Envisioning Your Financial Aid Future

In my everlasting quest to be a thoroughly certifiable ‘financial aid geek,’ I subscribe to a daily Google alert on the topic “financial aid.” This means every day, I get a list of stories curated from the internet that feature financial aid news, information, or careers. Most of the time, the stories are about financial aid happenings in higher education which can often foretell trends or issues that independent school financial aid professionals will (or already) face. In the digest a few days ago, there were a couple of stories educating parents on how to compare financial aid offers and an announcement of a top basketball recruit who signed a financial aid agreement with the University of Missouri. But many of the headlines were not so helpful or harmless. Several, like the ones below, had me shaking my head (or “smh,” for those texting/tweeting experts):

  • Applying for College Financial Aid Just Got a Lot More Complicated
  • US Budget Proposal Could Cut Financial Aid
  • Faculty Senate Presents Financial Aid Revisions
  • Fund State Need Grant, the Backbone of College Financial Aid
  • State’s College Students Face Financial Aid Crunch

Each of these stories told of ways that federal, state, or college level bureaucrats make decisions that make it more difficult for students and families to find or apply for the financial aid help they need. I thought, “These are not good ideas for making higher education more reachable for people who need it most.”

A couple of days after reading that digest, I attended a two-day design thinking workshop to re-imagine what a school could do to turn around its enrollment decline (and ensuing financial challenges) of the past several years. One of the brainstorming exercises my group engaged was called “The Worst Idea.” In this process, you identify one to three key problems to solve and for each one, come up with as many of the worst ideas you can imagine to solve that problem. From the group’s collective list, each person picks one or two he or she finds to be the absolute worst, and then imagine what the opposite of that worst idea could look like – in essence, turning a bad idea into a good one.

So, if the five headlines above seem to be bad ideas for solving the access and affordability problem, what would the opposite of those look like? How might taking the opposite of those ideas form the baseline for a set of strategies or goals for continuous improvement in financial aid outcomes?

Imagine that you could determine what set of headlines in a future Google alert on “financial aid” would make us smile as financial aid professionals, nodding our heads instead of shaking them. What would the opposite of the worst ideas look like? Here are five I’d like to see that would make me smile:

  1. Feds Eliminate Student Loan Program, Replace It with Guaranteed Need-Based Aid
  2. EE Ford and Gates Foundation Collaborate to Fund Low-Income Student Access to Independent Schools
  3. For First Time, 100% of Independent Schools Report Meeting 100% of Demonstrated Need for All Students
  4. No Child Left Behind: Need-Aware Admission A Ghost of Bygone Era
  5. Former Aid Recipient Donates $40 Million to Alma Mater to Endow Need-Based Aid

Try this exercise with your financial aid committee or leadership team:

  • Think about the financial aid realities, successes, and challenges you’re facing as you wrap up this year’s enrollment season.
  • Brainstorm a set of headlines you see as future reflections of what solving your key one or two challenges would look like.
  • As a team, pick three to five of the best headlines and design together what it would take to make those headlines come true in your financial aid future.

Use the comments section below and share what would be your “best headlines” for a Google alerts digest. Let’s build a strong list and illustrate what our collective vision of the best financial aid future looks like and continue to work on creating it together.

Data-Minding Your Financial Aid Outcomes

“Data mining” is all the rave in this era of Big Data. To successfully mine your data, though, it’s important first to “mind your data.” As your financial aid decisions start to go out the door to parents, how deeply have you thought about how to assess and measure what comes back to you?

After all, you’ve made your aid decisions to achieve a certain set of objectives to help fulfill your enrollment management needs: educational access, economic diversity, revenue generation, community building, and more. Are you poised to determine how your outcomes reflect the main goals you set? Are you prepared to understand how your financial aid spending helped to make those goals achievable? Can you depict where your resources or policies fell short, leaving specific goals unreachable?
What are the key data to track for both short- and long-term evaluation that is critical to your planning for the future? Here are just some of the statistics and data that schools track for internal assessment and external reporting for various audiences.
Know the Basics

  • Percentage of enrolled students receiving financial aid
  • Percentage of budget and of tuition allocated to financial aid
  • Overall tuition discount rate
  • Number of students granted financial aid
  • Average financial-aid award per recipient
  • Total amount of financial aid awarded
  • Tuition revenue generated by recipients

Know your applicants and your recipients

  • Profile of financial aid applicants (typical family size, income, home equity, net worth etc)
  • Percentage of applicants not qualifying for aid
  • Profile of financial aid recipients (How does this differ from the typical applicant profile?)
  • Number/percent of applicants and recipients by:
    • Grade level
    • Race/ethnicity
    • Income range
    • Gender or sex
    • Percentage of financial need met (for recipients)
    • ZIP codes

Know your non-enrollees

  • Profile and percentage of non-returning families that cite financial reasons for leaving the school
  • Profile and percentage of financial aid applicants who did not accept your admission or financial aid offer

Reporting data like these on an annual basis, however, is only part of the battle. It is equally important to build a longitudinal database of statistics. Analyzing these data over time will yield a broader picture of changes to help answer key questions such as: How has the school’s commitment to aid kept pace with tuition increases? How has the applicant pool changed over the years and what implications does that hold for us? Are we positioned to meet the evolving demands on the financial aid budget? Are we making progress in extending opportunity to a wider variety of families? Given historical patterns, where will we be in five or ten years? Is that where we want to be? Are our trends in step with, ahead of, or lagging our competitor schools or other benchmark groups?

As the award decisions get in the hands of your applicants, think about the data you need to track and take steps now to build, review, or refresh the reports you’ve built in School Portal to be in good position to start analyzing your data as soon as families return their enrollment contracts. Be sure that indicators and statuses for your applicants (such as enrollment status, race/ethnicity, etc.) are accurate and complete to aid in filtering and sorting your data for more precise profiles of the various segments of your population. Making sure each student’s record is as clean as possible now will make it easier to get the exact views you need when it’s time to run reports.

In addition to using School Portal reporting features to depict your own outcomes, be sure to use NAIS’s DASL (Data Analysis for School Leadership) tools online to find benchmark results for schools like yours across the nation on key tuition and financial aid markers. Use preset groups of schools to compare yourself against or customize groups based on your own needs.

A key skill of the effective financial aid professional is the ability to track and assess short- and long-term views of data and statistics in support of strategic enrollment management. In today’s dynamic political, competitive, and economic climate, it is increasingly critical for leaders like you to devote needed resources to be intentional about measuring your program’s success and goals attainment. Now’s the time to mind your data for the best data mining of what your outcomes mean for your school.