We hear much about “change” from such great authors as Spencer Johnson in Who Moved My Cheese? and Stephen Covey in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, among many others. As we know, change is a constant factor in financial aid—from ongoing changes in legislation, regulation, and policy changes on a federal or state level, to changes in key staffing roles and perhaps, even institutional direction. In such conditions, how does one maintain and even enhance excellence in the financial aid environment? Let us consider the topic of “change” and some common changes in the financial aid arena in a short series. This week we will address general concepts of change and implications of such. In the following weeks, we will look more specifically at some of the familiar changes that schools encounter that impact financial aid. Specifically, we will address considerations of change when the institution gains a new financial aid director. Likewise there are significant concerns when there is a change in ownership of an institution. And, finally there is an impact when there are changes in locations (either due to a move or the addition of a branch or campus location). We will take each of these topics in the coming weeks and consider key points that, when handled correctly, can maintain or even enhance an institution’s environment of excellence.
Change happens. To quote a current television commercial: “Everybody knows that!” But, did you know that we experience change frequently without much thought? How do we know that we are in the midst of change? Webster’s dictionary defines change as “any variation or alteration; a passing from one state or form to another; as, a change of countenance; a change of habits or principles.” So, we see that change is a non-static state. However, reality has demonstrated that in numerous cases people do not like change. Many times people would rather things stay in a static condition so they are not subject to constant upheaval and requirements to learn new information, methods, or technology. In fact, the psychologist, the late Dr. Richard Dobbins, had a saying, “Until the pain of remaining the same hurts more than the pain of changing, people prefer to remain the same.” It is natural that individuals want to become comfortable through familiarity of habits, routines, environment, people, and expectations. However, as this writer has found out through almost four decades in the financial aid industry, the everyday work-world does not stay static. Familiarity has to be caught on the fly! Change is imposed upon almost every aspect of the financial aid arena, whether desired or not. Each student brings a different situation and scenario than the one before. There are new laws and regulations, or modifications to old ones, on a frequent basis. Each year’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is different than the prior year’s. And, institutions—whether public, non-profit, or private-for-profit—are routinely looking for ways to gain an edge over competitors. (Oh, that was supposed to read, institutions are looking for better ways to meet the needs of students in a cost effective way, wasn’t it?) Has anyone heard of the big emphasis on “enrollment management”? Changes in admissions strategies, financial aid award packaging policies, etc., are on the board each year for modification. The old axiom states that everything is either growing or dying. Well, everything before death is in a state of change. So, how do we view change?
Change may occur as a one time incident, as a scheduled occurrence that may be infrequent, or as an event which may happen on a seasonal basis. As referenced above, change may bring apprehension. But, it may also bring excitement. The feelings generated are generally the result of how the change impacts the individual. Regardless of the feelings, it is important to remember that change, when it occurs, is not an isolated experience, but rather a systemic one. Change at a school will impact the whole institution. Sometimes the effects are more easily recognized than at other times. So, it is important to make any change a positive one. To do this will require eliminating as many concerns with change as possible. Significantly, some of the common realities with change are evidenced by a lack in one or more of these key areas: a lack of information about the change that is happening; a lack in creating a buy-in of those being impacted by the change; a lack of control over the change process; and, a lack of time and other necessary resources to appropriately implement the change. When there is evidence of a lack in any of these areas, change will not occur, or it will occur with real potential for less than desired outcomes (e.g., more costs than planned, less efficiencies than anticipated, a decrease in morale, loss of personnel, etc.). It is important, as much as possible, to plan for and overcome the potential areas of lack when anticipating change. Then, it is easier to see change as a true opportunity.
Change is Opportunity
The reality is that change does provide opportunity. Sure, there needs to be an assessment done to see if the proposed change is viable. But, if it is, plan accordingly and go for it! You may be able to use the change as an incentive to better utilize talents and abilities of staff, to increase efficiencies, better serve students, etc. You may actually experience some positives as you define what the reality of the change is and how it will impact. Internal and external communications can be enhanced due to the necessities brought on by the change event. Also, change can be an excellent opportunity to exhibit creativity, as allowed by the dictates of the change impetus. For example, has your institution considered one of the opportunities allowed over the years by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to participate in one of the experimental sites initiatives? To do so, may allow your institution to demonstrate some creativity that may actually benefit your institution as well as the future of student financial aid legislation overall.
If you think back to a time probably before you can remember, you were an infant still crawling. You were probably thinking things were going along quite well. You could crawl all over the floor and get to that item your mom had left on the floor quicker than she could grab it! Why in the world would you want to start walking? That would be such a big CHANGE! You might fall. You might get hurt! But, looking back now, you are glad that you made that change. Likewise, appropriate change done in the appropriate manner by creating a buy-in of those being impacted by the change, sharing control over the change process, and allocating the necessary time and other resources to appropriately implement the change will give evidence of the change experience being a positive opportunity.
As stated at the beginning, in the weeks ahead, we will address several specific items of change that happen at institutions. In the next weekly edition of the Regulatory Bulletin we will focus on matters to consider when a school has a change in the individual filling the role of financial aid director, such as when there is an abrupt resignation. What are some practical operational points to consider when such a change occurs? Remember, while changes are not desired, the change event can be used to bring about positive in the end.