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The Cash Connection: Understanding the Role of Financial Aid in Academic Advising
Authored by: Jeanette L. Pellegrin and  Jennifer L. Zabokrtsky  
2009

“East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.” This might have been true in Kipling’s time, but today a more global approach to information seems the norm. After all, we are in the information age, the age of the Internet superhighway, where any reader can access information and become an expert in minutes. That’s why it’s so surprising to find there’s still an information gap – sometimes a chasm – between academic advising and financial aid.

It’s well-known that advisors today are busier than ever, responsible as they are for hundreds or even thousands of students. Many, if not most, advisors feel they simply don’t have the time to learn the rudiments of what is essentially not their job and therefore, they believe, not their concern. But there’s the rub: financial aid is every advisor’s concern because it is every student’s concern. Even trust-fund babies have to be aware of the ratio of their college costs to their expense accounts. How much more must financial aid concern the majority of students who rely on it? In the 2006/2007 academic year, fully 73% of incoming freshman used financial aid – and that was down from a previous level of 75% (National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators [NASFAA], 2009). More than $143 billion was distributed in financial aid to college students in the 2007/2008 academic year alone (College Board, 2008). Clearly , financial aid is the monetary lifeblood for college students and thus of primary concern to them. It behooves the advisor, then, to know at least the basics of the financial aid system in order to advise effectively.

Not all advisors believe they have the time for such seeming-altruism. They might not see the immediate benefit in taking the time to learn another department’s basic operations –it’s hard enough as it is to find time to provide primary advising to each new student, not to mention the time spent approving drops and withdrawals, making referrals for retention, dealing with the multitude of duties created when a student goes on probation or suspension. How often, though, do those problems find their genesis in a basic ignorance of the financial aid program? How many students sign up for a full load of classes, only to be forced to withdraw or drop because they found out they didn’t have enough funding after a deadline was missed or a form was filled out incorrectly? How many drop down in the amount of credit hours enrolled to allow for the hours of a part-time job they didn’t know they would need? How many are lost entirely when their academic progress suffers as a result of taking too many classes at once because they didn’t realize they didn’t have to enroll full time in order to receive aid? In short, how many advising headaches are the results of a lack of communication regarding financial aid? For the advisor, a few short networking sessions with a financial aid counterpart could have saved hours of effort unsnarling the tangled wreckage of a student’s degree progression or counseling distraught students dealing with funding snafus. Obviously, today’s advisors don’t have the time NOT to be familiar with their school’s financial aid program.

Yet many advisors don’t know SAR from SAP. This not only makes their jobs harder in terms of advising, but leaves the student without valuable information which can determine in the long run whether or not that student will graduate. Zabokrtsky (2009) in a recent survey, noted that college financial aid representatives were asked “What do you wish the academic advisors at your institutions knew about financial aid?” The most common responses were:

  • Deadlines: what needs to be submitted and by when in order for students to be considered for aid
  • How a student’s academic progress (or lack thereof, if that’s the case) affects his or her financial aid availability
  • The fact that a variety of financial aid – each with specific eligibility requirements and deadlines – is available at most institutions
  • Financial aid is typically available to students enrolling in less than full time hours, but the amount awarded will decrease accordingly
  • There is a maximum number of credit hours, or “ceiling”, for which a student can receive financial aid
  • In general students should only expect to receive financial aid for those courses that are required for the students’ stated major and degree intention
  • There are two basic categories of financial aid: Need-based and Non Need-Based
  • Referrals to the financial aid office should be made as early as possible

This barely scratches the surface of the intricacies of financial aid, but it’s a start. Other questions that frequently pop up in meetings with advisees include:

  •  What types of aid are out there? Are scholarships a possibility?
  •  What’s the difference between a loan and a grant?
  •  What are the requirements a student must meet to be considered financially independent of his or her parents?
  • What is the application process and how long should it take? And of course, the all-important:
  •  When is financial aid disbursement?

