Using Financial Aid Management Systems Effectively

In the world of financial aid, as with most professions, effective use of technology is key to the success of the operations. Below, Senior Consultant Vikki Goeke shares some insights about common challenges that schools face with maximizing their use of financial aid management (FAM) systems.

What are the top challenges you have observed related to clients’ use of their financial aid management system?

In general, I’ve observed that many of our school clients lack one or more of the following: (a) resources to support their FAM system; (b) knowledge of the system; or (c) effective testing and quality control procedures.

What do you think is causing these issues?

Financial aid offices typically have to compete with other areas of the campus for dedicated IT support to help maintain their FAM system. Even if an aid office is fortunate to have campus IT support—or, even better, to have technical staff members that are part of the aid office—there are often other priorities that prevent system development beyond what is provided by the software vendor. The overall result is that many aid offices rely too heavily on manual workarounds because they don’t have either the time or technical support to automate more effectively.

In addition, we’ve seen that many of our clients lack a deep knowledge of how the system works and what criteria are used to produce output. This is because most training only covers screens and fields used to perform daily tasks; there’s not enough emphasis about the workings behind the scene and how everything is related. Some clients fail to use the output generated by the system and rely on internally produced queries against a data warehouse.

Lastly, some financial aid offices install system upgrades and fixes from the vendor directly into production, without first installing and thoroughly testing in a non-production environment. In many cases this is due to poor planning and not scheduling enough lead time for testing before the production deadline.

What can schools do to improve their system use?

One obvious step is to secure adequate technical resources for the financial aid office. While funding a technical position or external IT support may not be easy, the risk of not doing so could far exceed the investment. This is because having a well-automated financial aid operation is crucial for avoiding compliance findings which could result in liabilities for the school.

In addition, financial aid offices should ensure their policies and procedures manuals include screenshots and step-by-step instructions covering the various automated functions within the aid office. It’s also important for the staff who are performing technical functions to receive system-related training on a regular basis.

Finally, it’s important for schools to use a pre-production (i.e., test) environment for training, problem resolution, and development of improved processes. In conjunction with testing, schools can create quality control reports to check for data entry errors and inconsistencies in data elements between different campus departments (e.g., bursar, registrar, financial aid, payroll, housing, etc.) – in order to make any necessary adjustments before promoting a system upgrade into production.

What’s your take?

Leave us a comment to share your challenges and successes related to using your FAM system!

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