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4 Ways to Boost Compliance in Your Financial Aid Office

Ah, compliance. The critical part of student financial aid for schools that is also occasionally (frequently) the bane of financial aid admins’ existence. As a financial aid director, you are held to rigid standards for maintaining compliance in your office. Are there ways you could make it less painful for your staff?

Below, we discuss how a financial aid director can improve compliance office wide, short of public floggings. Kidding – we know directors put forth huge efforts to support their staff with compliance-related issues. That’s why we list our four very best tips below for painlessly reducing compliance issues:

Automate Your Processes

Humans make mistakes, especially when they are rushing to meet deadlines and juggling multiple tasks. Where compliance is concerned, a “mistake” can be costly, both for the school and for students. Software only makes mistakes when programmed incorrectly. The perfect combination for meeting compliance standards is financial aid software being used by an experienced financial aid administrator.

For example, AutoReconciliation is a software-as-a-service (SaaS) that allows FA counselors to reconcile COD and SIS data in mere seconds. FA admins simply request their monthly SAS report to be in the following classes:

  • DSLF (for Direct Loans)
  • PGRC (for Pell grants)
  • THSY (for TEACH grants)

This request must take place during the week before the first full weekend in a month. For example, the December 2014 request would need to be submitted to the Department of Education by December 4th. Once the school has the SAS files, it’s as simple as importing SAS and SIS files into AutoReconciliation. The software does the work from there, almost instantly generating a report identifying all discrepancies. Then financial aid admins may sort discrepancies to quickly and easily see where adjustments need to be made. Sure beats poring over Excel spreadsheets!

Communicate Across Departments

It’s crucial to lead the way for your team to communicate with the other departments that support financial aid. Lack of communication can lead to other departments using outdated information, which creates more discrepancies and issues down the road for the financial aid department. You must set the example of being cooperative with other departments, especially accounting, enrollment and the other administrative functions. Be sure to update other departments in a timely manner when compliance regulations change. Avoid fostering an “us vs. them” mentality, even on the days when that feels like the reality.

Adam Castro wrote a great piece from the admissions perspective about how transparency, cooperation and shared learning between departments contribute to the success of the system as a whole, as well as produce more knowledgeable, valuable staff members.

Determine Areas of Weakness

The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) offers a Standards of Excellence (SOE) Review Program. A Standards of Excellence Review means experienced, currently practicing financial aid professionals will come into your office and provide:

  • Peer reviews of your office’s operations to assess strengths and weaknesses
  • Access to the most current and accurate information about financial aid
  • Answers or clarification from the Department of Education
  • Unbiased advice on staffing, benchmarking, electronic services, student service and more.

Whether you choose the NASFAA review program, or to QA your staff internally, it’s crucial to find out your areas of weakness. Then you may provide additional training in those areas. Do your best to create an environment where people feel safe to be open with their mistakes so everyone can learn from them. You can be serious about mistakes (and correcting them) without being condemning.

Act on the Metrics

Nearly every financial aid director tracks metrics (find out here if you’re tracking the right ones). Most schools have more data than they know what to do with, and this ends up being the problem. How does an institution turn the collected data into actionable information? The financial aid director must be the driving force behind this. Review the data to find answers to questions like “What activities contribute to peak processing times, and which of these can be streamlined or automated?” or “Are we targeting the right students in the right way?” or “In which areas do we have the most audit findings?” Once these types of analytical questions are answered, they can be translated into department directives to drive efficiency.

What tips do you have for improving compliance? Do you have a training method that is particularly successful?