Financial aid overhaul will improve student satisfaction, officials say

Media Credit: Jack Fonseca | Staff Photographer

The University announced Tuesday that officials will match students with a financial aid adviser, launch a 24/7 chat service and debut an advisory council.

A slew of changes to the Office of Student Financial Assistance will help students better track and understand their financial aid packages, officials and experts said.

The University announced Tuesday that officials will match students with a financial aid adviser, launch a 24/7 chat service for students and families to ask questions and debut an advisory council comprised of students and administrators. Administrators and financial aid experts said the move will clear up any miscommunication in the office between students and staffers about aid processes.

Officials are also aiming to increase the number of automated documents in the office and hire more staff members but said they do not yet know how many employees will join the team.

“Students are going to feel the difference,” Laurie Koehler, the senior vice provost of enrollment and the student experience, said. “They are going to go and feel like they can get their questions answered, and if they can’t get their questions answered with the colonial services team, they know who to go to.”

Koehler said officials were initially considering changes to the financial aid office two years ago when the Free Application for Federal Student Aid allowed students to submit tax forms earlier and use different documentation.

She said officials hired an outside consultant from the firm Financial Aid Services to evaluate the financial aid office between October and December 2017. The consultant produced an internal report for the financial aid office and gave suggestions for improvements, she said.

A representative from Financial Aid Services did not return a request to comment.

Koehler said officials decided to assign students to individual advisers in the fall to answer “complex questions” about fulfilling financial aid requirements that might not be answered on the University’s website. She said they have not decided how many advisers will be available for students or how many students will be assigned to each adviser.

“This two-tier level of service providers are people who have more subject matter expertise in those areas and can answer more slightly complicated questions and are empowered to make decisions that, in the past, would have gone back to the home office,” Koehler said.

Michelle Arcieri, the executive director of the financial aid office, said the chat service – which will open for students in the fall – will be comprised of a “robust database” of financial aid information, including GW-specific documents. Students and their families can elevate a financial aid-related question that is not answered on the chatbot to a staff member, she said.

She added that the student advisory council, which will roll out this semester, will examine the language on the financial aid website to ensure information is properly communicated to students and their families. The council is still in its planning stages and will begin meeting later in the semester, she said.

“We think we have made the language simplified, but we’re still in our financial-aid world and sometimes it might not come clear to the students as we think,” she said.

Student Association President Ashley Le said the SA will oversee the council and enlist students “who are passionate about this issue.” While the number of students on the council has not yet been determined, those interested in joining can fill out a Google form, she said.

She said the council will initially focus on implementing an individual adviser model and act as a “general sounding board” for financial aid concerns.

“The council will advise the OSFA on student concerns, priorities for reform, and serve as a general sounding board for them while also keeping officials accountable to the commitments that they have made,” she said in an email.

Reed Elman, a senior adviser to the SA, said the council will have monthly meetings that will likely begin in February. He said the council is primarily focused on ensuring the group will “last for years to come.”

“That means building relationships with administrators, identifying community stakeholders and codifying the operation of the council,” he said in an email.

Changes to the office come amid vocal student concern about GW’s financial aid processes. A student alleged in the Facebook group “Overheard at GW” earlier this month that more than 60 students were still waiting for the office to process their financial aid packages at the start of the semester, which delayed some students from registering for classes.

Financial aid experts said the changes will alleviate concerns about poor communication and long wait times in the office by giving students multiple ways to ask and gather information about financial aid processes.

Kristan Venegas, a professor and the associate dean for faculty affairs at the University of La Verne in California, said the changes will speed up the office’s productivity because students can take their questions to the chatbot or adviser instead of an office employee. Officials could measure the changes using micro-surveys where students and families could fill out a small questionnaire immediately after using the service, Venegas said.

“All the different changes are all positive ones and students and families will feel more connected to financial aid,” she said.

Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, said the overhaul could mean the University is switching its focus to become more student-centered. He said officials could have decided to switch up the office because students are frustrated with the pace and communication of current staff assistance.

Kelchen added that by using a chatbot and upping the number of automated documents, students can work on financial aid materials outside of regular business hours.

“My guess is there’s underlying frustration about getting help for financial aid,” he said. “That it’s seen as a big bureaucratic office and there’s not enough support for students.”

Sarah Flanagan, the vice president for government relations and policy development at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said GW is at the “front end” of overhauling its financial aid office compared to other universities. She said students will be less likely to lose out on financial aid because they will better understand the application process, which could lead to an uptick in students applying for aid.

“They will make it smoother, easier for students to be able to get the help they need on deadline,” she said. “If it helps students, it’s going to be good for the University.”

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