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A Day in the Life of a 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.

Paying Your Dues

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.

Present and Future

Educational financial aid began with the influx of post World War II GIs returning to school on the GI bill. The federal government decided to encourage the rapid growth of enrollment by providing guarantees on low-interest loans for those who wished to return to college. In the initial years of these programs, students had a phenomenally high rate of repayment of loans-so much so that the private sector clamored to become involved. With the astronomical rise of the cost of education in the 1980s, many banks began to move away from this position, fearing that the burden of educational debt might be too great for many to bear. Financial aid officers’ roles are growing in number and importance; even moderately well-off families need to borrow some amount to send a single child to college. The big question surrounding this profession is: What role will the government play during times of economic budget slashing? As large cuts loom on the horizon, institutional educational support seems to be waning, and the declining statistics of student loan repayments may be the final nail in subsidized education’s coffin. But then financial aid officers may need to be all the more creative in finding ways to help students pay for college.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

Junior financial aid officers are thrown into the mix headfirst: Assigned cases on their first day. A “sink-or-swim” attitude is part of the entry-level trial that faces the beginning FAO, although coworkers are cited as extremely helpful in making sure that new employees don’t flounder too much. At times, difficult cases are routed away or reassigned from new personnel. By the end of the first two years, FAOs have received two educations: one on how to network through financial aid systems, another on how to work as part of a supportive team.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Pay rises, though not enough according to many. Responsibility and hours increase, and the level of difficulty of the casework assigned rises. Those who have achieved senior status in the office have some supervisory responsibility, and may work with the budget and financial offices of the university to reconcile accounts and ensure the smooth progression of money from promise to actual payment. Exit interviews, in which borrower’s obligations are explained to them in stark terms, are part of the daily routine. Those interested in progressing within university administrations take courses in other areas such as management and policy to supplement their skills.

TEN YEARS OUT

Many ten-year veterans are running financial aid offices by this point, and a significant number of them have switched universities to pursue opportunities. Those who remain “caseworkers” have decided that the managerial life is not for them and that they prefer client contact and student interaction. Those who leave after ten years only do so because of unique opportunities, burnout from exhaustion, or retirement.