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Strategies: Partnering for Better Financial Aid Decisions

By Net Assets posted 10-28-2021 08:00 AM

  
Enrollment

Enrollment & Financial Aid |

A structured financial aid review process that involves both admissions and the business office can maximize enrollment without breaking the bank.

Article by Toni Kanzler and Amy Byrne, Heritage Christian School

From the November/December 2021 Net Assets magazine

Feature image courtesy of Heritage Christian School.

If you’ve worked in independent education for any length of time, you probably know that schools can be hindered by a lack of internal collaboration. Enrollment staff are tasked with attracting, admitting and enrolling new students, and as tuition rises, those families almost always need more financial aid. At the same time, the business office wants to maximize tuition revenue while minimizing financial aid in order to sustain the school financially. These differing goals can generate troublesome tension between enrollment and the business office. At Heritage Christian School, we’ve created a financial aid process that requires the enrollment team and business office to closely partner, which has helped us increase our enrollment while remaining within our aid budget.

Growing Pains

Processing the increased requests took time, and applicants needed timely financial aid information to make enrollment decisions. While our admissions deadlines are rolling, other area schools’ deadlines are not.

One of the largest private schools in Indiana, Heritage Christian School serves more than 1,450 students in preschool through grade 12 on a single campus, and annual tuition ranges from $5,500-14,000 per student. In recent years, Indiana expanded the state’s voucher and tax-credit scholarship opportunities. Now 79% of Indiana students are eligible for a school voucher, and participation in both the voucher and tax-credit programs has increased. Following these changes over the past five years, Heritage’s enrollment has increased by 32% and our financial aid budget by 75%.

This growth in financial aid requests caused real tension between the enrollment and business teams. Processing the increased requests took time, and applicants needed timely financial aid information to make enrollment decisions. While our admissions deadlines are rolling, other area schools’ deadlines are not. Changes in state voucher laws also resulted in an increased number of voucher-eligible applicants, which meant more state-funding processing.

We realized we needed to streamline our financial aid process and do so as a team, to benefit all parties involved. We needed to manage the required paperwork and online processing accurately to follow voucher laws. And we needed to speed up the review and award process, while maintaining accuracy and fairness, to secure enrollments and not lose families new to a private school experience.

New Policies

We began with a joint approach to family awards and appeals. The enrollment team reviewed new family awards and appeals, while the business office managed returning families, as the enrollment team had more knowledge of new prospects.

We also considered how much aid we could award each family, based on their calculated need. Would we draw a “line in the sand,” as a maximum aid designation or not? We reviewed the information requested on the aid application — we use FACTS — and the parameters to ensure we were basing decisions on data that really mattered to us. We added additional questions about relevant family circumstances or changes since a family’s tax return date. Eventually we determined that calculated need would be a strong factor in our aid award decision, in addition to others, like state voucher awards, available scholarships and internal financial aid options.

The business office and enrollment teams answered each other’s questions and learned each other’s processes. We worked together to responsibly manage enrollment growth, address concerns openly and immediately, and ultimately better serve our families.

Building a Tuition-Aid Tool

Heritage developed the Tuition Aid Spreadsheet (TASS), a complex worksheet that draws data from FACTS and our student information system, Veracross. It is a highly effective tool that allows both teams to focus on evaluating each family’s particular circumstances, rather than numbers alone. TASS weighs various factors based on our defined parameters (see sidebar for details), automates suggested aid calculations, and tracks initial offers, appeal reviews and the award letter email merge. Our financial aid staff ensures TASS data is accurate and complete, flagging students whose calculations require review by either the director of enrollment (for new students) or finance (for returning students).

Both directors can review any student award as needed and communicate quickly with families that need aid information. The directors often collaborate on reviews to help ensure the best aid decisions for both families and Heritage. The TASS allows us to focus on identifying mission fit families/students first. Then we use FACTS data and the TASS calculations to see where a family’s aid falls and how that compares to other similar families and their specific circumstances. Admissions and finance can discuss more challenging situations to agree on the award – usually this is just a couple of emails or a five-minute chat.

Once reviews are completed, students are tagged in TASS for processing. Business office staff update enrollment contracts, and then automated, personalized award letters are emailed to current families. Copies are auto-generated for enrollment staff so they can communicate immediately with new families.

Shared Success

As communication between our teams increased, our goals aligned, and we learned from each other. The biggest change was that we saw each other as partners, not adversaries.

Our partnership is based on the shared goal of making a Heritage education affordable for as many families as possible. We are very close to our current campus capacity, but we have the ability to expand capacity if necessary. Yes, the total financial aid budget has increased, but it has held steady as a percentage of total tuition revenue thanks to increased enrollment. We have kept within our aid budget. Prioritizing new families’ applications and automating processes has accelerated aid reviews and awards, provided families with timely information and enabled staff to complete the required voucher paperwork more easily. This last element – voucher paperwork – is significant and year-round, but worthwhile because it gives hundreds of our students access to the best educational option for them.

Industrialist Henry Ford once said: “Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.” This work requires commitment to a shared goal, a shared vision for the future, and shared patience when worlds collide. When your school’s enrollment and business office teams move beyond collaboration to reach a consistent, authentic partnership, joy abounds, and everyone wins: staff, school community, families and the next generation of leaders — our students.

Toni Kanzler is director of finance and Amy Byrne is director of admissions at Heritage Christian School, a preschool-grade 12 day school with 1,450 students in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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