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...