Road Map

Navigating Your Financial Aid Career: Putting the Puzzle Pieces Together

By: Robert Weinert, Jr.

Are you new to the financial aid (FA) community? Could you use some advice on how to navigate your way to becoming an FA expert and managing your future career in FA? I wrote this post to give you helpful tips on how to do just that!

I have often heard many of my colleagues say they entered the FA profession as a Federal Work Study student, and I think they were very fortunate to be exposed at an early stage before they knew it would become their career. My situation is a little different. I worked in Student Life as a Federal Work Study student. I eventually found my way to the Financial Aid Office after college. Over the years, I have learned several things that I have translated into financial aid career tips for you:

Get Started with Mentorship

If possible, find a mentor who you can go to for guidance and advice. I found my mentors after working in a few different FA offices, and I wished I had found one sooner. The earlier in your career you are able to connect with a mentor, the better, as you can always ask for advice and bounce ideas around with him or her.

Begin Your Education with Online Tools

Become familiar with the Federal Student Aid websites we use in our profession. If you are completely new to FA, the Federal Student Aid E-Training website is a great place to start exploring. Create an account, and begin with the Basic Title IV Training – FSA Coach. It is lengthy but will expose you to a lot of solid information.

Afterward, move on to the Required Training – Fundamental Training Series. This area has two parts: an online component and an in-person training. After you complete the online training, you may register for a four-and-a-half day training at a Federal Student Aid Regional Office, where you will receive an official completion certificate from the Department of Education Office of Federal Student Aid.

Side note: You will want to coordinate with your supervisor when beginning the Fundamental Training Series for permission to attend the in-person training. Don’t be afraid to express your ambition to be as knowledgeable as possible and share your career aspirations.

The second major website all Financial Aid Administrators rely on is the Information for Financial Aid Professionals (IFAP) website where you will find the Federal Student Aid Handbook. The handbook will help familiarize you with official federal regulations and policies. In general, the IFAP website is a place to research answers and stay up to date with changes.

Another inexpensive way to receive training and keep current with changes and trends in the industry is to sign up for free webinars from industry partners. Some of the webinars I tend to join are from companies like USAFunds, PHEAA/FedLoan Servicing, Great Lakes, and ECMC to name just a few and some of them offer completion certificates which you can later reference.

Continue to Develop with Associations

Consider joining your local, state and regional professional associations. These associations are a great place to network and share ideas with others in your community. In addition, joining the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administration (NASFAA) is another way to stay up-to-date with what’s going on at Capitol Hill, and what is coming down the pipeline that will impact our schools and the students we serve. NASFAA also offers professional credentials at a cost. I think it’s worth the investment, so be sure to look into it.

There is constant change in Financial Aid, and associations are fantastic places to keep up with industry news, training and networking. Our industry is all about sharing, learning and connecting from one another. The annual conferences are also a great place to learn from others – and have a little fun too!

Finally, after you have fallen in love with the work you do in FA, seriously consider becoming an active member in the professional associations. Serving on various committees, and becoming involved with the leadership teams can be a great way to gain those leadership skills to take your career to the next level. It has been my experience that financial aid associations are always looking for volunteers and will welcome you with open arms. The opportunities to be involved are out there! Working in teams on various projects for the professional development of our colleagues or collaborating on programs for student success will provide you with opportunities to really get to know the awesome individuals who do the same kind of work you do.

I love what I do, and this is how I have developed myself over the years to gain expertise. I’m not sure anyone can ever be a true FA Expert, because the one consistency is that financial aid will always change and evolve – but that keeps the job from getting boring!

What advice would you give a new financial aid professional to boost his or her career?