Restructuring Your Financial Aid Office: Debunking 3 Misconceptions

With continuously changing regulations and compliance standards, financial aid offices sometimes find it difficult to balance legal obligations and customer needs. Gettysburg College recently undertook a restructuring of its financial aid office and dramatically improved customer service without adding additional staff members or making significant changes to the budget.

We turned to Chris Gormley, Gettysburg’s director of financial aid, to learn more about her approach, and in our conversation Gormley highlighted several misconceptions about moving to a customer service approach in the financial aid office.

Misconception No. 1: The Talent Needed

"So many offices hire staff trained in financial aid administration, rather than hiring for specific skill sets. I came to financial aid from student accounts, where I had worked as a functional analyst, and then I trained in the financial aid knowledge I needed. Hire for skill sets first; you can train knowledge."
Chris Gormley, Gettysburg College

Gormley adds this example. One of her current assistant directors was originally employed in the admissions office; Gormley hired her because of her customer service skills and her holistic understanding of the entire admissions/enrollment process, then trained her in financial aid management.

Another of Gormley’s assistant directors came to her with ten years of experience in admissions and significant communications expertise, and Gormley hired her because her office needed a communications specialist.

Gormley emphasizes: “This requires being clear on your priorities. Clearly your first priority is to get financial aid to eligible students. But what are your other strategic priorities, beyond the daily work of processing financial aid requests? If you have clarity on those, hire for the skills you need to achieve them.”

This approach has empowered Gormley to take her financial aid office from “pushing forms” to a customer service focus aimed at boosting yield and increasing satisfaction among the students and families her office serves. Specifically, Gormley’s office focuses on proactive outreach to prospective student applicants, connecting them with a financial aid counselor early – a counselor who, if the student enrolls, will continue to work with them all the way through to graduation. This counselor knows the student’s “story” and remains their critical contact and financial aid resource throughout the academic experience.

Misconception No. 2: The Cost

“I have restructured our financial office over the last 5-7 years,” Gormley remarks, “when  budgets have been tighter than ever. I’ve had to be creative.”

Noting the turnover in most financial aid offices, Gormley recommends using exiting staff as an opportunity to restructure your office in stages. A few years ago, Gormley had three support staff and three professional staff in her office. When one of her support staff left, she asked HR to allow her to take that vacancy and restructure the position – allowing her to hire an entry-level financial aid counselor at only a few thousand dollars of additional cost in salary.

Similarly, when one of Gormley’s financial aid counselors left, she made the case to HR that for a few thousand dollars more, she could hire a financial aid counselor who could also serve as a communications specialist.

In both examples, Gormley didn’t have the budget to hire a new staff member out of the blue, but she had already thought through her objectives for financial aid outreach and knew what skill sets she needed, so that when the opportunity to replace exiting staff arose, she was ready to make the most of it.

Misconception No. 3: Not Enough Time for Training

One key to Gormley's approach has been extensive cross-training. Planning ahead, Gormley has spent time reviewing the skill sets of her existing staff and considering which staff who are doing X this year could be doing Y in a future year. Yet the cross-training needed to enable this type of flexibility takes time, and most financial aid offices are already overworked and understaffed.

Gormley suggests taking a different perspective on training: “It is an investment to retrain people. But if you approach this by providing cross-training, you will also have staff who can do multiple jobs. Then, if someone goes out on leave, you have someone else ready to take on their work. In the long run, you’re saving time by investing up front in developing this backup.”

For example, last fall, one of Gormley’s support staff as well as one of her professional staff were both out on medical leave for eight weeks. “If I had not done the reorganization and cross-training prior to that, I would have been at a standstill,” she comments. “Yes, we have temporary staff, but it would have proven a significant slow-down for eight weeks. Cross-training is a way of being proactive rather than reactive, and it’s good risk management.”