Managing and Organizing Paper Files

Many financial aid offices rely on imaging systems to store electronic copies of key student aid documents. However, few offices are completely paper-free and keeping files well organized is often a challenge especially during peak processing seasons. To help address this challenge, the financial aid office can develop a filing system, and document the system as part of the office’s policies and procedures manual. Here are some simple strategies that can help schools organize and track applicant file folders:

  1. Establish a Consistent Method for Naming File Folders:  Most student information systems now allow for randomly generated student ID numbers. Since you may have several students named “Smith” or “Tanner,” consider a file folder labeling system that combines the last name and first name of the student with the student’s school ID. Print a label that includes the student’s last and first name, ID number. An alternative system uses the student’s ID number where the file folders may be filed from lowest to highest. Filing in alphabetical order seems to be popular and easily understood by everyone!
  2. Document Intake and Filing: Establish procedures for document intake. Students may bring in documents in person, send documents via Fax, or mail documents. A simple tracking system should include these components:
    • Identify staff responsible for document tracking and filing.
    • Date stamp the documents received and make sure the student’s name and ID number are on each document.
    • Establish a location in your office where new documents are temporarily stored until they are picked up and processed. Make sure that this location away from the public area. Remember to protect personally identifiable information (PII).
    • Establish times when documents are picked up and moved to the file processing area; a small office may be able to store documents temporarily for the entire business day at your front reception area.
    • Establish a file room with either file cabinets or file racks that provide fire-proof storage.
  3. Managing File Folder Contents:
    • Create a file “wrapper” (8.5” X 17” paper) that can be used to contain all documents for an award year. You can print one side of the wrapper with the student’s name and ID number. The wrapper can be folded in half, then place all documents for one award year inside the file wrapper.
    • Avoid unnecessary document printing – Remember that you don’t have to print that ISIR! Print only the documents that are necessary to establish eligibility for the student’s financial aid awards.
    • Be careful about what you leave in a student’s file folder – If the folder is part of your A-133 compliance audit or program review sample, all contents are fair game and potentially may create conflicting information. If your computer system has a “notes” form, you may want to make notes there and avoid file clutter.
    • Avoid overfilling folders – Financial aid files that house multiple award years can get full quickly. If necessary, divide a student’s file into two award year segments and label the file the folders accordingly.
  4. Retrieving Files and Refiling: An easy way to avoid misplacing or losing file folders and contents is to establish procedures that identify the staff person who has taken the file folder from the storage area.
    • Print a supply of “OUT” cards with columns for the student’s name, student ID, the name of the staff person who has taken the file, the date taken from the file room, and the date the file was returned. OUT cards can be printed with multiple rows on both the back and front of the card.
      •  When a file is pulled from a file cabinet or file rack, a financial aid staff member completes the OUT card and places it in the file cabinet. Then if another staff person is looking for the file folder, the OUT card becomes a tracking document that shows who took the student’s file and when the file was taken.
      •  When the file is returned to the cabinet, the OUT card is taken out and the person returning the file folder puts a return date in the column.
      • Return OUT cards to a central storage location for the next use.
  5. Train Staff on Your System: Every staff person from the director to the receptionist should understand and follow your filing system procedures. It’s tempting for the director to grab a file folder quickly without completing the OUT card when a student and parent are in the office or an auditor is asking a question. Make sure everyone understands the importance of following your procedures and there will be fewer incidences of misplaced files.
  6. Consult the Federal Student Aid (FSA) Handbook for Record Retention Requirements: Remember that your school is responsible for maintaining complete records related to use of FSA funds. Consult the Handbook for required records, record retention periods, record formats and maintenance. Demonstrating compliance with record keeping requirements is part of your school’s overall demonstration of administrative capability. Remember that there are program-specific record keeping requirements.
  7. Prevent FERPA Violations: Make sure that your school creates a secure file storage area and procedures that prevent FERPA violations. Your staff should have an understanding of FERPA requirements and procedures that allow students to view records in their files. Your school’s registrar is usually a FERPA expert; ask your registrar to attend a financial aid staff meeting and review the FERPA requirements.

Your office may establish a different filing system; however, it is important to create a simple system, document your procedures, and train your staff to follow your procedures. When your A-133 auditors come into your office with a list for the file sample, you’ll give your auditors confidence that you run a great financial aid office when you can pull their file sample quickly—and, make sure they understand that you expect them to work with your staff to refile the sample files according to your procedures!

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