Technology Doesn’t Improve Financial Aid, People Do: An Interview

Higher Education

Com­put­ers com­pute – they don’t make judg­ments.  That’s one of many sen­ti­ments expressed dur­ing a recent inter­view with a finan­cial aid direc­tor in the Cal­i­for­nia com­mu­ni­ty col­lege sys­tem.  I want­ed to get a feel for how the adop­tion of tech­nol­o­gy helps or hin­ders peo­ple like him and his depart­ment, and the 20-year vet­er­an of col­lege finan­cial ser­vices shared con­cerns and rec­om­men­da­tions that tran­scend FA and speak to a greater chal­lenge in high­er edu­ca­tion.

John* start­ed as a finan­cial aid tech­ni­cian, and over the last 20 years he’s made a name for him­self as a prag­mat­ic and effi­cient Finan­cial Aid Direc­tor.  He sat down with me recent­ly and talked frankly about how he has seen Finan­cial Aid at com­mu­ni­ty col­leges go from a once pure­ly paper-dri­ven process to an almost exclu­sive­ly tech­nol­o­gy-dri­ven one.

Finan­cial aid is an enor­mous­ly com­plex process of han­dling mul­ti­ple files per stu­dent to ensure that they are get­ting fund­ing appro­pri­ate for their edu­ca­tion.  Some­times this involves stu­dent loan appli­ca­tions; oth­er times this involves audit ver­i­fi­ca­tion doc­u­ments that have the poten­tial to dis­rupt a college’s Title IV eli­gi­bil­i­ty.  Even with the lat­est and great­est tech­nol­o­gy, it takes human cap­i­tal and an invest­ment in per­son­nel to keep the finan­cial aid func­tions oper­a­tional and effi­cient — which does have an effect on stu­dent out­comes.

Finan­cial Aid is a nec­es­sary func­tion of col­lege oper­a­tions, a stu­dent-cen­tered ser­vice, and peo­ple who work in FA often do so out of a sense of doing well that keeps peo­ple in the busi­ness,” he told me in a fol­low-up con­ver­sa­tion after the inter­view.  For John, when new tech­nol­o­gy comes in and promis­es to solve prob­lems, he can’t quite fig­ure out why the col­lege wants to invest more in soft­ware than it does in peo­ple.  “Com­put­ers com­pute — they don’t make judg­ments.”

In fact, in dig­i­tiz­ing the finan­cial aid process, the peo­ple tasked with rolling out a new tech­nol­o­gy often dis­cov­er hid­den prob­lems that no one at the insti­tu­tion even knew about.  “When you can stream­line the tedious, monot­o­nous tasks, you can then focus on things that you didn’t even real­ize were prob­lems.”

Adopt­ing tech­nol­o­gy is only half of the solu­tion, not the solu­tion. There’s a sec­ond part to it:  how tech­nol­o­gy actu­al­ly changes process­es. “Tech­nol­o­gy may help improve your job but it doesn’t show where you’re lack­ing.”

Of course, col­lege lead­er­ship has a big part in the roll-out of tech­nol­o­gy, espe­cial­ly when it comes to essen­tial ser­vices and depart­ments like Finan­cial Aid.  If lead­ers are unwill­ing to involve those front-line work­ers in the selec­tion and adop­tion process, solv­ing one set of chal­lenges only leads to new ones being sur­faced.  John says lead­ers are the ones who should be tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty — but they often don’t.

When you try to bring up an issue that no one else has talked about,” he said, “peo­ple are resis­tant to acknowl­edge it as an issue.  If, when fix­ing your house, you final­ly get around to pulling up the car­pet and dis­cov­er that there is rot and mold under­neath, do you shrug your shoul­ders and just say, ‘well, I haven’t noticed any prob­lems,’ or do you pull up the car­pet and fix the prob­lem?”

I asked John why the tech­nol­o­gy adop­tion process was this was, and he said that it might be because lead­ers in high­er edu­ca­tion are wor­ried about appear­ances more than account­abil­i­ty.  “If we get some­thing cut­ting edge then may­be we’ll be pop­u­lar.  That’s what it seems like peo­ple are think­ing.  We’re more con­cerned with look­ing good than actu­al­ly improv­ing.  If things mess up, no one will go to jail or have to pay a fine.  It’s doubt­ful any­one will lose their job.  Except me, of course [laughs].”

