With the upcoming academic year rolling around the corner, higher education leaders may be tempted to take their foot off the gas for a bit and enjoy the warm months. However, colleges and institutions may be overwhelmed and overran by the minutiae of regulatory changes ramping up in financial aid and Title IX offices this academic year.
“FAFSA Simplification is going to make this the most complicated year we have seen perhaps ever,” says Maureen Anderson, a financial aid consultant for Financial Aid Services and a former director of financial aid at Santa Fe College (Fla.). “The 2023-24 academic year is the most daunting and complicated year for all that is coming in 24-25.”
Federal Student Aid is hosting 11 webinars throughout June and July to discuss the changes. “I feel like I’m in two a week just learning,” Anderson says.
While financial aid’s admissions cycles, student expectations and processing cycles change, one must consider the legal ramifications the Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action will also have on it.
“We have more questions than answers right now, but we would have to be naive to think that this won’t eventually affect financial aid in some way,” says Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA).
On top of these challenges, Title IX offices are preparing for Biden’s long-awaited Title IX changes announced in October. With more than 240,000 comments in May on Biden’s proposed changes, Title IX offices must be ready for anything once changes are finalized.
“If you haven’t prepared, it’s going to be a disaster,” says Colin Williams, chairman at New Era ADR, a technology company focused on dispute resolution. “It’s summer vacation, I get it. This is typically the quiet time, but this is your opportunity to get ready for what will be a very, very busy time in October.”
To keep yourself grounded, Anderson is reminded of one quote that has kept her cool throughout her career: Change is inevitable, but growth is optional.
Compliance: It takes a village
Anderson believes financial aid officers are usually well-rounded individuals who understand functions outside their domain. For example, they know the coursework required for a degree and student transcripts. However, it would be unwise for school leaders to expect financial aid offices to figure out regulations on their own.
“I would say that all of the time, compliance falls outside the financial aid office. There are way too many other regulations outside the financial aid office that need involvement with academic affairs, records and even campus police and security,” Anderson says. “Consumer information alone demonstrates how financial aid touches every area of the institution and compliance is everyone’s responsibility.”
Similarly, regardless of how deep in the weeds the work can get, financial aid is conducive to one of higher education’s vital missions.
“Institutions are all about trying to provide postsecondary access, and yes, they will remain compliant with the law, but they also hold dear to the promise that postsecondary education is the great equalizer of social inequities,” Draeger says. “That only works if we ensure all students have access to postsecondary education. That’s still what schools are going to hold dear.”
When and how to begin preparing
Because the changes to Title IX could be “extraordinarily difficult” to navigate in the middle of the fall semester, Williams believes colleges can prepare by fully educating and training staff on all the changes previously proposed. “You’re better off overprepared than underprepared,” he says.
On the other hand, Montoya Ho-Sang, a partner in the Higher Education and Collegiate Athletics at Akerman LLP, sees summer as the opportune time for Title IX officers to refresh on current regulations and ensure their policy is up to date. That way, one will be ready to guide themselves on what’s changing and remaining the same.
There may never be a reasonable time to prepare for financial aid offices. Between closing out the previous year’s students and working on the upcoming year’s awards, financial aid offices don’t have the luxury of taking a breather like other offices might, Anderson says. With a constant workload set to ramp up, she sees highly staffed offices that aren’t struggling with high turnover as the most adequately capable of functioning without outside assistance.
Similarly, Ho-Sang and Draeger recommend seeking legal counsel to fill the gaps one can’t on their own.
“We have to acknowledge that there will likely be lots of implications on financial aid, employment, data collection, and a lot of those legal boundaries will likely be tested at the state level,” Draeger says.
Until institutions find adequate assistance, here are some steps Draeger recommends to stay well-prepared:
- Don’t jump in and begin changing any institutional financial aid programs.
- Analyze which programs use race as a criterion for eligibility and how those programs are funded.
- Review the mechanisms on how they are awarded to students.
- Deliver the analysis to the president and proper legal counsel so they can make a proper risk assessment.
- Based on risk assessment, note action steps: Any alterations to scholarship funds? How they’re funded? How they’re awarded?
But most importantly, breathe
While the fall semester will be loaded with complex financial aid challenges, taking things one step at a time is essential.
“Schools have missions and values that they have committed to, and we also don’t want a rush that sees them compromising the values they hold dear that’s part of their institutional DNA and make-up,” Draeger says. “Scholarship programs can’t just be rewritten overnight, especially when donor funds are involved.”
And while Title IX offices may wait anxiously for the fed’s Title IX announcement, its implementation date is up in the air. When the Biden administration originally announced its Title IX changes in May, a typical 60-day turnaround to finalize the rules would have put the regulation’s implementation around August, according to Ho-Sang. Now that it’s supposed to come out in October, she is curious whether the feds would force implementation during the holiday season or mid-academic year, during spring 2024.
Grinnell College has decided to keep its cards close. “Our policy will remain unchanged until the final regulations are released and provide guidance on necessary policy changes and practices,” said Bailey S. Asberry, a Title IX coordinator at Grinnell College, in an email. “I would caution any institution from making premature policy revisions.”
“It’s going to make it an unpredictable year, but we’ll get through. Schools will rise to the occasion,” Draeger says. “There’s certainly a lot of risk for turbulence, but as financial aid offices always do, they will rise to the occasion, and they’re going to do whatever they need to do to help their students find the access they need to enroll and succeed.