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Balancing Technology and the Human Touch in Financial Aid

It's 1:30 pm on a Thursday afternoon in late April. You've managed to reduce the stack of incoming student files on your desk to 35; but all must be packaged by the end of the week so award letters can go out the following Monday. You have two graduating students coming in at 3:00 pm and 4:00 pm for exit interviews, and your boss needs the year-to-date report on work-study earnings by the end of the day. Fortunately, you can refer the graduating students to online exit counseling programs and the report writer feature on your need analysis software can easily capture work-study earnings. As you steal out of your office to grab a sandwich (thinking you can eat at your desk and possibly process ten more incoming student packages before your 3:00 pm appointment), you run into sophomore John S., who tells you his father just lost his job and he may have to leave school because the family can no longer contribute to John's education.

By choice or by force, over the last few years financial aid offices have become increasingly automated. This is partly a result of electronic reporting requirements for schools that receive federal funds, and also the explosion of software tools that do everything from need analysis to packaging to entrance and exit counseling. The newest federal initiatives include Access America (an outgrowth of Project EASI) and the Modernization Blueprint, both of which call for establishing Internet-based "self-servicing" options for schools and students.

As a pilot project, Access America will create a web gateway for students to access government services and make all transactions (including FAFSA and federal tax filing) online. For schools, lenders, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and others, it will provide a central student account for retrieving, recording and processing student data. A key component of Access America is approving a digital signature standard.

The Modernization Blueprint is a broad-based plan proposed by ED's Office of Student Financial Assistance to dislodge the "hairball" from the throat of the student aid delivery systems by overhauling technology systems and business models. The Blueprint encompasses Access America and goes beyond it. One of the proposed features of the plan is an "online personal assistant" that will answer questions and guide students through the FAFSA application and loan delivery processes.

All of these factors and initiatives have added momentum to the increasing dependence of the financial aid office on technology.

Unquestionably, technology has improved and streamlined many of the computational and processing-related tasks that financial aid administrators previously did by hand. And the basic goals behind the new federal initiatives to simplify and centralize access to student data are clearly needed and welcome. Yet, as the profession is transformed (like it or not), it's important to remember the core human aspects of financial aid administration that cannot be computerized.

In the typical aid office, 20 percent of students take up about 80 percent of a financial aid administrator's time. Most of that time is spent in conversation and counseling activities that do not lend themselves to online "self-service". Moreover, as long as students continue to bring individual life circumstances to their financial aid profiles, such as illustrated in the above scenario, professional (human) judgment will remain an important part of the field.

The single most important service we can provide is direct human contact to address student inquiries. Voice messaging and online information can be effective in handling certain routine questions, but at some point, students want and expect to speak directly with a financial aid counselor.

While technology has evolved to become an essential tool for all partners in student aid delivery, it's worth examining the lessons provided by pros like IBM's chairman and CEO Lou Gerstner Jr.: "technology changes much too quickly for any company to build a sustainable competitive advantage on that basis alone; more and more, the winning edge comes from how you help customers use technology."

As we (schools, lenders, federal agencies, and educators) look ahead and support efforts to further streamline the aid delivery system through technology, we should remember the fundamental, human aspects of providing access to higher education and financial aid services to students. Critical thinking, empathetic counseling, and professional judgment may be enhanced by technology, but they cannot be replaced by it. Perhaps the greatest gift we get from technology is that it frees us from routine tasks, allowing us to provide individualized one-on-one counseling to the students who need our help the most.

Kathleen Gibbons is an editor and project manager at Nellie Mae. She has previously served as a financial aid administrator at Harvard Medical School and was a writer and editor of financial aid training materials for NASFAA and the US Department of Education. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of FinAid.


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