Turning Financial-Aid and Admissions Staffs Into an Enrollment Team

Melanie_WeaverTraining admissions and financial-aid staff members to do one another’s jobs can be a challenge, but it can make for a smoother enrollment process for students and their families. In a guest post, Melanie Weaver describes what happened when Ohio Northern University cross-trained its enrollment staff. Ms. Weaver, the university’s director of financial aid, is scheduled to present on the topic this week at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators’ annual meeting, in Nashville.

What if I told you that your admissions counselors could be trained to talk with students about financial aid and your financial-aid counselors could be trained to help in admissions? The truth is, it can be done. About two years ago the enrollment-leadership team at Ohio Northern University embarked on an effort to cross-train all of our counselors.

We did this largely out of necessity. Budget cuts and loss of staff had affected both offices and made it more difficult to get our jobs done. We knew that families still needed a lot of help from us, and we wanted to be efficient in providing it.

We also knew that prospective students’ visits to the campus were critical to enrollment, so we were looking for a way to provide an excellent visit experience for them and their families.

In addition, we had a mission to build a stronger enrollment team. We wanted counselors in both offices to view themselves as part of an enrollment team, instead of considering themselves as just financial-aid or admissions counselors.

Finally, we were looking for cost savings and greater efficiency. Members of our admissions team found themselves spending more time and money traveling back to the office on the days when we expected many campus visitors. That also meant they were missing opportunities to stay out on the road and recruit. Busy times for the admissions staff were in the fall during travel—a comparatively slow time for financial aid. Conversely, packaging season in the spring put pressure on financial-aid staff members that could be somewhat alleviated by help from admissions counselors.

We trained all financial-aid counselors to fill the role of admissions counselors during prospective-student visits. The aid counselors learned what to talk about and how to talk about it. They learned how to meet with families and discuss the application process, potential majors, and highlights of the university. In turn, admissions counselors were taught how to give financial-aid estimates and walk families through the financial-aid process. They learned more about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and student-loan opportunities.

That allowed for a seamless admissions visit for students and their families, no matter what counselor they met with. A family could get admissions and financial-aid information in one meeting without being shuffled between offices.

Of course we had our challenges along the way—staff members were being asked to step outside their comfort zones—but we also saw benefits. The knowledge our financial-aid counselors gained has helped them “close the deal” with students and their families. Financial aid often makes or breaks a student’s decision on whether to enroll, so it has been helpful for our aid staff to know more about job-placement rates, program highlights, and return on investment. That way, they can explain our value as well as our cost.

Our admissions counselors have also benefited. They can answer families’ questions about aid, and even provide net-price estimates, long before a family talks to the aid office. With our new process, financial-aid counselors fill in for admissions during the fall, when admissions counselors are busy with high-school visits and college fairs. Admissions counselors can now offer a financial-aid estimate to all families they meet with and make financial-aid phone calls to families in the spring after award packages are sent.

In the end, all counselors have learned more about walking families through the enrollment process from start to finish. Counselors have developed relationships with families and continued that bond through the college decision. We have become more efficient and knowledgeable as an enrollment team, and the cross-training initiative has given our counselors important skills for their own personal development and growth in the field of enrollment management.

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