How Financial Aid Practitioners Feel About Their Work
When I was in 10th grade, one of my favorite teachers said to me, “It’s the people that make the place.” I don’t remember what we were talking about, but this phrase has stuck with me. Working in the independent school community, it’s easy to see the evidence of how this rings true. When it comes to the evolving financial aid industry in our schools, I think about the state of the people who lead and perform the daily work of financial aid. As I consider the trends and issues schools face related to affordability, unpacking the changing state of office operations and aid policies is important. And so too is seeking insight into how practitioners interact, engage, and learn to improve their ability to achieve desired outcomes. The 2021 State of Financial Aid Survey (the third NAIS study of its kind since 2010) yields a few useful insights into what moves financial aid practitioners.
One lens through which to examine the state of financial aid is whether its practitioners are feeling satisfied with and positive about their work. In independent schools, the survey suggests that we’ve got some work to do. Fewer than 1 in 5 respondents (19%) reported feeling “extremely satisfied” while another 42% felt “very satisfied.” In 2010 and 2016, there was also a 62% combined satisfaction rate in these responses, and while this is favorable, it suggests that more can be done to improve the overall sense of job satisfaction among practitioners. Why are we stuck on this moderate level of satisfaction? And what elements of the work bolster or erode satisfaction?
An easy answer to improving satisfaction and impact is typically more money. If practitioners had more financial aid funding, the thinking would be, they could meet more of the need and better hit their enrollment and diversity goals. Overall, nearly half (49%) responded that additional financial aid funding was among their most immediate needs. Having a bigger budget does seem to be in step with higher levels of satisfaction. On average, the extremely satisfied group reported having an estimated $3.5 million aid budget, compared to just under $1.5 million for those not very satisfied. The most satisfied are nearly twice as likely (45%) than the least satisfied (24%) to feel that their aid budget is about the right amount to meet the demand.
More money drives satisfaction only to a point. For those most satisfied in their role, money wasn’t the most-often mentioned need. Half of the most satisfied (50%) noted “more time during the busy season” as a critical need, slightly above the 48% of them who cited “money.” For the least satisfied, money was the top need, noted by about 56% of those least satisfied, but their second most-pressing need was for training on making good decisions, with 41% having said so, making it a sizable issue to address.
So, while more money is one factor to help increase outcomes and satisfaction, it’s not the only thing to pay attention to. If schools are unable to resolve aid funding limitations, greater access to time and training can help practitioners do the work more effectively. With more time to commit to application review during the busy financial aid season and greater access to skills-building professional development and networks, schools can grow staff members’ confidence for making the best decisions amid limited funding. That will likely serve as a core contributor to improved satisfaction and impact. With 62% of all respondents agreeing that they require additional training, investing in those learning opportunities seems like low-hanging fruit for supporting the people who do this important work.
Since NAIS began this research in 2010, I’ve been especially intrigued by the degree to which there is alignment between what schools say is important in financial aid outcomes and how well they feel they’re delivering on those things. The survey seems to affirm that satisfaction is influenced by the sense that the work accomplishes the goals and outcomes that practitioners feel are the most important to achieve. If the work is not aligned with what is believed to be most valued, frustration is more likely to ensue, even if one has the time and skills to do the work well. To help paint this picture, the survey looks at the performance gap between how important a goal for financial aid investment is and how well that goal is being met.
Let’s consider access, the most highly rated objective of financial aid (in terms of importance) in the 2021 survey. While 92% of all respondents said it’s extremely or very important to achieve access through financial aid work, only 66% said they meet it extremely or very well. Among the extremely satisfied, 92% also rated access as highly important, but 82% cited they meet it extremely or very well. Meanwhile, the not-very-satisfied almost equally valued the objective (88%), but many fewer of them (46%) said they meet it well. Whether the goal was access, economic diversity or affordability, this pattern held true. For each objective, the extremely satisfied reported the highest performance rating, and satisfaction decreased as performance rating decreased. This suggests that feeling a sense of ability to perform against an important goal was more of a driver to satisfaction than how strongly important the goal was.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” It’s incumbent upon school leaders to be sure that the primary goals of financial aid strategy are clear and that they reflect important values the school believes in. But beyond that, it’s even more necessary for the professionals in charge to have the policies, resources, and tools needed to deliver on that promise. The larger the gap between the depth of commitment and the ability to deliver on it, the greater the potential for disharmony. Further, this means it is less likely financial aid professionals will feel their work is having an impact on the school or families, another key element of driving satisfaction. The survey showed that while 74% of the most satisfied reported having a “great” or “very great” impact on the school through their financial aid work, just 47% of the least satisfied felt the same.
As the financial aid season wraps up for many and continues along for others, the physical and emotional exhaustion that accompanies the complex and often high-stakes nature of decision-making can cloud the sense of accomplishment. Don’t miss the opportunity over the next several months to take stock of your financial aid practice. Do a pulse check on the impact that each financial aid practitioner felt when doing such rewarding and meaningful work. Did they have the time and training to make meaningful progress on achieving the important outcomes financial aid investment promises for the life of students and the life of the school? If “the people make the place,” let’s make sure the financial aid people in the place are lifted up, celebrated, and inspired to keep moving forward, changing lives, and making the mission happen. When this happens on a regular basis, we’ll know the state of financial aid in our schools is strong.