When Academic Advising and Financial Aid Collide

In a guest post today, Allene Begley Curto explains the consequences well-intended academic advising can have on students’ financial-aid eligibility, and what aid offices can do to help avoid those problems. Ms. Curto, associate director of financial-aid services at Springfield College, was scheduled to moderate a panel on this topic at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators conference on Monday.

Faculty and administrators frequently operate in quite different spheres–even when the administrator is in academic affairs. When the administrator is in financial aid, it can appear that they’re operating in different universes.

Yet federal rules require financial-aid eligibility to be based on many factors that are driven by academic decisions, and faculty want to counsel students without causing unintended consequences for financial-aid eligibility.

The challenge for the financial-aid office is to provide necessary information to academic staff without burying them in financial-aid minutiae. Financial-aid offices need to offer brief bullet points of academic-counseling topics for which students need to understand the financial-aid implications to make informed decisions. Academic offices need to ensure that faculty and advisers are provided with this information and refer students to financial-aid counselors when needed. Changing enrollment status to full or part time, repeat courses, academic standing, and withdrawals are all factors that impact financial-aid eligibility. To make matters more confusing, the federal definitions of academic progress, withdrawals, leaves of absence, and many other terms do not always match the way faculty and academic staff define them.

Financial-aid rules are usually federal rules, so the aid office has limited to no ability to modify them. Students frequently are unaware that there may be a financial-aid impact of their academic decision or they believe that it won’t apply to them because the academic adviser recommended the action.

A student considering whether to drop a course, enroll part time, or take a leave of absence may never contact the financial-aid office–but he is at least likely to speak with his adviser or the instructor. What might happen when neither the student nor the faculty member has all the information? There is no eligibility for aid for a course in which the student never begins attendance, even if he remains registered for the course. If a student is not registered at least half time during a term, he will lose the in-school deferment on loan payments, even if he is working on incompletes or other unregistered academic work. If a student drops below half time in a term, he has no federal-loan eligibility for that term.  The list goes on!

Federal requirements also prompt data requests related to academic standing, registration status, attendance, and withdrawals. Those can be a challenge to provide when resources are limited. Financial-aid and academic offices need to work together with the information-technology department so that financial aid can receive accurate and timely data without creating extra work for academic offices. We need to develop partnerships to meet federal requirements that are intended to help ensure that students will succeed academically.

This is not a one-time task force project. Conversations need to occur frequently between financial-aid offices, registrars, academic deans, and faculty representatives. Our shared goal is for the student to successfully complete the program. Continued communication and collaboration is the key.

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