by Jeremy Tiers, Director of Admissions Services
Last year a good friend of mine became a college head coach for the first time. My initial words of wisdom for him were simple. Immediately get to know your athletic secretary, and make sure you find at least two good team managers. Creating a partnership with those people are vital for success, largely in part because each, whether they know it or not, can have a huge impact on recruiting and player development. Likewise, colleges and universities will find it hard to achieve their enrollment goals if the offices of admissions and financial aid cannot or choose not to function as a team.
Helping a prospect overcome sticker shock remains arguably the biggest issue for admissions offices. In the 2014 Inside Higher Ed survey of college and university admissions directors, 77% said they believe their institution is losing applicants due to concerns about student debt. For private schools that number jumped to 89%. As you well know, how your office addresses the anxiety that is paying for college will largely determine whether or not that prospective student chooses your institution.
Let me start by asking you a couple of questions. Can you and your staff each name three people that work in your school’s financial aid office? For those of you that passed, I offer my congratulations. Now, when is the last time you stopped by their offices and said hello? To those still thinking, don’t worry you’re not alone. Here’s why that needs to change, though. Financial aid officers have knowledge and data that can empower you and have a large impact on enrollment. For that reason alone, nurturing a positive relationship between admissions and financial aid throughout the recruiting cycle is imperative. The result will be the ability to provide students with all the information they need to make an informed decision about the fit of your school.
Here are a few keys to collaborating with your financial aid teammates that will be mutually beneficial. Even though both offices have different goals, at the end of the day each is trying to provide excellent customer service and meet the changing needs of its students.
Cross training. Start by having the financial aid office identify commonly asked questions that admissions counselors can address when they meet with families. Topics could include an explanation of the FAFSA and other financial aid programs offered, as well as payment options. Have them also teach admissions how to give financial aid estimates. Conversely, your counselors could train those in financial aid with regards to conducting prospective-student visits as well as highlighting key dates in the application process. Taking things a step further, why not have members of both offices shadow each other for a day. Cross training such as this will ensure a smooth campus visit no matter which counselor a recruit meets with. It will also provide an opportunity for counselors to expand their skill sets and use their time more efficiently.
Face to face problem solving. Alliances look great on paper and in name, but many fail to achieve measurable results due to a lack of follow through. Creating a committee and assigning duties is only the beginning. It has to be more than just lip service. Sitting down and talking face to face to effectively solve problems is a tool that many of us need most and are trained in the least. During meetings there must be a shared respect even though both offices have different goals and report to different people. Each department leader needs to be present and reinforce the expectations and the value of this collaboration. Meeting face to face also provides an opportunity for both parties to practice listening.
Sharing data. The offices of admissions and financial aid collect data and typically analyze it each year. Imagine what could be learned if both departments shared this information. For starters, schools could determine how the amount of aid they award positively or negatively effects enrollment. Also, think how much easier it would be if your admissions counselors could check on the FAFSA status of a prospective student themselves rather than pointing a family towards the financial aid office. Being able to address how a recruit will finance their education and what debt they may incur would give that student and his or her family a better idea of affordability as it relates to your institution.
Build that trust. This is a building block of any successful collaboration. Without trust it’s hard to have productive working relationships. Having said that, remember that developing and earning trust takes time. You must first understand the goals and position of each department. There has to be willingness for give-and-take, particularly from the managerial component. A good example is the sharing of resources. Once trust is established and success occurs, celebrate your achievements together. Failures also provide an opportunity for growth if everyone is willing to identify the problem and focus on creating a solution rather then assigning blame. Trust can make the difference between an employee who is engaged and all in, and one who is unmotivated or even destructive.
Each of these four concepts has a common foundational element – communication. Both sides can be on board with collaboration, but to achieve the desired goals communication must always be clear. It begins with listening, a skill that all of us constantly need to hone.
Collaborating with financial aid will lead to greater efficiency and produce a more confident group of employees. Counselors in both departments will be able to share their knowledge with one another and thus enhance the student recruitment experience. If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to reach out to your financial aid counterparts and begin the process of collaborating to build a stronger enrollment team.
Need help in creating a strategic game plan for your next class of students? You can bring Jeremy to campus to work with your admissions department this year. If you have questions, email Jeremy Tiers directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.