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

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.