There’s little doubt that the last few years have been stressful. In higher education, financial aid staff have shouldered much of that burden, as students and parents grappled with how to pay bills amidst a global pandemic. But, the truth is that as early as 2014, financial aid staff were signaling burnout. A research brief by Inceptia, a division of National Student Loan Program (NSLP), stated that while 96% of financial aid staff at colleges and universities were proud of their jobs, almost two-thirds of them were experiencing stress and fatigue. Today, that fatigue has reached its breaking point, as staffing shortages in financial aid offices have created challenges, such as long wait times, lack of knowledge and disintegrating student support.
“College is not affordable to average families, and the people who deal with the brunt of that frustration are people in financial aid. That distracts from all the other work they have to do,” says Michael Hollis, director of business development at Edquity.
And because financial aid offices have a twofold mandate of service to both students and universities, they’re also fielding requests from parents, students, other university offices, and scholarship administrators, all at the same time.
“Financial aid, at high-volume times, like the start of the school year, is tasked with so much, while receiving little appreciation, being under-resourced, and navigating a patchwork of federal compliance guidelines, scholarships, and grants,” Hollis says. “How do you put together a package that works for each student and do it at scale?”
While federal CARES Act funding has been positive, it is also a new program that financial aid professionals must oversee.
“They’re dealing with scholarships, loans, and administering a brand-new program, HEERF, with brand-new regulations and guidelines that may not be in sync with scholarship and student loan guidelines,” says Hollis, “yet they don’t have additional staff. That’s created a sense of burnout.”
And despite CARES Act funding, higher education budget cuts continue to reduce both the number of available staff in financial aid offices and the tools those professionals have to provide for students. A disheartening trend considering most employees enter into this work in order to better serve students, Hollis laments.
To sum up the numerous responsibilities and challenges faced by financial aid staff:
To avoid financial aid staff burnout, many institutions are turning to technology to streamline the process of matching the right aid package to each student.
Hollis explains that Edquity provides financial aid staff visibility into all the challenges a student is experiencing, allowing them to direct the right resources to the right students. The Edquity dashboard shows financial aid staff which students have the highest levels of financial need based on a demographics-blind assessment of their current situations. Financial aid professionals can use that information to clarify what types of emergency aid an institution should prioritize–maybe it’s a food pantry, because of high levels of food insecurity. A school could then prioritize or reallocate resources to areas of greatest impact, be it direct cash grants or a different type of aid.
For example, if a student tells a financial aid officer they need additional funds, the officer can see on the Edquity dashboard that the student needs rent money or is struggling to find their next meal. This allows financial aid officers to better contextualize underlying needs and coordinate the best aid package and program, in conjunction with student affairs and support.
“You might not be upping that student's financial award dollars, but now you know what that student is experiencing when they call asking for money,” says Hollis.
In addition, the speed with which Edquity’s application provides decisions and distributes money can increase capacity for financial aid staff who are managing hundreds of student accounts. A shift to leveraging technology meets students where they are, so they do not need to call or visit a financial aid office, saving time for both staff and the student.
“If a student is experiencing food insecurity or possible eviction, [two week’s wait time for funds is] not sufficient,” says Hollis. “Edquity can get finances to students much faster–in 25 hours–and we’re moving in the direction of getting money into students’ personal bank accounts in a matter of minutes, once a student is awarded a cash grant.”
Part of our research shows that 63% of applications come in on nights and weekends, so Edquity makes sure that students have access to support and resources 24/7 via our website chat tool. Edquity’s chat tool connects you with a representative or a knowledge database to answer questions, solve problems and provide useful resources.
“For a student dealing with financial trauma on a Saturday, who might have to sit with that for at least two days, or students attending an online university or distributed location, who can’t walk to someone’s office, being able to connect with resources via live chat can keep them going,” says Hollis. “Getting immediate answers to questions about what’s going on with their application and how to immediately access additional resources they may not have known about can really help.”