Career: Financial Aid Officer
Anyone who has requested financial aid knows that the process takes you into the land of bureaucratic paperwork nightmares. Getting aid can be confusing and complex; an educational institution’s financial aid officers ferry applicants across this river of confusion safely and comfortably. FAOs assess students’ needs, determine eligibility, help complete paperwork, and work with loan-takers to make certain they pay the money back. Our respondents cited interpersonal skills and organizational abilities as the first and second most important strengths needed to succeed as a financial aid officer. People in the field express a strong degree of satisfaction in their choice of occupation. Many are former (or current) clients of the national financial aid system, and view their roles as student financial advocates. “It’s great to be the one helping people get money; it’s tougher when things don’t work out and there’s nothing you can do.”
Entry-level positions usually involve managing large paperwork caseloads, following current students through their changes in status and informing people of their obligations and options. Candidates should be comfortable with numbers and able to learn a complicated paperwork organization structure quickly. Those who enter the career should expect occasional brusqueness from clients of the system who are frustrated with the bureaucratic channels and invasive questioning that these loan programs require. Our surveys mentioned that the attitude of students who don’t receive all the financial aid they want is demoralizing; in many cases, they blame the messenger and lash out at the aid counselor. This can be frustrating, especially when one financial aid officer can be expected to handle up to 2,000 cases per year. The public’s often negative impressions of financial aid officers is another potential drawback.
A good financial aid counselor has to be familiar with the changing restrictions and obligations that face borrowers. The ability to elicit a fair assessment of the student’s current loan obligations, work situation, and prospective income is critical to the FAO, who must recommend an amount of money the student should request and determine what programs are available to help the student. Continuing education is very important in this field, and many financial aid officers go to conferences, seminars and lectures to keep abreast of current trends in financial aid.
No specific bachelor’s degree is required to become a financial aid officer, but coursework should include mathematics, statistics, or some financial topics; psychology and English are also helpful. A financial aid officer writes reports, recommendations, and memos, so strong writing skills are significant. Most important, however, a financial aid officer should be a good communicator, able to explain confusing and difficult concepts to people who may be at the end of their ropes. Listening skills were cited as the largest difference between a good and a bad financial aid officer. No official certification is required, but familiarity with Pell Grants, Stafford Loans, Plus Loans, Newman Grants, Federal Nursing Scholarships, and Perkins Loans is important.
Financial aid officers, while having a reasonable understanding of complex financial constructs, are statistically more likely to end up in human resources, career guidance, or individual counseling jobs than financial ones. The instinct that leads someone to become a financial aid officer lies somewhere between the desire to help others and the ability to manage a large bureaucracy. This mix is best suited to high-volume environments that involve a lot of contact with people, such as loan departments at banks or the vocational counseling departments of private companies.