Summer is here, which means financial aid season is just around the corner, and many of you will be opening digital piles of applications in September.
Taking a proactive approach to completing your K-12 financial aid prep tasks can help ease some of the burdens. We compiled a checklist of three tasks you can knock out before opening those applications. We also included some helpful tips for storing and managing student information, which can alleviate stress and save valuable time and money for your school.
1. Clean Your Data and Review Your Performance
Good data drives good decision-making. Ensure your information is accurate and up to date for all existing applications, especially if you previously stored and managed data across different applications. Using multiple systems for your data creates data silos, which can cause issues such as:
- Misplaced or otherwise hard-to-access data.
- Exceeding storage capacity.
- Inconsistencies in information between systems.
Consolidate, Organize and Clean Your Data
Consolidating all your information in one place is key to breaking down data silos and cleaning up your data. However, consolidation requires organization. Create a list of questions to help categorize your data. Here are a few examples to get you started:
- Are award statuses and amounts up to date and accurate?
- Is the demographic information correct?
- Is enrollment status up to date for all students?
Next, you’ll likely need to clean up some formatting inconsistencies. Check your data to ensure you have all dates formatted correctly, delete strange characters and crunch the numbers to ensure standardization.
You’ll also need a place to store your data once you’ve cleaned it up. SSS offers robust application data management and reporting tools that can help you automate and consolidate your data for accurate awarding, budgeting, and forecasting.
Analyze the Previous Year’s Performance
Once you feel confident in your data, review your financial aid performance from the previous school year. Note down all of your successes as well as areas where you could improve. You can utilize data analysis software programs to generate helpful insights for your purposes.
Here are a few questions you can use to guide your analysis:
- Did you allocate budgets for financial aid spending?
- How did your forecasting compare to actual results?
- Were there any trends in family acceptance or denial?
- What percentage of approved applicants ended up enrolling?
- Did a specific age group or demographic have more financial need than others?
- How many applicants were children of staff?
- Did the overall number of applications increase, decrease, or stay steady?
2. Take Stock of External Trends
Once you have a clear picture of your financial aid program’s internal performance, it’s time to look outwards. Determine what external factors and events could affect your financial aid strategy in the coming year. Keep an eye on social and economic trends such as:
- Economic outlook: Are there any signs that indicate an increased need for financial aid dollars in the coming year? Potential indicators of declining enrollment could include inflation, recession, mass layoffs, or even public health emergencies.
- Enrollment trends: What do independent school enrollment numbers look like in your region and the industry overall? Are they projected to increase or decrease? The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) website is a great resource for national enrollment statistics. You can also refer to your state’s Department of Education for more local information.
- Population trends: Dramatic population changes can significantly impact enrollment numbers. Decreasing or stagnating population growth will likely lead to declining enrollment, while positive population growth will likely boost your enrollment numbers.
3. Build Your Strategy
Next, you’ll need to build your financial aid strategy to feel confident going into the new season. For example, will you need to make your financial aid more competitive to attract mission-appropriate students? What steps can you take to accomplish this goal?
Do you need to provide more resources for first-time aid applicants? If so, what kinds of resources would be useful? For example, would it be helpful to provide step-by-step guides, infographics, or even video explanations?
How can you distribute this information? Considering how you can reach out to families is critical — it can help you cut significant time during the financial aid process and ensure you’re fully able to meet your students’ needs.
Set Up Your Budget
Use your findings from your analysis of the previous year to build a budget to address your problem areas. You should also focus on how you can set up this year’s budget to attract and retain mission-appropriate students. After all, you should make all decisions about your school with your mission in mind.
Use these questions to guide your decisions:
- What was your net tuition revenue last year after you disbursed all financial aid?
- How much do you need to raise your budget from last year to meet the needs of current and prospective students?
- What long-term effects could occur from granting financial aid to the same student throughout multiple grades?
Set Your Goals for the School Year
Now that you’ve established a budget and have a solid idea of how you performed last year, it’s time to set some goals for improving your performance moving forward. Investigate the following areas to determine what targets you should aim for:
- Percentage of needs met: Compare the number of students who had an unmet need last year to the number of students whose needs you were able to fulfill. This metric can illuminate the accessibility of your institution and potentially reveal areas where you could improve to attract more mission-appropriate students.
- Balance of grades served: Did you give more aid to younger or older students? Was there an equal balance among all grade levels? What would be a reasonable number to aim for this year?
- Gender distribution: Did one gender receive a disproportionate amount of financial aid? If so, consider how you could balance the playing field to distribute financial aid dollars more evenly.
- Boarding students vs. day students: If your school provides room and board, how many of each group of students should receive aid? How much aid should you award them?
- Racial and socioeconomic diversity: Take a look at the number of students from diverse backgrounds who received aid last year. Consider prioritizing these students in your awarding methodology if you notice an imbalance.
