Today’s financial aid director wears many hats: counselor, manager of budgets, supervisor, implementer of regulations, and keeper of data, to name a few. As the role of financial aid director has become increasingly complex and challenging, so has filling this position. A job posting could read something like a hybrid circus performer: juggler/tight-rope walker/magician with excellent communication, supervisory and financial management skills, and at least five years of experience in financial aid.
Although the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators is now offering a professional credentialing program, there are no undergraduate or graduate programs leading to a degree in financial aid administration. Samantha Veeder, director of financial aid at Nazareth College (NY), describes how she and many others like her began their careers as students in the aid office. For her, it was 1987 while at Ithaca College (NY). “At first, it was just a work-study job to earn extra money. Then it became something more,” shares Veeder, who held her first financial aid director job at age 23. “I created a support network by becoming active in professional organizations. The mentorship I received from this support system was invaluable in growing into the profession.”
Evidence of active participation in professional organizations can be a gauge for a candidate’s ongoing commitment to developing as a financial aid professional. How else to identify an effective leader for the financial aid office? This is an especially challenging task since most financial aid professionals are either new to the role (five years or less), or highly seasoned (20+ years), with many nearing retirement. Mid-level, up-and-coming professionals can be hard to find, internally or externally. Whether the position is filled via an external search or internal talent is developed, there are six key elements that make a quality financial aid director.
Customer Service Orientation
With ever-increasing numbers of aid applicants, aid applicants in need of professional judgments, and aid applications selected for verification, a focus on serving families is arguably the most important trait of the aid director.
Discussing finances with families has always been a sensitive topic, and aid directors must overcome mistrust. Increasingly, institutions are not meeting financial need, and families are conditioned to appeal the first financial aid offer. Navigating these difficult discussions without making adjustments to awards takes special skill. In addition to sensitive counseling, clear information, prompt responses, and accurate processing are critical in meeting families’ expectations. Excellent customer service is an important piece in enrolling and retaining students.
the most important trait of the aid director.
Financial aid offices are frequently under-resourced and under-staffed. Serving families well under these conditions requires careful management of both budgets and personnel. Aid directors need to keep staff motivated and working at optimum levels, especially at peak times, and establish a customer service focused culture, balanced with accurate processing. Continual training and education of staff is needed, especially since the recent Reauthorization and its many policy changes.
Christine Saadi, director of student financial planning at Alvernia University (PA), points out that part of successful management of the aid office includes effective delegation. “Being able to relate to your staff is crucial. You have to delegate and develop your staff so they can keep the workflow going at all times. I am pulled in many different directions, and consequently, not always in the office, but know I can rely on my staff to keep things running smoothly. There is also a need for balance between work and life outside of work. Sharing responsibility makes this possible.”
Over the last 20 years, the growing need for analytical skills represents perhaps the biggest change in the financial aid profession. Aid directors used to be primarily focused on operations, but are now often expected to engage in data analysis and strategic projections regarding budgets, enrollments, and the strategic use of financial aid. Providing senior leadership with feedback on potential impacts from changes in pricing and discounting as well as changes in government aid funding levels is commonplace. The financial aid director is also frequently tapped to complete surveys such as the Common Data Set, as well as NCAA and FISAP reports.
This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of University Business.