How the ‘Great Resignation’ could begin to empty your financial aid office

Unless things change, we should expect more senior financial aid officers to leave for other industries.
By: | November 22, 2021
(AdobeStock)(AdobeStock)
Amy Glynn

Amy Glynn

American colleges are headed for a world of pain—and not just the one everyone is talking about.

Yes, there is a looming demographic cliff. But if colleges need students, they also need talented and experienced financial aid officers in order for most of their students to enroll and persist through graduation.

We are seeing signs that financial aid officers are joining the Great Resignation. Unless things change, we should expect more senior financial aid officers to take their skills and knowledge to other industries.

Why are they leaving?

Most student financial aid offices are under-resourced, under-respected, and undercompensated. They are tasked with enforcing an overly complicated federal regulatory system, while also offering personalized customer service about a confusing array of applications, forms, and bills.

These aid officers feel pressure to help institutions meet their business goals. But every day, they hear stories of students struggling to pay for tuition, housing, or even food. When students or families feel like they are trapped in a financial maze, they call the aid office to vent, not the president or a professor.

It’s important to understand how much institutional and regulatory knowledge an experienced aid officer takes with them.

Training an aid officer is a long process. Someone new to the field will likely have every action they take double-checked by someone else for at least a year, and probably 18 months. The stakes for colleges are too high to risk a slip up. And it takes years to develop a deep understanding of federal regulations.

According to a survey CampusLogic conducted with Gallop, 40% of college graduates in the last 10 years considered leaving school because of financial stress for themselves or their families. A talented aid officer can often be the difference between a student staying in school and dropping out, with no degree and a pile of debt.

So here’s what colleges should start doing, now, to support financial aid workers before it’s too late:

Value the office

On many campuses, financial aid officers simply don’t receive the same level of respect, or pay, as their colleagues in admissions.

According to Indeed, admissions officers make, on average, $4,000 more a year than their colleagues in financial aid. At the top end, according to NASFAA, the median pay for a chief enrollment officer is $170,000, while chief financial aid officers max out at $93,000. Maybe that’s why senior admissions officers are more likely to be included in university leadership teams or be promoted into upper management.

Paying financial aid officers and asking for their input is an important first step. But people in these roles feel burnt out and overwhelmed. Colleges also need to give them the time to do their jobs properly. This is where technology comes in.

Automate some communications

In other industries, technology is a way to eliminate workers. In higher education, automating steps of the financial aid process frees time for aid officers to provide the coaching and counseling that students and families need. That’s also the work aid officers find most rewarding.

A good chat bot, for example, can answer hundreds, if not thousands, of routine questions, in real time, in multiple languages, any time of day. They can be trained to refer especially tricky questions to staff for personal answers.

Automating some communications, like reminders, takes another task off staffers’ plate, and hopefully prompts students to take necessary action, reducing the chances staffers will have to scramble to save the day.

Allowing aid officers to prioritize coaching and counseling is a recruitment and retention tool colleges can’t afford to keep ignoring. In our survey with Gallup, 29 percent of students who dropped out said “a more personalized support from the financial aid office” would increase their likelihood of returning to college.

Divide labor better

People visit accountants and financial planners for different reasons. The account makes sure you are in compliance with tax laws. The financial planner helps you develop a personalized, long-term strategy.

Too often, colleges ask the same aid officers to be both accountant (regulatory compliance) and planner (personalized solutions). What if more colleges structured these as separate, specialized roles?

The federal government is not streamlining regulation any time soon, so our “accountant” would master the well-intended mess of rules faster. Our “planner” would get better at finding creative answers for students who don’t see a way forward.

Without a financial aid office, almost every college would fail as a business. These changes would not only help aid officers work better and keep employees, they make colleges better businesses. Which matters, with that other problem looming.

Amy Glynn is the co-author of Student Financial Success and vice president of student financial success at CampusLogic.