The toughest job in higher ed is worth the hard work

When you google the toughest job in the world, you quickly arrive at the job description of a mother. OK, fair enough.

But after all these years in higher ed, I’m convinced the toughest job in administration is in financial aid processing. This is just my opinion. But, I just finished attending the national association of student financial aid administrators (NASFAA) conference in San Diego, CA, and here’s the truth of the matter.

What it takes to win in financial aid

To be successful, financial aid advisors (FAAs) have to be:

  • Wise in the ways of regulation

There are so many abbreviations for policies and rules and statutes, it is truly unreal. In 2014, I attended the NASFAA conference and learned what keeps FA folks up at night.

In fact, I made a note of 27 different abbreviations they use to reflect penalties and regulations – and I added another 15 just three years later! They definitely speak their own language.

  • Committed to student completion

It’s not enough to review data, perform financial aid verification, and package the incoming students. Nope, you start over year after year with added complexities of changes in policy, parent/student financial information, programs that your institution has eliminated or added, exceptions to every rule, scholarships, declines in funding, and goals set by the President and cabinet.

And you do all of it while in the midst of a time crunch. But along the way, you never lose sight of the ultimate goal: making sure students have the resources they need to make it to graduation.

  • Great communicators

FAAs are taking their show on the road. They are going to high schools to educate parents and students on their options and their limits when it comes to funding.

They hold financial literacy classes for students. They advise on how adding and dropping classes will affect loans. They explain subsidized and unsubsidized loans to students who often don’t know how dangerous debt can be. When errors occur from the FAFSA, the ISIR or the audit, they track down what the issues are and resolve them.

  • Politically savvy advocates

“Politics is the profession of persuasion,” said Justin Draeger, NASFAA’s CEO, during the final presentation of the conference.

He would know. He and FAAs around the country meet with members of Congress, the Department of Education, and testify on Capitol Hill. They know the ins and out of politics and work to ensure the NASFAA membership is heard.

Many FAAs, in their personal time I’m sure, advocate for students. They push Congress to consider the implications for individual students: traditional students, part-time students, working students, transfer students, and those balancing families and jobs and bills.

You can join them. Follow along at #Fight4FinAid.

  • Open to change

For the 2017 – 2018 year, awarding shifted to “Prior-Prior Year” and made it easier for FAAs in some respects, but with so much at stake, it was a lot of work to manage and ensure accuracy.

Meanwhile, coverage for graduate programs is evolving. Now, FAAs manage Gainful Employment regulations, even though the Department of Education is reconsidering the definition of what gainful employment is. There’s also R2T4, disbursement rules, public service loan forgiveness, cost of attendance, loan default rates, verifications – and I’m literally just scratching the surface.

And truly, that’s just the beginning. That’s why access to the information you already have is so important, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Improving and protecting the student experience

I appreciated the summary that NASFAA gave at the end of the conference of the things the organization is working to protect. Here are the four main policy principles it is striving for:

  1. Access for students
  2. Simplification
  3. Curbing indebtedness
  4. Reducing regulatory burden

Have I convinced you that financial aid processing is the hardest job on a campus?

Maybe the point is debatable. But here’s what I was also pleased to discover. FAAs are inspired to investigate every single option to improve, and protect, the student experience – before, during, and after college.

They are exploring every conceivable way to simplify processes, collect data, communicate better and earlier, be available for advising, engage the student and parents, and share with each other what works. They are open to technology and the role it can play.

After all, the key to a successful student experience from the FAA perspective is easy access to complete information, so you can review more applications and find the best-fit students. And you can’t do that if information is stuck on paper or in electronic silos.

But the innovation in the financial aid world bodes well for all of us across higher ed. Which is good, because I have two more daughters who have yet to start the journey. Financial aid advisors, thank you for serving us all with passion and energy!

Laurel Stiller brings her passion for helping institutions strategically maximize their efficiency to Hyland as its marketing portfolio manager for Higher Education. A graduate of Miami University, Ohio, with more than 20 years of experience working to map proven solutions to higher education challenges, Laurel implemented ERP solutions at Dickinson College and University of Oregon Foundation before joining the sales and marketing team at Datatel, now Ellucian, Inc. Laurel offers a deep understanding of higher education, dedication to transparency and a fondness for candid conversations about the solutions Hyland develops and delivers to the market. You may reach her at Laurel.Stiller at

Laurel Stiller

Laurel Stiller brings her passion for helping institutions strategically maximize their efficiency to Hyland as its marketing portfolio manager for Higher Education. A graduate of Miami University, Ohio, with more... read more about: Laurel Stiller