Those who attended “Academic Affairs and the Financial Aid Office: Essential Collaboration for SEM Success” heard terrific information about the expertise that financial aid directors and staff can bring to not only SEM planning, but a wide variety of initiatives spearheaded by academic affairs. Surprisingly, we also were treated to three presenters whose acting chops will surely be recognized by the Academy soon!
Rocky Christensen, Director of Financial Aid at Johnson University, Cynthia Grunden, Financial Aid, and Higher Education Specialist at Powers Pyles Sutter & Verville PC, and Keri Walters, Assistant Provost for Transfer Initiatives at Methodist University astutely played the roles of Director of Financial Aid, VP for SEM, and Provost at Anywhere University to great effect.
The presenters addressed common misconceptions about financial aid offices – offices that are known for “No,” filled with bureaucrats who are unconcerned with strategy, and functions that are only valuable where the execution of strategy is concerned. Similarly, we heard common misconceptions about academic affairs from the perspective of FA administrators – they announce changes and new initiatives without consulting financial aid, they do not respect the importance of academic calendars and other structures that are so important to compliance, and they offer exceptions to nearly every policy.
As the hour progressed, we learned that Anywhere University is relatively new to SEM planning and has a newly formed SEM committee led by the Provost. We walked through several of their tactics and the Financial Aid Director successfully (and humorously) demonstrated the value they could have added to the planning. Following are just a couple of examples:
Anywhere University was nearly ready to go live with stackable credentials, with the hope that they’d appeal to and grow their population of non-traditional students. There was a faulty assumption made that these credentials would be eligible for financial aid, similar to other programs at Anywhere U. The FA director successfully communicated that they would have been able to assist with notifying the Department of Education (ED) of the new credential and educate program leaders on Gainful Employment reporting requirements. By inserting this expertise early in the process, the foundation for these new credentials would have been sound.
Academic leaders were also thrilled to share with the FA director that they were going to create an immersive first-year experience that would help students navigate and adjust to college life starting 7 weeks prior to the start of the fall semester. Since extending the start of the credit-bearing College 101 course would introduce significant compliance concerns, the FA team could have helped academic affairs reconceive these offerings and provided valuable information about institutional risk.
A total of seven examples were discussed, including the implications of opening and closing instructional locations and expanding asynchronous online offerings, to name a few more.
New academic initiatives and programming can benefit by bringing financial aid into the discussion earlier than later to help institutions avoid problems. Involving financial aid in your SEM committee and SEM planning process is key to ensuring strategies and tactics, especially related to academic programs, are reviewed from a Title IV compliance perspective. Not only does it keep the university in compliance, but it also helps academic leaders see the financial aid leadership as key partners. Financial aid offices can partner by listening carefully to innovative ideas and good intentions of academic leaders. After consideration and perhaps additional research, they can return to the table with clear questions or information that must be considered before moving forward.
Session attendees shared some stories about their own experiences and how financial aid offices are involved in SEM planning. There was a great discussion on successful collaboration models between academic affairs and financial aid. Overall, the key takeaway from this session was to always be thinking about what voices and perspectives should be at the table to ensure success as our institutions continue to innovate and create new opportunities for students.