Choose Your Performance Indicators
Determine what reports or performance indicators you want to track to define success in the next financial aid season. Identifying your indicators early will let you get them prepped ahead of applications opening. Some examples include:
- Enrollment: Keep an eye on total, average, and median enrollment figures. You should also monitor the number of students who enroll after receiving a financial aid offer and compare it to the number of students who choose to enroll elsewhere.
- Unmet need: Note the number of students with unmet needs and the average amount of those needs. Use this number to establish goals for the next term.
- Grade level: Track the average amount of aid going to students in each grade and how many students per grade are receiving assistance.
- Returning students: Create cohort profiles of incoming students receiving aid. How many are returning students? How many are new? How many former students who were receiving aid have left for another institution?
- Day students vs. boarding: Monitor the numbers of boarding students and compare that to the number of day students — how many in each group received financial aid? How much of their tuition or room and board expenses did their aid package cover?
Leverage Data Management Technology to Streamline Your Strategy
Implementing financial aid data management software into your awarding process can simplify and organize critical data flows like student information and family contributions. If you want to streamline your financial aid season, consider investing in a data management tool.
When you’re comparing data management software for financial aid, consider the following:
- Automation: How much of the application and award process will be automated? Automating certain operations, like tax form verification, takes some of the burden off your department and reduces the risk of human error.
- User-friendliness: Whenever you invest in new technology for your school, you should ensure it has an intuitive, easy-to-use interface that even the least tech-savvy user can learn to navigate. Be sure to take advantage of live demos or free trials that let you get a real feel for the program before you make your final decision.
- Flexibility: Is this solution flexible enough to meet your needs? Ideally, you should be able to customize your chosen solution to include only the services and tools you need — this way, you’ll get the most cost-effective solution for your department.
- Transparency: Is the software provider upfront and open about their pricing and policies? This information should be easy to find on the provider’s website. If it’s a challenge to find even a mention of pricing or the information is confusing and poorly worded, it’s time to move on to the next option.
- Communication: Direct messaging and mass email features make it easy to connect with families and keep everyone on track. Look for options that let you handle all of your communication from the same dashboard.
- Integrations: Being able to integrate your financial aid software with your other software is essential for eliminating data silos and streamlining application processing. A solution that can integrate with programs you already use is the best choice, as you can save your institution money by reducing the need to invest in more software.
- Compliance: When it comes to cyberattacks, education is one of the most vulnerable sectors — cybercrime in education and research increased by an alarming 75% in 2021 alone. Make sure the software provider is PCI compliant. This status means they have a well-developed security process to prevent, detect and eliminate potential security breaches by securing all connections and performing frequent security tests.
Keep in mind that some software programs are developed specifically for certain types of schools. Some programs are designed with colleges and universities in mind, while others are intended for independent K-12 schools. Be sure to consider all your options to ensure the best fit for your institution.
Benefits of Data Management Software for Financial Aid
Dozens of data management solutions exist on the market. Choose software designed specifically for financial aid professionals to leverage your solution to its fullest potential. The top benefits of investing in financial aid data management software include:
- Eliminating paperwork: If your institution’s financial aid department still relies on paper forms, it’s time to go digital. You’ll save money by eliminating the need to print and mail physical documents. You’ll also streamline your file storage strategy by consolidating all your information in one easy-to-use database.
- Reducing stress: Financial aid season can be overwhelming, especially for large schools that have to read hundreds of applications every term. Data management software eases some of this burden by automating simple time-consuming processes, giving your department more time to make award decisions.
Of course, you need a solution that adequately suits your institution’s needs. Look for a company that offers a comprehensive software suite with scalable, customizable features. Technological tools will vary based on the amount of automation involved and the degree of flexibility they offer. Be sure to assess each of your options thoroughly before you invest.
Financial Aid Data Management Software from SSS
Our financial aid solution provides a convenient one-stop shop for financial aid departments and the families they serve. With powerful data insights at your fingertips, you’ll be better equipped to make award decisions that further your school’s mission.
From the moment a family selects your school, you’ll be able to track their aid application status right from your SSS dashboard. The software stores all their information — including their guardians’ financial statement (PFS) and estimated contribution — in a dedicated folder, which you can access within one hour of submission. The consolidated information and quick access give you back the time you would otherwise spend searching for individual documents in folder after folder.
Our software uses the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) equation to estimate the amount a family can contribute. Our platform also automatically verifies guardian-submitted tax forms. This comprehensive data empowers you to make well-informed award decisions, letting you strategize more effectively for the next financial aid season.
Simplify Financial Aid Prep With School and Student Services
Cleaning your data and building out your strategies for the next school year helps ease some of the administrative burden for the following season. With the time you save, you can focus on getting to know your families and making the best awarding decisions possible.
At School and Student Services, we’re here to help you move your institution forward. Download our Year-End Best Practices ebook for some helpful financial aid prep tips and feel free to contact us with any questions you may have about our data management tools. We’d love to hear from you.