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Regulations

Three Ways to Strengthen Your Student Aid Department on a Tight Budget

  • Brenda Scherer
  • 6/26/2017

Lately, there’s been a lot of media attention on rising student debt and how it is weighing down borrowers, and coupled with the recent discovery of $6 billion in improper student aid payments across the industry, the negative coverage is causing the public to take an ever more skeptical view of colleges’ and universities’ financial student aid (FSA) programs. Higher education institutions like yours are being held under the microscope, and how your FSA department measures up is becoming critically important to your reputation and credibility with both borrowers and regulatory reviewers.

There are three essential things you can do to strengthen your student financial aid department to withstand both regulatory scrutiny and earn the public’s trust and confidence:

  • Ensure that policies and procedures provide airtight protection from non-compliance
  • Rapidly resolve previous audit findings (and prevent future findings)
  • Keep your people fully trained and informed on the latest regulations and compliance measures

Tighten up policies and procedures

Compliance requirements are numerous, onerous, and sometimes overwhelming. If you don’t get your policies and procedures under control, you can easily run afoul of federal regulations. The downfall of Corinthian Colleges, Inc.CC, for instance, started with the allegations of misrepresentation of the nature of their education programs. There are regulations designed to prevent such misrepresentations, and if you aren’t up to speed, your school could suffer a similar fate.

Before it becomes an issue you can’t ignore, conduct an assessment of your policies and procedures to ensure they are in compliance with federal regulations. The Information for Financial Aid Professionals (IFAP) website has a free FSA assessment tool that offers guidelines for a self-audit of your internal controls. The website provides simple checklists that make it much easier to assess risk so you can quickly address deficiencies.

If you have the funds and can get a third-party review of your policies and procedures, all the better. Engaging an outside professional to do an independent review will add deeper perspectives, insights, and recommendations for shoring up any weaknesses. This usually isn’t a cost-prohibitive engagement and can be done rather inexpensively, and the results are usually far greater than the price.

Resolve audit findings more quickly

Repeat findings are a red flag for regulators because they may indicate a lack in administrative capability. If you have had findings in your recent compliance reports, you could draw unwanted attention from auditors and risk added exposure to review (and therefore public distrust), so it is important to address the issues immediately.

One of the common obstacles to fast resolution, however, is a lack of manpower or expertise necessary to implement more compliance procedures. If that’s the case for your institution, too, you might consider grafting that knowledge into your FSA department with interim assistance.

For example, consider a college that had ongoing problems in its return to Title IV calculations (R2T4) related to students enrolled in modular courses. Modular courses were relatively new to the college, and staff members didn’t have the time outside their day-to-day duties to learn the complicated rules. The administration temporarily hired an accountant to train the staff and become a part of the review process for ensuring accurate calculations. Once a proven system was established and staff learned how to run the calculations, the review process was brought back in-house.

A discrete engagement with a well-defined goal can alleviate pressure on your staff, build their skills, and help keep your school compliant. It’s an efficient, worthwhile investment that pays dividends in competence and the effective use of staff time.

Economize continuing education

Regulations are constantly changing, and staff must be trained to stay on top of the latest updates. Lapses in training can cause lapses in policies and procedures, so ongoing education is critical to your compliance activities and accountability to the public.

But with limited resources, schools find it difficult to justify the expenses of sending multiple team members to conferences and learning sessions. You can economize by bringing an educator onsite to provide instruction tailored to your school’s needs. This allows you to more affordably give any number of your people the knowledge they need to fully and accurately comply with FSA regulations.

If your institution doesn’t have the resources in-house to strengthen procedures, address audit findings, or educate staff, you can still get affordable, temporary outside help fulfilling these functions in a way that mitigates expenditures while enhancing your staff’s skills and knowledge.

Most schools I work with tend to dismiss outsourced services because they think it means hiring a permanent temp worker or, worse, a high-priced consultant. But, really, it’s not much different than engaging a landscaper or housekeeper — someone with specific skills who lays the groundwork and then goes away, leaving your team to take it from there.

Bringing in outsourced professionals, for a time, who know the ins and outs of FSA regulations can lend you the insight and experience to withstand and respond to inspection and measure up to the public’s expectations.

How we can help

If you are like most institutions, your FSA department has necessarily grown leaner in recent years, and you may not have the resources to quickly resolve findings, complete FSA assessments, or meet your training needs. Outsourcing is a cost-effective way to strengthen your team and accomplish specific objectives. CLA’s higher education outsourced professionals can fill a variety of needs in portions that fit your budget and serve your goals.