How to Retain High-Quality Financial Aid Staff

If you’re a financial aid director reading this blog article and asking yourself this question, look no further than in the mirror. That’s because the single most important ingredient for creating and retaining a high-quality financial aid staff is having a strong office leader. It’s that simple.

Sure, there may be factors outside of your control—like salaries, the number of positions budgeted for your office, the location of your school, etc.—which can impact your ability to retain good employees. But more often than not, it’s the example you set as a leader and the work environment you cultivate that make the most difference.

So what exactly do we mean by cultivating a good work environment?

Have your staff’s back

When I worked in various financial aid offices before becoming a consultant, one of the most important things to me was knowing that my director had my back. Here is a good case in point: In my very first financial aid position, I made an assumption when packaging a student’s award that the family’s income was going to be $20,000 for the year, when it was actually $200,000. My director’s reaction? She brought me chocolate! She knew I felt very badly about the error and while she documented it, she also made me feel that it was okay to make a mistake. She assured me that, as long as it didn’t happen again, I wasn’t going to be in the dog house permanently!

Let’s face it, financial aid rules are constantly changing and mistakes are inevitable, especially with new staff. The office leadership needs to be understanding and flexible. On the flip side, leaders also need to hold staff accountable. Allowing some staff members to make mistakes repeatedly, with no consequences, sets a poor example for others who are doing things correctly which can lead to low morale.

Encourage critical thinking

Those of us who work in financial aid know that when it comes to determining aid eligibility, student issues are rarely “black and white.” That’s why it’s important for directors to encourage their staff members to be comfortable with ambiguity and to think critically. Encouraging staff to ask questions if something doesn’t look right and to trust their instincts can help build confidence and maturity.

Provide appropriate training

This point cannot be overstated. Because of the complex and changing nature of financial aid, it is critically important for staff members to receive appropriate training so they can be successful in their positions. Providing training opportunities shows that you value your staff and want to encourage them to learn new things.

In the face of budget constraints, it’s tempting for directors to rely on senior staff members or those who have been doing a task for a long time to train new staff. While peer-to-peer training can be effective, it shouldn’t be the only type of training that employees receive. Financial aid staff need access to professional training opportunities from authoritative sources, including the U.S. Department of Education, NASFAA and other organizations. This doesn’t mean all your staff members have to attend high-cost events like national conferences; there are plenty of webinars and online tutorials available. The point is that financial aid directors (and other school leaders) should view training as a high priority. Directors should allow their staff members time to close their doors and disconnect from other tasks on a somewhat regular basis in order to participate in training and professional development events.

When the leadership in the financial aid office is able to cultivate an optimal working environment, the right people will want to stick around, broaden their skills, and grow as part of your team.

 

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