Navigating the Changing Financial Aid Landscape

February 14, 2013 Heather Eckert
Navigating the Changing Financial Aid Landscape

The role and responsibilities of the admission professional have been evolving, as educational institutions realize the need for strategic thinkers who can thoughtfully negotiate the multifaceted demands of enrollment management and manage the critical nuances of the job (from data analysis to marketing and recruitment). Concurrently, the model for effective financial aid management in independent schools is shifting. Demonstrated financial need is still of paramount importance, but financial aid professionals must also effectively balance:

  • Navigating the art and science of fund allocation to provide access
  • Embracing and increasing diversity in all respects
  • Addressing the growing discrepancy regarding ability versus willingness to pay
  • Meeting immediate institutional goals while ensuring fiscal sustainability
  • Working within frequently challenging budget frameworks
  • Educating families on the value-added of our respective educational communities
  • Staying true to the missions of our schools and financial aid programs

From higher education to primary schools, affordability has become colloquial language when discussing educational options, and we all know that we are feeling the push and pull of such discourse on a daily basis. We recognize, as Andy Hoge discusses in his ALC January blog, “Diversity as an Economic Challenge,” that we need to maintain and expand diversity in the broadest sense of the word.

Yes, it is absolutely critical that we offer an opportunity for all deserving students to benefit from the independent learning communities we are committed to and believe in. And yes, such diversity ensures the health and success of our schools. We should all be striving to help our students become more deliberate global citizens and to develop the types of leaders we need in the 21st century.

However, while ensuring access and working to craft inclusive incoming classes that mirror the demographics of the real world, we cannot overlook that we are all operating within fiscal guidelines -- which for some schools can be extremely limiting or even prohibitive when filling opening after opening with strong, diverse, and mission-appropriate candidates.

This is when it is crucial that financial aid professionals, working in tandem with admission and business offices, assume a more strategic role beyond simply crunching numbers and relying on models such as tuition discounting to fill empty day spots or boarding beds. School and Student Services by NAIS (SSS) cites the following statistics, based on 2012-13 academic year data:

  1. The financial aid applicant pool has shifted towards higher-income families, with the typical aid applicant family more “well-off” than the typical US family overall.
  2. Those earning over $150,000 comprise, by far, the fastest growing segment of applicants seeking financial aid support over the past ten years, with more than 21 percent of aid applicants earning that much household income (compared to only about 6 percent of applicants ten years ago).
  3. The lowest-earning families, particularly those earning $40,000 or less, comprise just fewer than 20 percent of aid applicants, compared to nearly 30 percent of applicants ten years ago.

Addressing this shift in the financial application profile and new “middle” income bracket is a reality for all of us as we strive to preserve our integrity and maintain a need-based system in which families who truly warrant our assistance are the recipients of our precious financial aid monies. Throughout the application process, transparency is key as we navigate through difficult conversations with prospective parents. While discussing such realities as a family’s financial strength relative to other families is often not an easy exchange, it is crucial that we work to educate parents on the value-added of our educational institutions, while helping them see that we cannot always subsidize or be responsible for their financial choices over the years.

Communicating effectively, particularly when addressing situations in which students did not receive enough (or any) financial support, or when parents fail to comprehend the difference between ability versus willingness to contribute financially, requires great finesse. We should be tackling these challenging topics with the care and backing of the administrators at our schools and with the support of financial aid colleagues nationwide. And it goes without saying that we should universally be advocating for increasing our bottom lines with trustees, CFOs, and the like, and playing our part in making sure that our schools recognize the importance of financial aid and diversity on our individual campuses, appreciating their importance in the future of independent education.

Remember when you are knee-deep (or beyond) in admission and financial aid file review, that there are a number of networks that you can call on for guidance or support - whether you are in your first few years on the job, or a twenty-year financial aid veteran. Beyond resources provided by SSATB and SSS by NAIS, regional and local connections (such as our primarily New England/East coast consortium of financial aid professionals - AFAO - Association of Financial Aid Officers) importantly afford financial aid professionals the opportunity to discuss current trends, challenges, etc. and work together to tackle the increasingly complex financial aid landscape in our schools. If your area does not currently have such a network, or only has local or regional outlets for admission officers, I encourage you to investigate establishing such an association.

With tuition increasing at an average rate of 5.7% a year and incomes only increasing at an average of 1.16% over the past twenty years (1), affordability and access will likely become even more complicated for private educational institutions. It is imperative that we address and embrace the growing complexities we are facing and collaborate with each other so that we may continue to most effectively meet the missions of our financial aid programs and best serve our students and school populations.

(1) Mark Mitchell, SSS by NAIS: Vice President for School Information Services


"Merit vs. Diversity" - article by Eric Hoover, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 1/22/13

Financial Aid and the Recession - How did we do? A presentation by Alisa Evans and Amy Hammond, SSS by NAIS, at the 2011 SSATB Annual Meeting

Affordable Schools: Strategic Issues in Managing Financial Aid A presentation by Mike Flanagan, SSS by NAIS, at the 2011 SSATB Annual Meeting

Handling Ethical Gray Areas in Admission and Financial Aid A presentation by Sarah McDonough, Wakefield School, at the 2011 SSATB Annual Meeting

Leveraging Financial Aid - from the ALC Power Practices Compilation

Maintaining Enrollment in a Recession - A presentation by James Irwin Mitchell, Alexander Dawson School, at the 2009 SSATB Annual Meeting

What They Do When You Ask for More - an article by Kim Clark, U.S. News & World Report, 4/10/08

Aid Changes Raise Issue of Diversity at Colleges - article by Richard Perez-Pena, The New York Times, 11/30/12

Colleges Struggle to Preserve Financial Aid - article by Geraldine Fabricant, The New York Times, 11/10/08

Wealthy Parents Increasingly Seeking Financial Aid For K-12 Education - article by Emily Cohn, The Huffington Post, 5/9/12

Making $300K and getting financial aid for a first grader - article by Jessica Dickler, CNN Money, 5/9/12

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