An informed advisor can answer these basic questions easily, without having to go into detail that is best left to the financial aid department. Furthermore, the fact that some of these questions are being asked can help an advisor clue in to unspoken needs and concerns of the student. For example, if a question concerning finding funding for childcare crops up, the advisor has learned that the student is facing other challenges than just class work. A question regarding eligibility for financial aid if a student has defaulted on loans at a previous college can raise a plethora of new issues to discuss. These tidbits help the advisor form a picture of the student as a whole, and help to anticipate any possible barriers to student success.

Happily, getting the information advisors need about student financial aid is a fast and fairly painless process. There are two areas the advisor needs to know: the basics of the federal financial aid program and the financial aid process as pertaining to the advisor’s college. A good way to learn about the federal financial aid program as a whole is to access the many websites provided for students themselves. Some of the more user- friendly include:

  • The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA; the financial aid equivalent to NACADA). Their “Parents and Students” section will likely answer any question you have about how the process works overall. http://www.nasfaa.org
  • Student Aid on the Web: This official site of federal financial aid includes a tool called the FAFSA4caster, which helps students estimate how much federal financial aid they may be awarded. www.studentaid.ed.gov
  • Free Application for Student Financial Aid: The site where students actually apply for federal financial aid, as well as see specific deadlines, apply for a PIN number and more. https://fafsa.ed.gov

A few minutes spent at any of these sites will give the advisor an understanding of the fundamentals of federal financial aid; certainly enough to answer most of their advisees’ basic questions. The next step is to learn about the financial aid process in the advisor’s college. The advisor should begin by reading the college catalog’s section on financial aid, where information specific to the college such as application deadlines, disbursement dates, etc. are to be found. It’s also a good idea to access any information given to the students directly, such as pamphlets, tip sheets or website information. That way the advisor is sure to know at least as much as the advisee, and can use the information to anticipate students’ questions.

Once the foundation of information is in place, the advisor should then take the most important step of all: connecting with his or her counterpart in the financial aid office. The advisor should arrange a short meeting and bring along a list of any questions that have arisen. The advisor should be sure the meeting is give and take by asking what information the financial aid office would like to see advisors impart to the students.

Finally, a busy advisor knows the value of quick information quickly accessed; in other words, a cheat sheet. Basic information about eligibility for scholarships or other aid, deadlines for applications, dates of disbursement, names and contact information of financial aid department members for student referrals, etc., should be typed up and stored where it can be easily reached.

The relatively small amount of time it takes to become familiar with the financial aid system in one’s college will be amply repaid in time saved from advisee return visits. Less time will be spent rebuilding student’s schedules and soothing frantic students whose funding has fallen through. Additionally, helping students understand the correlation between passing grades and continuance of financial aid will lessen the amount of time spent in retention referrals and counseling. Not the least important in these days of staff cutbacks is the fact that the advisor who understands his or her college’s financial aid policies as well as the basic working of the financial aid system as a whole has an edge over other advisors who do not. Knowledge is not only power, it’s enhanced job security. The advisor will have increased his or her value to the college by recognizing and supporting the synergy that must exist between support staff departments in order for everyone’s job to run smoothly.

Authored by: 

Jeanette L. Pellegrin
Outreach Advisor
Cloud County Community College

Jennifer L. Zabokrtsky
Student Services Specialist
Geary County Campus
Cloud County Community College


Discussion Questions

  1. What problems/questions typically arise in the course of advising a student that involves financial aid?
  2. What do you wish you knew more about regarding your college's financial aid process?
  3. Why is it important for advisors to be able to answer basic FA questions?
  4. What is most important for advisors to know regarding FA?
  5. Can you identify the different types of FA available at your college?
  6. How can you incorporate basic FA info into your advising sessions?
  7. How do you (or your advisees) access FA info at your college?

Related resources: 


References

College Board. (2008). Trends in student aid . Retrieved from http://www.collegeboard.com/html/costs/aid/

National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. (2009). NCES issues data on financial aid, enrollment and graduate rates.

Zabokrtsky, J.L. (2009) Survey of Kansas Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators members (unpublished data).


Cite this using APA style as:

Gregory, J.L. & Zabokrtsky, J.L. (2009). The Cash Connection: Understanding the Role of Financial Aid in Academic Advising. Retrieved -insert today's date- from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources website http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/tabid/3318/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/1170/article.aspx 

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