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Strategies: Tackling a Shared Challenge

By Net Assets posted 11-08-2018 08:57 AM


Enrollment & Financial Aid |

Independent schools in the Seattle area meet regularly to learn and support one another as they work to improve financial aid policies and strategies.

Article by Debra Lee-Rizzi, The Evergreen School

From the November/December 2018 Net Assets magazine

When Angela Dugan of the neighboring Villa Academy first called me in spring 2014 to discuss her school’s struggles with financial aid, I never could have imagined where the phone call would lead. But when another nearby colleague, Michele Hayes of University Prep, called me shortly thereafter, I realized there was a need for regional financial aid professionals to meet and discuss our shared challenges with the financial aid process.

Angela, Michele and I led the charge in organizing a financial aid cohort. Four years later, our small group of three has grown to around 30 financial aid professionals in the greater Seattle area. We meet quarterly.

Organizing this group took some work. Unlike areas of an independent school that are usually “owned” by one department or another, financial aid may be managed by professionals in different roles, from the CFO to the admissions director to a director of financial aid. Without a single point of contact or listserv, our first task was to find those responsible for financial aid at area independent schools. With help from our regional association, we built our initial mailing list.

The next task was generating interest among the many busy professionals handling financial aid. Food was a must for any meetings, but our topics also had to be interesting and relevant. We thought taxes would be a good start. Our first meeting, in December 2014, had a guest speaker on tax forms and related complications. We invited about 45 people. Seven showed up. Not a great turnout, yet we were undeterred.

I hope others in the NBOA community will start making similar phone calls to each other. It can only make our schools stronger and better at what we are charged to do — serve our community’s families.

In 2015 we held three more meetings on topics of common interest and shared challenges. With each meeting, attendance increased, and we began to identify a core group of attendees, with others popping in and out based on their interest in the subject. A key to success is remembering that the group belongs to the community. Learning together from outside speakers and asking questions encouraged lively conversations and different perspectives. Because we don’t have a budget, we ask our speakers to participate pro-bono. We always try to end the year with a debriefing session.

All this has produced a community that learns from experts in the field as well as from each other. It’s also created a network of financial aid professionals who can rely on each other when situations become difficult, helping us all serve our families better. For example, over the years we’ve improved how we communicate with families in difficult circumstances, prospective students and families, and our boards, among other policies and strategies.

This year Angela and Michele moved on to new adventures. Losing two amazing leaders at once could have put a damper on the cohort. However, enthusiasm remains strong, and I have a new partner, Jonathan Hochberg of The Northwest School, to continue this journey.

I am grateful for the two phone calls I received four years ago. I know many of my financial aid partners are too. The funny thing is that our families are the prime beneficiaries of this group’s efforts without having any idea the group exists.

I hope others in the NBOA community will start making similar phone calls to each other. It can only make our schools stronger and better at what we are charged to do — serve our community’s families. 

Debra Lee-Rizzi is chief financial officer at The Evergreen School, with 475 students in preschool through 8th grade in Shoreline, Washington.
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