We often hear from families that they are confused about what the financial office actually does, and how to work with it. One of Edmit's advisors, Emir Morais, has built his career in financial aid and offered the insights below.
The financial aid process can be confusing, stressful and a bit intimidating. At least that is how I felt when I first applied for financial aid during my senior year in high school. I was the first person of my family to attend college, so navigating the financial aid process was a new and challenging experience. I was raised in a lower middle class immigrant family with few financial resources. The advice I received about financial aid from friends, family members and my guidance counselor, although helpful, was sometimes inaccurate or not timely. I soon learned that the financial aid office would be the most helpful ally in my pursuit of a college education. In part because of my experiences as a student, my passion for financial education grew and I went on to work in financial aid, as an administrator at Northeastern and Boston University.
I learned three important lessons during my financial aid journey that I’ll share with you here. The first is that it’s important to understand the basic business functions of a financial aid office so that you can make the most of it. Second, you need to be an active participant in the financial aid process. Third, make sure you educate yourself about the available resources and how best to leverage them.
What does a Financial Aid Office do?
No two financial aid offices are alike so don’t expect consistency. Universities vary in setting, size and selectivity and that is also true of financial aid. The financial aid process, deadlines, types of aid offered, staffing and even customer service will differ from office to office. So what are the basic business functions of a financial aid office? This is an important question, as it will help direct your questions, concerns and paperwork to the office that can better serve your needs. The more informed you are the less likely you’ll experience delays in the application process.
Front Office Operations: The “front desk,” as it’s often referred to, serves as your first point of contact with financial aid office. You can usually find the general contact information for the front office on a college’s financial aid page. The primary role of the front desk staff is to provide basic information. This includes the application process, deadlines, where to locate forms and how to submit missing documentation. The front desk may operate under a triage system in that staff may redirect your questions and requests to a financial aid counselor who is better equipped to assist you. Some offices receive large volumes of emails, phone calls and walk-in traffic, so a triage system helps expedite the process.
Note: front office staff is rarely involved in the awarding process. If you’ve received your financial aid award, it’s likely it came from your financial aid counselor. If you would like to discuss additional funding options, the front desk may be able to schedule a one-on-one consultation with your assigned financial aid counselor.
Back Office Operations: The back office is directly involved in reviewing your application, contacting you if additional information is required and awarding you financial aid. Financial aid counselors review your Institutional Student Information Report (ISIR), which is based on the data you provide on your Free Application for Federal Student Assistance (FAFSA). Your counselor will first obtain all the required documentation, verify the data, and then determine your eligibility for specific types of financial aid. An award notification will be sent to you after these steps are complete.
As you near the start of the academic year, your counselor will schedule award disbursements (meaning how you receive the money in your award) based on your eligibility for any grant, work study and/or student loans. Counselors also monitor your award to ensure that your aid is adjusted accordingly throughout the year should your enrollment change (for example, if you switch to part-time). Counselors may also advise you of institutional or federal regulatory changes that affect you. For instance, they may inform you of any changes to federal programs like the Pell Grant or Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF).
Back office operations also include middle managers and senior leadership staff. These employees have little direct contact with students or parents, but they play a critical role in developing policies and procedures that shape the day-to-day operation of the financial aid office.
The “Ostrich with Head in the Sand” Dilemma (or, Get iInvolved!)
You are expected to be an active participant in the financial aid process, so don’t be an ostrich with your head in the sand! This means completing all applications and forms before their deadlines every year. Being an active participant involves promptly following up on emails and phone calls from the financial aid office. They may request federal tax returns, W2’s, or a letter of appeal.
You also want to learn the name of the financial aid counselor assigned to you or the individual who sent you an award notification. Your objective should be to establish a friendly and professional rapport with financial aid staff. Their job is to work and advocate on your behalf to ease the financial burden of your college education. If you are assigned a specific counselor, this person may be your primary contact if you wish to appeal your award, request additional work study funds, reduce your loans, or ask to be added to prospective scholarship list. Maya Angelou once said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,” so treat the staff as you would a trusted friend.
It’s important to remain an active participant throughout the academic year. Visit the financial aid website for upcoming deadlines and scholarship opportunities and save those dates to your mobile device. Your ability to pay college expenses hangs on your participation! Getting in touch with the right person and understanding how the financial aid process works can make all the difference when you’re attempting to make college affordable.
There is an enormous number of resources on the subject of financial aid and it can sometimes feel like drinking from a firehose. These resources include websites, blogs, presentations, workshops, webinars, pamphlets, worksheets, videos, online calculators and of course financial aid professionals. The options are endless! To avoid feeling overwhelmed, first go to your college’s financial aid website and explore what they have. There might be links to net price calculators, budgeting tools, or other resources.
It helps to have a checklist and set deadlines. Your checklist could include items like learning about alternative loans, completing the CSS Profile, attending Financial Aid Night at your high school, or comparing the pros and cons of each school. Don’t miss your school’s financial aid priority deadline as it may hinder your chances of receiving institutional need based aid. Deadlines are available on the school’s financial aid website.
Spend most of your time on matters that directly influence your goals. For instance, if your goal is to minimize the amount of student loans you’ll need to borrow, it is best to spend a few hours a week researching scholarships and finding ways to reduce expenses like room and board, transportation and personal expenses.
When diving into financial education, you should also determine what learning style best fits your personality. Your learning style may be visual, auditory, reading/writing, kinesthetic or a variation of several. Perhaps you’re a visual person who retains information easier through a YouTube video, a webinar or a pie chart. Maybe you’re more hands-on, so attending a financial aid workshop with group discussions or the completion of a budget worksheet is more your style.
My experience in applying for financial aid was largely shaped by my interaction with the financial aid office. Although the financial aid process can be daunting, your best resource and advocate will be the many financial aid professionals you’ll come in contact with. They will work to simplify the application process for you, help navigate you through the extensive resources and assist in finding alternative funding options. Financial aid is there to help you every step of the way so treat your financial aid staff member as a trusted friend.
Emir has served in many capacities throughout his career in higher education from coaching students through the financial aid process to serving in several leadership roles. He previously worked at AccessLex Institute as a senior level relationship manager, and as a financial aid administrator for Boston University and Northeastern University. He earned both a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration (BS) and a Master of Public Administration (MPA) from Northeastern University.