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Student Affairs and Academic Support


Financial Aid Upgrade

Financing college isn’t always a simple process for students and their families. The Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships at the University of South Carolina, led by director Joey Derrick, has set out to improve it. They’ve made system enhancements and provided strategic communications designed to reduce the headache (and the heartache) of figuring out financial aid.

By Grace Day


SERVING LOWER-MIDDLE-INCOME STUDENTS

Over the past few years, financial aid staff members noticed a rise in requests from students and families who were not eligible to receive federal Pell Grants. Their expected family contribution as determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid was too
high to qualify, but they were still in need of significant additional assistance.

In response, USC developed and launched the Access Grant. This award, specifically designed to aid lower-middle-income in-state students, is now given to 100-150 students each semester. The amount, while varying from student to student, is always slightly less than the smallest Pell Grant, but will help a growing population that truly needs some assistance. As funding allows, Derrick would love to see the initiative grow, allowing more students who fall into this category to be able to receive this supplemental funding.

“We think that makes a difference, and we’ve received a lot of positive feedback from families and students, particularly those in their first year, because they would not have received anything like this at any other school similar to USC,” Derrick says. 

 

ENHANCING ONLINE ACCESS

Another area Derrick and his team saw as an opportunity for improvement was the way students access their financial aid award information on the university’s online system Self Service Carolina.

We want students to actively know how much they are borrowing, so that they can make informed borrowing decisions.

Joey Derrick, director of Student Financial Aid and Scholarships

They moved more information to the platform and implemented new features. Students now can view and take actions on the status of their loans, including accepting or declining loan offers, on the Self Service Carolina website. They can see any reason their financial aid may have not been applied to their account yet, as well as any additional steps they need to take related to their aid. And, importantly, they can view their total amount borrowed and access a repayment calendar. 

“We want students to actively know how much they are borrowing, so that they can make informed borrowing decisions,” Derrick says. “This way, when they go to accept their awards, they can also see what they already have. A lot of times, it is easier to focus on ‘How much do I need right now to cover the bill?’ and not necessarily realize how much it’s growing over time.”

Derrick believes that this added feature also will remove the element of surprise when the time comes for students to start paying back their loans.

 

SPEEDING UP

Sometimes, the most frustrating part of the process for students is simply the wait between submitting requests and receiving results. In response to this, the Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships has taken steps to increase the speed of  communication. The office now communicates with the Department of Education multiple times per day, decreasing the
turnaround time between a student completing requirements like entrance counseling or submitting signed master promissory notes and the awarding of their financial aid.

The office submits FAFSA corrections daily to the Department of Education, essentially matching their efficiency. Thanks to University Technology Services, all of these file transfers run in the background, allowing the office to complete concurrent tasks and maintain optimal productivity.

Speeding up these transactions has helped the office to cut down on the number of calls they get from people who merely want a status update on their aid. Answering fewer calls frees the staff up to work with people who need more intensive help.

 

COMMUNICATING STRATEGICALLY

Rather than sending emails scattershot, the office determined that they needed to be more strategic with their outreach to students and families. Based on the time of year, staff members send targeted emails to remind them about things they may need to do to maintain their financial aid award.

For example, every semester, students receive a notification from the financial aid office encouraging them to log on to Self Service Carolina and view their total borrowing history, as well as the repayment calendar. This helps students understand how much they have borrowed and how it grows over time, and it helps get them to start thinking about how much they want to borrow for the next term.

The timing of communications is most important, Derrick emphasizes, and his office wanted to make sure that these messages were intentional.

“We wanted it to all have a purpose,” he says.

Additionally, they launched a series of print pieces for students and parents. Originally, all of the information was electronic, and staff members expected that putting everything on the website would provide easy and accessible references. However, what they found was that at resource fairs, orientations and other in-person meetings, parents and students needed something to carry with them and hold on to. These physical communication pieces provided an intuitive space for students and families to take notes, which also created a simple paper trail to record what they had talked about with financial aid counselors.

“Self Service Carolina, Parent Plus loans — they’re a lot to think about, and it can be confusing, but this way if they called us, which more often than not they did, they at least had something physical that they could refer to,” Derrick says.

 

RETHINKING THE WEBSITE

During the university-wide redesign and redevelopment of the UofSC website, the financial aid staff worked with the university’s digital team to overhaul the financial aid website. Staff members considered the types of questions they were most
commonly asked and what portions of their website were most commonly viewed.

“We learned that the ‘Contact Us’ page was one of the most visited pages on the site, which means that people were not finding what they need,” Derrick says. “People should be able to find what they need and get most of their questions
answered through any of our online platforms — on their time and at their pace — instead of spending all their time on the phone with us, trying to get an answer to a question.”

To solve this, they reframed the site for students and families, instead of for financial aid administrators, removing jargon and making critical information more prominent.

 

REAPING THE BENEFITS

The changes seem to have paid off.

In 2017-18, the office was charged with disbursing $425 million in aid, up by 22 percent from six years ago. In years past, more aid meant more traffic on phones and in the office, but after instituting all of these changes, financial aid actually saw a decrease. Phone calls have dropped 27 percent to 88,000 per year, and office visits have declined 34 percent to 12,000 per year.

By providing information in a more strategic way, offering better online access to complete financial aid tasks and maximizing efficiency in the awarding process, the financial aid office has made it possible — even preferable — for recipients to accomplish what they need to on their own. That allows financial aid staff members to focus more of their time and efforts on assisting people who have more complex questions and needs, and it gives them time to plan for future improvements.

Every year, the team gets together and looks at what needs to be done and what opportunities could be developed to serve even more students even better.

“These are things we should be doing anyway, so that folks can move on and start thinking about other important things,” Derrick says.