Your Financial Aid Knowledge


Fundamentals of Student Financial Aid - January 2024


View Desktop Version