When student aid kicked in at the start of the fall semester, the University of Texas at Arlington financial aid office just couldn’t keep up. E-mails and phone calls from students and parents were pouring into the office. And while the employees were doing their best, some questions went unanswered for a few weeks. Like many other colleges and universities across the country, the financial aid office was understaffed.
Since mid-July, UT Arlington’s financial aid staff have lost eight employees, more than 20 percent of its workforce. And even though things have calmed down since the start of the academic year, the office is still working to fill vacancies, said Karen Krause, executive director of the Office of Financial Aid, Scholarships and from the treatment of veterans benefits to college.
Staff shortages at UT Arlington and other college financial aid offices are not necessarily unique. The United States faces a widespread labor shortage, from nurses to pizza delivery people. In higher education, labor shortages extend to all facets of campus life, including mess halls. But having fewer employees in the financial aid office can have consequences that go beyond longer client wait times.
“Not only does this diminish student services, especially at a time when students need help the most, but understaffing can also have a big impact on a school’s ability to comply with the litany. federal and state requirements, ”said Justin Draeger. , President and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
That compliance is particularly important now, with a new presidential administration planning to crack down on institutions that violate federal student aid program rules. The Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid Office recently announced it was reactivating the Enforcement Office – which no longer had priority under the Trump administration – to “strengthen surveillance and measures enforcement against post-secondary schools that participate in federal student loan, scholarship and work-study programs.
“Ultimately, schools can pay now – by hiring and retaining staff – or pay later, when they are found to be non-compliant and face potential federal fines and penalties,” Draeger said.
St. Petersburg College in St. Petersburg, Florida has had about five vacancies in its financial aid office over the past year and expects four or five more openings over the next year. According to Wayne Kruger, executive director of financial aid operations, their losses come both from long-time employees who are retiring and from younger employees who are looking to other opportunities.
The college is unable to compete in today’s job market which favors employees over employers, Kruger said, since it cannot pay wages comparable to those workers can find in the private sector, by especially for jobs in the field of information technology. At the same time, employers lose a lot of institutional knowledge from employees who have spent decades working in financial aid in St. Petersburg.
“Financial aid is the type of profession where you really can’t get off the streets and jump right in,” Kruger said. “There are posts in higher education that are easier to fill than your skilled jobs like those in your financial aid. We really can’t afford to bring in someone who has no financial aid experience.
While there is no quantitative data showing an increased staff shortage in financial aid offices, observational data indicates that this is a widespread trend, Draeger said. At a meeting last month for financial aid administrators in the Midwest, the majority of attendees indicated that they had vacancies in their offices. And over the past year, NASFAA has noticed an increase in institutions’ interest in the temporary staffing assistance provided by the association.
The financial aid offices of UT Arlington and St. Petersburg have thought creatively about how to hire new employees and alleviate the challenges of the shortage. When financial aid workers leave St. Petersburg, Kruger takes the opportunity to make better use of technology and find ways to streamline and automate some of the office’s processes. They focus on cross-training employees – especially throughout the pandemic and working remotely – so that multiple people can help out if someone in a key position leaves. The college has also been successful in filling vacancies by hiring work-study students who are already well-trained and familiar with the office.
Krause said she emphasized the perks UT Arlington offers – such as fully paid insurance and twice-weekly remote work – as a way to attract potential employees to positions that need to be. provided but whose wages are lower. She is also working with other offices at the university to determine how their communications on outstanding balances and spring semester aid disbursements can be timely without leaving students with more questions than answers – preventing the office from dealing with another call and email overload in January.
“I think with the pandemic, and being away and coming back, I felt like students and parents needed more this fall to get that reassurance of information,” Krause said. . “I hope as we move away from the pandemic things will get a little more normal again – whatever normal is. “