It’s that time of year again: Time to gear up for the holiday season. Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year Christmas—which is your favorite? Or is your fave the ‘sacred holiday’ known as the Federal Student Aid (FSA) Training Conference? Sandwiched in the middle of winter holidays, many aid professionals anticipate (and prepare for) FSA with as much gusto as any other holiday.
I’ve been attending FSA for nearly 15 years. Looking back, I think this year may see me attending more sessions than I have in recent years. We’re seeing more changes to verification than ever before, have the most polarizing Secretary of Education, and data sharing is front-and-center again (and not in a good way). I’m hopeful we’ll get answers and insights in all of these areas.
Whether you’re an FSA veteran or first-time attendee, you have one goal: Make the most of the conference and sessions offered. Here’s some advice, and a few suggestions, to help you plan for Orlando.
FSA: Where Networking Can Feel Like a Contact Sport
Networking at FSA can be daunting. If you feel a bit adrift, don’t worry—you aren’t alone. I am not much of an extrovert, but when I go to this conference I force myself to be more outgoing. Remember, everyone at FSA works in or around an aid office. That means you have a built-in commonality. Take a step and introduce yourself to those sitting near you in sessions. They are sitting in the same conference room as you because they have a specific question or concern on the topic being presented—same as you.
And, funny enough, you may find that the person next to you has a better solution than the Fed sitting at the front of the room. Yup, I said it. Often, other schools can be a better resource then the Feds. Why? Because they’re on the front lines—just like you.
#FSATC2017—How FSA Gets Social
Networking is not limited to face-to-face interactions. Get social with your networking. During conferences like FSA, Twitter becomes a hotbed of facts, laughable moments, and learnings. Follow the conference hashtag #FSATC2017 and join in on sharing with those who cannot attend.
I’ll be tweeting as well. If you’re interested, follow me: @AmyGlynn15. Twitter is also a great resource/refresher to look back at what’s shared throughout (and after) the conference.
Like All Holidays, You Need a Plan
Holidays that happen without a hitch do so because someone, somewhere, put of effort in planning for it. Crafting an FSA plan is just as important—60 sessions offered across four days can cause the best of us to go into compliance overload. There is a ton of really great sessions this year. But you don’t need to go to all of them. Your plan should highlight the sessions that are most relevant to the current state at your institution.
There truly is an app for everything these days, so be sure to download the FSA conference app before you go. It’s a great mobile resource to create a personalized schedule, star sessions, and engage at the conference. The mobile app instructions will be added to this page in the near future.
Also, schedule yourself some time, pre-conference, to download the presentations for all of the sessions on your plan. This way you’ll have them readily available on your tablet or computer for notetaking. This will be a huge help during the conference when you find yourself in a massive room where presenters are displaying a postage stamp-sized slide with 5,000 words on it. My eyes are not what they used to be, so that doesn’t work for me.
Can’t-Miss FSA General Sessions
It goes without saying that the general sessions are a good place to start for any conference plan. This year we have five general sessions. Here are my thoughts on them.
GS1: Welcome and Keynote
I’m not sure that any of us will take anything away from the keynote, but I am anticipating what current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has to say to the higher education community. In her short time in office, she has proven quite effective at alienating students and higher education professionals. Hands-down, she’s the most polarizing Secretary in my time in education. I need to admit that, for me, this session is a bit like a car crash—you know you should look away but you just can’t.
GS2: Federal Update
In this session, Department officials will provide an update on what has been going on in the last year. They’ll also speak about what the future looks like. I don’t expect there to be a lot of insight from this session, given the current vacancies at the Department.
GS3: Verification 17-18 & 18-19 and Identification and Resolution of Conflicting Information 17-18
Every school is well into processing verification for 2017-18 and clearing conflicting information. So, hopefully, no one is surprised by any information provided in that portion of the session. I’m looking forward to a little more information on 2018-19 verification requirements. In 18-19, we’re seeing some of the greatest changes surrounding verification since we went to customized verification. Schools have seen large increases in 18-19 verification volumes—some are reporting a more than 15% jump to unprecedented rates. It’s been a little difficult to get clarification from the currently understaffed Department, but I am optimistic that some of our questions will be answered in this session.
GS4: Keynote Address: FSA COO Dr. A Wayne Johnson
We haven’t heard a lot from Dr. Johnson since he joined the Department so I’m looking forward to this session in hopes that we get more insight into his vision. He has made some statements that have caused me to take pause and wonder how he envisions the role of the institution changing as it relates to Title IV administration in higher education. Recently, he spoke at a National College Access Network meeting about elevating the position and visibility of FSA to students, promoting the services and role FSA plays in federal student aid—from applying for aid to disbursement and repayment.
Breakout Sessions to Consider
You also have a wealth of other sessions to choose from. Here are three on my radar:
Session 24: Open Forum
Open Forum sessions are a must-attend and you’re in luck: There are three of them again this year. These sessions give schools a chance to ask questions of senior Department officials who are normally not accessible to aid administrators. It also gives you a chance to hear what questions and struggles other schools are having. It’s always a standing-room-only event, so get there early. If you are new to the industry, commit to attending at least one of these forums. Your thoughts will range from ‘oh my gosh, they did not just ask that,’ to ‘that’s right, let the Feds have it.’
Session 15: Regulatory Relief Listening Session
As part of the current regulatory reform agenda, Department officials are evaluating unnecessary and duplicative regulatory requirements. This session is your opportunity to speak up—and be heard. All too often, regulations are implemented without officials fully thinking through the consequences for schools. If you want a chance to remove some of those unintended consequences, this is the place for you.
Session 35: Using Financial Aid Information for Program Evaluation and Research Session
Data sharing has become a huge topic this year. In January, the Privacy Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) provided some clarification on data sharing. This ‘clarification’ has caused Financial Aid Offices to put the brakes on sharing budget and award information with scholarship organizations, tribal organizations, and enrollment/scholarship modeling consultants. Take this opportunity to find out exactly what you can do with data.
Save Some Time for Orlando Fun
Make sure that you take some time to do a bit of that networking we talked about—and do it outside of the convention center. Go out and grab lunch at one of the resort restaurants. Make new friends and try something new. This is likely where you think I’ll put in a shameless plug for Walt Disney World. Well, that’s always an option, but don’t forget that The Kennedy Space Center is 45 minutes away, Madam Tussauds has an Orlando location, and Universal Studios is nearby.
Need another nudge to get out and have some fun? Remember: Within four to six weeks after the conference, videos of many of the sessions will be posted on the FSA website. The world is not going to end if you have to wait to watch a video of a session, I promise.