There’s no doubt about it:  a college’s finan­cial aid depart­ment is a cru­cial com­po­nent to col­lege oper­a­tions, and new tech­nol­o­gy is a ben­e­fit if and only if imple­ment­ed prop­er­ly.  The effi­cien­cy and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty of new tools are a direct result of the com­pe­tence and abil­i­ties of the staff that are hired to used it.  For this rea­son, invest­ment in new tech­nol­o­gy should not be made in a vac­u­um; care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion of how new tech­nol­o­gy may impact exist­ing process­es – and what should hap­pen if new prob­lems occur as a result of the new tech­nol­o­gy – needs to hap­pen from the begin­ning.

The full tran­script of the orig­i­nal inter­view is below.

Do you have any con­sid­er­a­tions for high­er edu­ca­tion lead­ers who are look­ing to adopt new tech­nolo­gies in your depart­ment?  Leave a com­ment at the end of this arti­cle!

Full Transcript

  • I” rep­re­sents the Inter­view­er
  • D” rep­re­sents the Finan­cial Aid Direc­tor

I: I’m study­ing the effect of tech­nol­o­gy on high­er edu­ca­tion lead­er­ship – specif­i­cal­ly, how it affects finan­cial aid affairs.  Where would you start if you were me?

D: Tech­nol­o­gy always comes with its issues.  It doesn’t mat­ter what depart­ment you’re in [laughs].  It’s like any oth­er facet of live.  Think of it like agri­cul­ture: the more crop you grow, the more prob­lems you get.  I guess in that regard I would start with the incep­tion of tech­nol­o­gy.  You know, where did we come from, how did we get here, all that.

I: What do you mean by that?

D: Well tech­nol­o­gy isn’t a new thing.  We only recent­ly – I mean, it was in my life­time that we con­vert­ed from paper-based work to com­put­ers. FAF­SAs used to be all by hand.  You’d have to request tax data; employ­ees would man­u­al­ly cal­cu­late the needs analy­ses; we’d have to hand-write and hand com­pute the expect­ed fam­i­ly con­tri­bu­tions.  It wasn’t until about 1995 that the feds start­ed to auto­mat­i­cal­ly cal­cu­late the EFCs.  In fact, fair­ly recent­ly all the paper FAF­SAs used to be stored in big box­es – cas­es of forms – with one mas­sive file like a  few inch­es thick some­times per stu­dent.  And you’d have to keep them; you couldn’t shred them for about six to sev­en years.

I: So the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment adopt­ed tech­nol­o­gy in the mid 90s?

D: Yeah, well, they made free soft­ware, too, for finan­cial aid peo­ple.  You could down­load data to your com­put­er for stu­dent data analy­sis or com­put­ing or what­ev­er.  It was very archaic, real­ly.  There was also this spring of paid solu­tions which were way, way more robust than any­thing the gov­ern­ment put out.  They could do all the­se new things that we didn’t even know we want­ed to do.  I think what hap­pened ear­ly on is that peo­ple saw what we could do with tech­nol­o­gy – charts, and graphs, and fan­cy regres­sion lines and what­not – and they start­ed to say that’s what we need­ed, that right there.  It’s fun­ny because it’s like, here’s this new soft­ware, okay, look at what this can do, and then an admin­is­tra­tor comes along and says let’s do that from now on.  Now sud­den­ly you’re not only respon­si­ble for your job before, now you’re also in charge of this new thing.  I think real­ly what we saw was that tech­nol­o­gy allows you to become more aware of issues, even ones you didn’t know about, but that aware­ness cre­ates its own respon­si­bil­i­ties.

I: How did tech­nol­o­gy start to influ­ence finan­cial aid oper­a­tions at a col­lege?

D: Well at first a lot of peo­ple were still using paper.  When they’d install some of the­se pro­grams they’d see that, okay, well before it would take a few weeks to process a FAFSA now we can do it instan­ta­neous.  Amaz­ing.  We need this, you know?  It made the peo­ple who were drown­ing in paper – it gave them an eas­ier way to under­stand the FAFSA doc­u­ments, eas­ier way to process them, faster, all that.  But see, with all that we still real­ized that the faster you can process finan­cial aid doc­u­ments the more of an oppor­tu­ni­ty you get to dis­cov­er prob­lems under the rug.  And there’s always prob­lems any­where you go.  Espe­cial­ly in finan­cial aid.

