With enrollments and net tuition revenue at stake, more and more colleges and universities are seeking help from outside consultants in reviewing financial aid strategies. Here are 10 principles to follow to ensure that the consulting relationship is as productive as possible:
Although pulling together a data file including both admissions and financial aid information may not be easy if you have never analyzed financial aid strategies before, beware of any consultant who doesn't ask for one. Understanding how students have responded in the past to your offers of admission and aid are critical to the development of sound strategies that will better address the price sensitivity of your particular admit pool.
A consultant merely recommending strategies that have worked at other institutions, without a data-driven analysis of your particular market position and of the price elasticity of your pool, can easily backfire.
When seeking advice about operations, many administrators intuitively understand that it is important for the advice to come from someone who has "sat in the seat" of the financial aid director. That kind of practical experience is equally important when seeking advice about the strategic use of financial aid. Without an understanding of need analysis, federal and state programs, alternative awarding approaches, and financial aid processes, consultants can fail to recognize inaccuracies in a data file, recommend packaging strategies that don't take full advantage of external aid resources, or develop recommendations that are extremely difficult to implement.
For example, a financial aid practitioner will know what to look for when "scrubbing" the data files you provide, and frequently a practitioner can identify problems with the data based on anomalies that only someone familiar with financial aid practices and programs could identify.
If your consultants recommend a particular product or service offered by another firm (e.g., a loan product, software, etc.), make sure you understand what is in it for them that could be influencing their judgment. This is not to say that consultants who are receiving a referral fee or other compensation from another company will always be giving you bad advice. They should, however, be upfront about the arrangement and be able to clearly demonstrate why the option they are recommending is the best one for your institution.
Regardless of the specific reason for hiring a consultant (i.e., operations review, strategic financial aid review, retention analysis), it's critical that both parties clearly understand the nature and details of the project. Ideally, the specifics will be defined in writing and then signed by both parties. This should include a summary of the recommended approach and objectives, the techniques used in the analysis, the costs, a timetable for completion, and the "deliverables."
Of course, a consultant may provide additional insight and analysis above and beyond what is outlined in the agreement, if appropriate. But the agreement will help ensure that the project outcomes meet your most important needs. Ideally, the report will be initially provided in a draft form so that you and other administrators have an opportunity to provide feedback and make appropriate revisions prior to final submission.
Once you have identified a possible consultant, give him or her a call. Even if you are going to be issuing a formal RFP, take the time for some informal contact to ensure that the folks with whom you will be working are good listeners, that they will shape their approach to best meet your needs, and that the "chemistry" feels right.
Do your homework! Check references, talk to colleagues who have worked with the consulting firm previously, and ask for a client list (particularly clients who have had similar project goals). Learn about the background of the company and, in particular, the experience of the staff members who would be assigned to your project.
You need to make your consultant aware of all of your institution's goals related to enrollment and net tuition revenue, including not only class size, but also composition (geographic and ethnic diversity, quality, gender balance, etc.). This is not to say that internally all stakeholders will agree with every goal. However, clearly articulating the various goals will enable a consultant to analyze the data strategically and provide feedback on tradeoffs between goals as well as recommendations that will help the institution achieve the goals identified as most critical.
Take advantage of the opportunity to capitalize on the knowledge and expertise of the consultant. The best consultants essentially serve as an extension of the institution's staff, providing additional resources to accomplish things that aren't possible for a staff that may already feel stretched to the limit. Create an environment that values communication and mutual support, resulting in a positive team spirit and improved chances for successful implementation of recommendations.
As mentioned previously, be sure that the person's skills, prior work experience, and strengths are in line with your needs. In addition, however, consider what the consultant may have learned from past experiences. Even if yours is a public institution, for example, you may benefit from a consultant who has worked with clients in both the public and private sector, at both large and small institutions, and at both prestigious and struggling institutions. This breadth of experience can bring much creative thought to your particular challenges.
It is not uncommon for staff, particularly in financial aid, to be employed at the same institution for many years (i.e., private four-year college, large public university, or community college) with very little exposure to other environments. Yet the sectors have a lot to learn from each other.
Therefore, you should look for a consultant who not only has hands-on experience in an office setting, but who also has exposure to a variety of institutions with different goals, objectives, and challenges. This breadth of knowledge and "been there, done that" experience will be beneficial when making recommendations to meet your institution's enrollment goals.
In addition to doing a thorough review of your institution's data file, a consultant should request "off-the-shelf materials." This typically would include copies of all communications to students and parents (including letters and brochures), annual reports and statistics related to enrollment and financial aid, competitor overlap reports, admissions/enrollment/financial aid planning documents and models, financial aid awarding policies and cost of attendance budgets, and other materials as requested.
Scheduling a site visit with the consultant is also highly recommended. The meeting will provide the opportunity for that person to put all of the data and materials into context with the look and feel of the campus. And more importantly, the site visit offers the consultant one-on-one time with the key stakeholders on campus.
Think of this as a visit to the doctor's office. In order to receive the most accurate diagnosis, you must honestly and completely inform the doctor of all symptoms that you are experiencing. Likewise, in order for the consultant to make valid recommendations, he or she must completely understand the unique nature of your campus environment.
Samantha Veeder was formerly the director of Financial Aid at Hobart and William Smith Colleges (N.Y.). She joined partners Kathy Kurz and Jim Scannell at their enrollment management consulting firm Scannell & Kurz in July. They can be reached via their website, www.scannellkurz.com.