Wednesday, February 01, 2012


Communication Chains

“Why don’t we just automate all of our routine mail?”

It all started so innocently, with such a seemingly logical question...

The folks who work in financial aid offices in community colleges have unbelievably complicated jobs.  I knew that at some level already, but I recently watched as several people attempted to build a flow chart of communications with the goal of automating wherever possible.

Tolstoy wrote that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The same could be said for financial aid applications.

Was our college listed on the online FAFSA?  Did we get income verification?  Is the student considered independent?  Does the student qualify under a state rehab program?  Is the student a veteran?  Is the student covered by trade adjustment assistance?  Does the student intend to pursue a degree?  Full-time or part-time?  Does the student have prior college experience?  A prior degree?  (You’d be surprised.)  

Is the student in-state?  Is the student a citizen?  Do we have transcripts?  Do we have a valid social security number?  Is the phone number correct?  (Again, you’d be surprised.)  How many credits is the student planning to take?  What if that changes?  What if the student drops out after six weeks?  What if after ten weeks?  What if the student stops showing up after eight, but nobody mentions it until ten or eleven?

If male, did the student register with selective service?  Are the vaccinations in order?  Does the student need health coverage?  A bus pass?  A parking sticker?  

What if the loan application is turned down?  What if some paperwork is late?  Does the student need a bookstore voucher?  What if the award is too high?  What if it’s too low?  What if students use more of their work-study allocations than the historical norm, and we run out of hours to offer?  (That happens sometimes.)  What if the student blows off the work-study job and gets fired from it mid-semester?  (That also happens.)  What if the student gets laid off from her part-time job?  What if she gets paid under the table?  

Honestly, I’m only scratching the surface here.  I literally lost track of the number of permutations.  The number of details per student was astonishing, and they cascade quickly in chains of consequences.

Automating that is much more daunting than just drafting a “thank you for your application” letter.  

Local legend has it that the financial aid office hired someone from a very prestigious residential liberal arts college a few years ago.  She quit within a week.  It’s one thing to handle the variations among traditional age students who attend full time and live in dorms.  It’s quite another when you have eighteen year olds with two children, thirty year olds in vocational rehab programs, and forty year olds with scattered collections of credits giving a degree another shot.
The number of variables is simply staggering.

So, a tip o’the cap to the folks in financial aid.  Given the number of moving parts, it’s amazing that mistakes are as rare as they are.  And I promise to be a little more circumspect in asking innocent questions...

Picking just two, the first just for fun ...

"Is the phone number correct? (Again, you’d be surprised.)"

Not me. And even if they are, they often don't last long. There must be a lot of disposable numbers in use out there.

"What if the student stops showing up after eight, but nobody mentions it until ten or eleven?"

Please, PLEASE, use a blog post to explain what you think the rules are from the Federal Government, how you know that this interpretation is correct, and hence what you think the faculty are supposed to be doing at every college in the US with respect to attendance for the purposes of verifying financial aid.

At my college, faculty are only required to report attendance for a very small number of fairly specific time windows. My version would be "what if nobody asks about it until the tenth or eleventh week?" It's not like I regularly bump into the director of financial aid and just happen to "mention" that some student hasn't been seen for awhile.

Either we are doing it wrong or you are wasting a lot of effort that is not required by the regulations. I'd guess a little of both.
I'm not surprised about the prior degree or the phone number being incorrect, either.

I echo CCPhysicist. I'm required to report attendance next week and around midterms for the last time. If someone stops showing up, I've never been told that I need to tell financial aid immediately.

And at my school, the financial aid folks make mistakes quite frequently, often at the expense of the students. At least now you've helped to shed light as to why this occurs.
All of our classes are now hybrid and attendance is based upon online participation since the class only meets once a week. If a student drops a class after it has started, they have to verify on two different screens they they 1) are withdrawing 2)when they are coming back 3)if they have FA this will impact it.

All of our FA stuff is kept within the student portal. All communications to students are via email then 2 attempts via letter. No personal information is in the emails/letters. Just directed to the portal.
Vaccinations? Why is this an issue?
John, regarding the vaccinations, it may be required by the state. I know when I wanted to take an accounting class at the college where I work I had to provide proof of up to date tetanus and MMR vaccinations before I could register. (Seemed totally goofy to me and our Registrar, but there you go.)

Dean Dad, thanks for acknowledging the complicated and often unappreciated job that folks in Financial Aid do.
I would guess that the reason your school is requiring a MMR is because in the 90's a bunch of college kids got the measles despite having followed the prescribed vaccination schedule because their immunity dropped off over time. Tetanus might have meant the TDaP – recently required because of the huge outbreak of Pertussis (Whooping Cough) last year (10,000 cases in CA alone) again because of waning immunity in the vaccinated community of kids. Both measles and Pertussis are spread by aerosols so any large gathering of susceptible people increases the risk of an outbreak – which means that schools are hotbeds of contagion (as we saw with H1N1, where several schools had massive outbreaks even after everyone knew the virus was out there and a potential risk).
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