Seven Ways a Career in Financial Aid Can Be Fun (And We’re Not Counting the FAFSA!)
Seven Ways a Career in Financial Aid Can Be Fun (And We’re Not Counting the FAFSA!)Eric Johnson, Director of Communications for Scholarships & Student Aid at The University of North Carolina
When I tell people I work in student aid, their responses are usually polite and brief. They know it involves forms, and it sounds horribly dull.
"It's actually fascinating," I'll insist. More polite nodding.
I understand the skepticism. But consider for a moment the breadth of disciplines involved in financial aid, at least at a big public college:
- Information design. What's the most efficient way to present our aid policies? How do we offer thoroughness and detail without intimidating people or causing them to lose consciousness? What does this look like in a brochure, on a website, in a presentation? You'd be amazed how much of my time is spent playing with visual layout and testing word choices.
- Marketing and communications. Aid policies affect students’ decisions about where to attend college, and as student aid professional, you have an obligation to make them known to students and families. How do you get people to pay attention, and what's the best way to reach them? When do students and families begin considering college cost, and where will they look to find that information?
- Performance Art. I regularly have to stand in front of hundreds of students and parents, from vastly different backgrounds, and talk about student aid in a way that is effective, interesting, and doesn't make me (or my institution) look buffoonish. This may be the hardest thing I do all year.
- Behavioral Economics. How do we get students to think before they click? If I want students to take a moment and consider their loan options carefully before accepting an aid package, what's the best way to nudge them in that direction?
- Regular Economics. How do we fairly and concisely present the value of a college education and allow families to weigh that against the likely cost? What's the right way to give context for borrowing? And, more broadly, what is a reasonable amount of borrowing for college?
- Ethics. At their best, aid policies are meant to bring some degree of fairness to college access. And this, of course, is an enormously fraught subject. What are reasonable economic barriers to college, and which ones can we help solve? What kind of student needs are within the scope of aid -- housing, books, a meal plan? -- and what kind of needs are outside our realm -- a broken car, a medical expense, a suit an internship interview? The line isn't always clear.
- Politics. Who gets what, and who pays? Those questions underlie some of the most difficult decisions in our political system, and they're at the heart of student aid. Everything we do has a cost, and deciding who bears that cost (and who benefits) inevitably means making tough political choices. We don't always get to make those decisions, but we inform policymakers and ultimately carry out their policies.
There aren't many jobs where you get to think that broadly and apply it to your everyday work.
Perhaps most importantly, being in financial aid allows you to appreciate the direct impact of your work. So much of office life can feel isolating and abstract. I've had jobs that felt very far removed from the people who were ultimately supposed to benefit, with little insight into the meaning and the mission behind daily tasks.
That's not the case in an aid office. You get to sit across the table from the students and families you're serving, to hear what financial aid has meant to them. Sometimes your role is to listen patiently through stories of frustration or difficulty, and try to help. But you're also there to appreciate the accomplishments and life-changing opportunities you've helped make possible.
In the most immediate sense, your work matters. And you get to hear it from real people.
That's not a small thing in the course of a working life, and I've come to value it more over time. There will inevitably be hard or boring days in a job, and it makes an enormous difference to be reminded of why you're there and who you're ultimately trying to serve. The triumphant student stories don't just fill donor mailings and recruitment brochures; they keep the staff going, too.