One of the big prob­lems here though is that lead­er­ship wants to shove new tech down your throat with­out real­ly think­ing about the impact.  But it’s like, if we get some­thing cut­ting edge then may­be we’ll be pop­u­lar.  Like they’re not wor­ried about the impact on finan­cial aid, they’re wor­ried about what they look like to oth­er col­leges, to the state, to oth­er – I don’t know.  I guess my thing is, if admin­is­tra­tors care about stu­dents, and stu­dents are in my office cry­ing about Finan­cial Aid, then why aren’t they doing some­thing to improve the FA process?  We’re more con­cerned with look­ing good than actu­al­ly improv­ing.  I mean, I put this infor­ma­tion in my annu­al review but I feel like it’s lost in the crowd.

I: What are some exam­ples of how tech­nol­o­gy is influ­enc­ing finan­cial aid?

D: Orga­ni­za­tion for one.  The skillset hasn’t changed, real­ly, but now we can orga­nize our stuff faster and do our job faster.  That also doesn’t mean we are done faster.  No way.  We were drown­ing in paper­work before, now we’re just keep­ing our head above water.  Still got an ocean of appli­ca­tions, papers, reg­u­la­tions, all that.  The bar­ri­er to entry is about the same, so that hasn’t changed.  You still need to know what you’re look­ing at.  A new pro­gram isn’t going to teach you that.  It’s not going to give you the instincts and intu­ition nec­es­sary for this posi­tion.  So yeah, it cer­tain­ly sped up the process but still required a lot of skills.  Oh, a good influ­ence is the speed at which we can process things.  We can do huge bulk pro­cess­ing now.  Couldn’t real­ly do that with paper.  It’s like a CPA doing a 1040EZ ver­sus hav­ing to sit down with all your receipts and item­ize every­thing for you.

I: Has there been any neg­a­tive effects of tech­nol­o­gy?

D: Well it sped things up, but in doing so now we have more room to dis­cov­er errors.  We have faster tools to tell us when some­thing is wrong.  Unfor­tu­nate­ly, we don’t have more per­son­nel.  Every col­lege I have ever worked at has under­staffed their finan­cial aid office, which means that even with the best tech­nol­o­gy we are not going to have the pow­er to fix it.  Now we just have more peo­ple in the room hav­ing to turn a blind eye and shrug their shoul­ders.  It’s like, okay I can process this stu­dent or I can go back and fix anoth­er stu­dent.  Which one does the col­lege care about?  Prob­a­bly the first one, because they’re bring­ing in new mon­ey.  I guess there’s also this large out­side atten­tion fac­tor, too.  With process­es stream­lined now we have state and fed­er­al and who knows what oth­er orga­ni­za­tion­al gov­er­nance thing look­ing at our data and audit­ing us and ask­ing ques­tion.

I: Are there any bar­ri­ers to tech­nol­o­gy adop­tion in all this?

D: Bar­ri­ers?  Well sure there’s the whole sta­tus quo thing.  Peo­ple are com­fort­able with the sta­tus quo.  They don’t like to change.  And I’m talk­ing about the lead­er­ship, too, you know.  You bring up – you try to bring up issues that no one else has talked about before, and you’re told that it’s a non-issue before you got here.  It was a non-issue.   Why are you say­ing this now?  Well, the issue has always been there, but when you bring it up it’s like you’re the one who did it.  If, when fix­ing your house, you final­ly get around to pulling up the car­pet and dis­cov­er that there is rot and mold under­neath, do you shrug your shoul­ders and just say, “well, I haven’t noticed any prob­lems,” or do you pull up the car­pet and fix the prob­lem?  But it’s almost like it’s a selec­tive clue­less­ness.  You make the deci­sion so I don’t have to.  You are the direc­tor of finan­cial aid.  No one is per­son­al­ly account­able, or no one wants to be.  No one will lose their job, go to jail… Any­way, we don’t real­ly have the staff to do every­thing so some things fall to the wayside any­way.

I: What advice would you give to a new lead­er in high­er edu­ca­tion with regard to finan­cial aid?

D: I think when tech­nol­o­gy gives you the abil­i­ty to stream­line the tedious, monot­o­nous tasks, you can focus on effi­cien­cy.  But effi­cien­cy requires staff.  Don’t ever for­get that.  The best com­put­er in the world still needs some­one to press the but­tons.

*:  John’s name has been changed to pre­serve his pri­va­cy.

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