It is the thick of financial aid season and you are deep in the review of applications for aid; you have proposed awards and now it is time to finalize grants before sharing decisions with families. Whose responsibility is this? Do you have a formal financial aid committee? Do you have a standardized process? Do you have a lean office of one or two people making these determinations? There are many considerations as you reflect on the how and why of your school’s financial aid review process and, maybe, what you might decide to establish in the future.

#1. Who is involved? Often, financial aid is determined by a subset of the enrollment team or there is an overlap with the admission/enrollment office and the business office in some way. It may be that financial aid applications are reviewed by one person in charge of the financial aid process and then grants are approved by a team (small or large), possibly including the CFO, controller, or another school administrator. Financial aid involves such sensitive material and details from families that it is important the choice of involvement be extremely thoughtful as well as practical. Asking the question “does this person really need to be privy to this information” may help determine the right people for the committee. A word of caution about having a trustee involved even if that person is a “finance person.” Trustees are responsible for the strategic direction of the school. Allocation of financial aid grants is clearly an operational decision that falls under the responsibility of administrators. Not having a trustee “in the weeds” of the school operation is the main reason why trustees should not be involved in the decision process. If you have a trustee involved now, it may be worth reevaluating and adjusting your committee.

#2. How does your financial aid “committee” differ from your admission committee? There is most often an overlap between admission committee members and those involved in the financial aid process, largely due to the overlap of personnel. However, it is important to have these committees clearly designated as separate entities so as to best separate initial consideration for admission from a family’s ability to pay. This also saves time by not having to review financial aid applications for those new student applications (who are also aid applicants) who are deemed not eligible for admission. That said, it should be noted that just because an applicant is deemed admissible does not mean they will be admitted once financial realities come into play. (That is an entirely different conversation.)

It can be helpful to have the overlap between admission and financial aid folks as long as those involved understand the boundaries and do not let their personal preferences influence grant amounts. For example, having an admission person on the financial aid committee who is also an athletic coach can pose a potential conflict when it comes to top recruits. However, having an admission person on the FA committee who knows the families (but can remain neutral) can be invaluable and time saving as questions arise in the financial aid review. It is also helpful to have a clearly designated financial aid person serve as the contact for families in terms of follow-up and obtaining any missing information. If that is you, keep in mind that families will share more if they believe you are an advocate for them. Even if you are the committee or make up half of the committee, that is something you do not need to share. Saying to a family, “I will take this information to our committee” or “I will see if the committee needs more information” or, on one of those difficult phone calls, “the committee has determined that we are unable to fund your family” keeps you in the role as the advocate for the family and also avoids tension, issue, or personal attack if you are otherwise seen as the sole or a key decision maker.

#3. Do you have a standardized process for aid review? Whether you and a team review each application together to determine an award or if one person reviews a file and proposes a grant to then be approved, standardizing your process can enhance efficiency and more equitable decision making. Obviously the first determination is with global settings for allowances, weighting of assets, COLA if applicable, and handling of depreciation and other tax deductions. Other considerations might include whether or not to allow: pre-tax and post-tax retirement contributions, pensions and annuities, IRA distributions, and various expenses indicated by the family. For example, as a school do you allow families the indicated expense for charitable contributions or do you consider this to be something that should come solely from discretionary income? Determining the standard approach to take regarding these aspects will help you move efficiently and equitably through each application. There will always be outlier files or adjustments that need to be made, but such an approach gives you a stepping off point for each file.

Once you have the framework for your individual file review established, then how do you approach committee review? Do you review in batches by grade; or by status of new, returning or returning first time aid applicants; or by non-employee and employee family? Do you propose grants for as many as possible and leave a group of more difficult files in the stage of in-review to evaluate and discuss in greater detail? Do you have a process to handle and circle back to files determined to be missing information? Answering these questions helps to determine how best to make your process the most efficient. 

Leading such a committee means being prepared and establishing how best to use the time spent in group review. Consider the following best practices to help your financial aid review run more smoothly:

  • Express clear expectations and guidelines for committee review 
  • Determine your batch of applications ready for review
  • Assign one person in the meeting to make changes to grants on a student record or indicate a grant is finalized
  • Display the most effective format of your files for review so that your team is looking at the same information, such as the applicant record or application summary or an FA spreadsheet with relevant information easily accessible 

If you are a one-person office, it is always in your best interest to establish one colleague to help you evaluate tough cases. It may be your head of school or CFO whom you loop in regarding certain file decisions before your family notification date. At the very least, this gives you peace of mind and someone to support you in a difficult situation. 

Do you have questions or are you interested in discussing any aspect of financial aid committee work or make-up? Feel free to contact me via jennifer@claritytuition.com

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About the author 

Jennifer Sheppard

A 1993 graduate of Dartmouth College, Jennifer spent one year working for a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. and then moved across the country to Pebble Beach, California to become associate director of admission at Stevenson School. This initial role began a now 25 year career as a professional in independent school admission and financial aid spanning two coasts, six schools and student grade levels from infant through grade 12. Aside from running admission and financial aid programs at various schools, Jennifer has also served as a resident faculty member and student advisor. She helped to develop the SAO Common Application for the primary grades and has served as a mentor to those just entering the admission profession. She believes deeply in the accessibility of independent schools to families of diverse backgrounds as well as the impact of such work on individual students. Her previous schools include: Stevenson School (CA), The Urban School of San Francisco (CA), The Pennington School (NJ), George School (PA), Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart (NJ), St. Andrew’s Episcopal School (MS).