For all of the prognostications focused on how the current pandemic may forever alter the future of higher education, the severity and swiftness of the economic fallout have already further intensified the most immediate concern every institution faces: reining in ever-escalating tuition rates.
It’s been a pressing issue looming large across academe long before campuses abruptly emptied back in March, and the national unemployment rate reached upwards of 25 percent.
Even during the best economic times, financial aid staff are the frontline warriors who have accepted the most challenging mission: determining how much each student should have to pay and borrow as the average annual cost of attendance steadily rises year over year.
While they can’t control the sticker price, financial aid leaders are expected to do everything humanly possible to ease the stress and confusion for students and families seeking to understand how aid packages work, the factors influencing the amount of money they receive, and their financing options.
Leveraging student technology applications and integrating various solutions–Including Oracle Student Financial Planning, PowerFAIDS, and Regent–remain the standard tools of choice to drive efficiency because they automate many of the straightforward tasks of calculating aid packages. These applications allow staff to focus on the more complex and time-consuming tasks that require specialized professional judgment and personal interactions with students and families.
But in the last couple of years, the adoption of new solutions like AI chatbots have increased dramatically in higher education, including financial aid offices, according to a recent Tambellini Group report. These chatbots aim to provide the same, if not better, quality of information and interaction as real live humans.
The U.S. Education Department jumped on the chatbot bandwagon too, announcing in December 2019 that its StudentAid.gov website would feature a limited beta launch of a robotic assistant Aidan. Aidan currently answers questions about the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, completed by nearly 20 million students annually.
Every institution seeks ways to improve and simplify the financial aid application experience for students and their families, and with good reason. Colleges and universities that are easy to reach and provide one-on-one advice to prospective students are more likely to win out as their chosen institution to enroll.
More importantly, research shows that when students benefit from transparent and clear communications regarding the actual cost of attendance at an institution, they are far more likely to persist and graduate.
So what happened in financial aid offices around the country when they were suddenly met with an unprecedented volume of requests for emergency aid and appeals to financial aid packages? With more confusion and uncertainty compounded an already complicated process, have technology applications, both new and old, helped to streamline their efforts under these exceptional circumstances and new challenges?
To find out how their technology systems and applications have fared thus far in the pandemic, The Tambellini Group spoke with financial aid leaders at Union College, a 2,200 student private liberal arts college in Schenectady, N.Y., and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a public institution with over 35,000 undergraduates.
When colleges and universities made the call to send students home indefinitely in March, students bombarded financial aid offices with emergency funding requests to cover unanticipated expenses, including plane tickets to return home and laptops for remote learning.
Both Union College and UW-Madison said the systems they had in place before the pandemic effectively helped them meet the challenge of swiftly distributing need funds for students.
Union had already created a “Making U Possible” grant fund set to kick off in the Fall 2020 semester. These grants provide students with additional aid to cover their expenses associated with participating in educational opportunities such as internships, fellowships, and study abroad opportunities.
According to Linda Parker, Union’s Director of Financial Aid, having this grant fund established made it easier to distribute additional funds raised for the Union College Persistence Fund, another supplementary financing resource Union created in the wake of the pandemic to help students.
At UW-Madison, the pre-pandemic move to add a graduate student in social work to the financial aid office’s staff was vital in coordinating cross-campus resources to meet all students’ basic needs.
“We were very fortunate we already had this program set up and those resources on our web site,” said Karla Weber, Communications Manager for UW-Madison’s financial aid office. “Many of these services were siloed among different offices of the university, and it made it easier for us to coordinate, and drove home that students should always consider us the central point of contact.”
Coordinating distribution of federal emergency CARES funding to students, however, continues to be rife with challenges that technology can’t fix at Weber’s institution. With qualification terms that have changed multiple times and reporting requirements that were altered as recently as July, Weber said there wasn’t any way to avoid ambiguity and delays, despite UW-Madison’s integrated use of Oracle’s PeopleSoft across most student systems.
Both institutions had finalized financial aid packages for accepted first-year students before the pandemic. UW-Madison sent them out in December, and Union in early March. But as the job losses piled up, students and their families bombarded financial aid offices with requests to have their packages revised upwards due to unforeseen and exceptional circumstances.
Union College’s Parker saw a 25 percent uptick in appeals requested from accepted first-year students and a sixfold increase in requests for larger aid packages from existing students. According to Parker, the integration among Technolutions’ Slate from admissions and Ellucian Colleague Financial Aid was a crucial advantage in handling the deluge.
“We had hired an enrollment systems analyst a few years ago to act as a bridge to the IT department and coordinate the technology systems we use under the enrollment function–admissions, financial aid, and retention,” says Parker. “This has resulted in a tremendous gain in terms of streamlining and automation that has served us well as we continue to work remotely.”
Weber’s office had long since integrated most of its student functions using PeopleSoft and Anthology. The integration did help them coordinate remotely, but Weber said that the customized functions that her institution had built into these applications were more important than any of the standard features.
While the summer is usually a slower time in Madison, the volume of work for Weber and her team of nearly 50 financial aid staffers increased by a factor of ten. Meanwhile, the entire staff was working remotely with official hours reduced to 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. They are typically available in the office to receive calls and answer emails for at least eight hours on weekdays.
To make sure they were accessible and keep pace with the increased volume of inquiries, Weber’s office, which had begun using an AI chatbot from Ivy.Ai two years ago, finally took the plunge and launched the application’s Live Agent feature so staff members would be able to see when students were asking questions and answer them remotely in real time.
“Being able to flip a switch and get a great access point to students like that was an amazing convenience,” says Weber. “The company has also been exceptionally responsive about adapting features as circumstances change to suit our needs, including changing and adding questions and answers specifically for pandemic-related inquiries. It’s made me more interested in figuring out ways we can utilize more of their other features in the future.”
When Weber speaks to parents about affording college, she begins by telling them, “we’re going to talk about your two most sensitive and personal topics: your money and your children.”
That gets at the crux of the challenge that both experts say technology can never automate, no matter how rapidly it evolves. No matter how many requests arise to review and revise financial aid packages, both Parker and Weber say empathy, personal attention, and professional judgment are vital to their work, and will always require a qualified, human expert.
Though the applications and systems they had adopted and upgraded before the pandemic helped ease the burden of overall coordination when they went into overdrive mode, they didn’t prevent the volume of work from increasing dramatically.
“Families often think that there’s one aspect of their changing situation that will influence how much their student qualifies for when it’s actually another thing that we don’t find out until we talk to them and put their situation in context,” says Weber. “They also are hesitant to ask for help or admit they have a problem, so we have to keep on communicating to them that we’re here for them, and coax information out of them to ensure we’re fully and accurately meeting their needs.”
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