How to Become a Financial Aid Director

Over the last decade, financial aid has become a core component of most students’ educational journies. Whether they’re applying for scholarships to fund their undergraduate experience or exploring the ways to pay for an advanced degree, almost every individual who pursues postsecondary education will work with their university’s office of financial aid at one point or another.

While students may view financial aid as a complex (albeit necessary) aspect of the learning process, there are professionals within the higher education industry that have dedicated their entire careers to helping students fund their education.

One of the most lucrative jobs in this field is that of a financial aid director. Read on to explore the core responsibilities of this role and learn how a master’s in higher education administration can set aspiring financial aid directors up for success.

What Does a Financial Aid Director Do?

In the hierarchy of roles within a financial aid department, directors are at the top. They are responsible for overseeing the entire department of financial aid, including the individuals who operate at lower-level roles such as financial aid administrators or financial aid advisors

It is a financial aid director’s job to ensure that the team is following university-mandated protocols when it comes to offering aid. To do this, many take it upon themselves to hold training sessions or create comprehensive guides that keep employees abreast of changes to these policies.

Regarding the process of evaluating each student’s financial needs, aid directors may take on a more managerial or a more hands-on approach, depending on the size of their team and institution. As part of a bigger office, financial aid directors will often oversee their team’s decisions and review any pending cases when a ruling cannot be reached at the lower level. In a more hands-on environment, however, they may be part of the full financial aid process, including:

  • Reviewing student applications.
  • Personally evaluating students’ need.
  • Ensuring the determined amount of aid is distributed correctly.
  • Constructing payment plans.
  • Offering large-sum grants.
  • Sending out acceptance and denial letters.

Their work does not stop with this complex evaluation process, however. These professionals must also oversee existing financial aid programs within their post-secondary institution—including those related to loans, fellowships, work-study, scholarships, tuition reimbursements, and more—while simultaneously researching new possible programs and implementing them as needed. Once a financial aid cycle is over, directors will also lead reflective assessments, tracking enrollment statistics to help shape future processes.

What Skills Do Financial Aid Directors Share?

Professionals in these roles have the unique challenge of managing people, complex regulations, and financial processes in their work. For that reason, there is a unique combination of skills commonly shared among successful financial aid directors, including:

  • Leadership: Being able to effectively manage a team is a key component of a financial aid director’s work. Since the tasks that their employees handle deal with both sensitive information and highly audited processes, directors must be able to strike a strategic balance of authority and openness in the workplace.
  • Regulatory Compliance: Financial aid directors must be comfortable confirming the university is compliant with federal and state regulatory procedures, and need to actively stay on top of any changes made to those regulations. Although some institutions may employ a Director of Compliance for Financial Aid on their team to handle the brunt of this work, is important for every financial aid director to have at least a working knowledge of compliance.
  • Communication: In many institutions, financial aid directors will work directly with students and families during the evaluation of their financial needs. For this reason, these professionals must have excellent communication skills in order to navigate highly sensitive conversations in a productive and professional manner.

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Financial Aid Director Job Outlook

Postsecondary education administration jobs are on the rise. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a seven percent increase in roles within this sector by 2028, a rate faster than the average for jobs across industries. 

For financial aid positions specifically, the potential job outlook remains positive. Lawmakers at the state-, federal-, and university-level, continue to invest in the process of making college affordable for students of any financial background. This shift toward affordability has led to the restructuring of financial aid offices, an increase in possible funding options, and the approval of monetary increases in funding by lawmakers across the country. These changes have also resulted in the increased need for individuals with an expansive understanding of these new processes in universities across the nation. 

Financial aid directors also earn a very competitive annual salary. They make an average of $85,694 per year, though those with advanced training and a senior-level title average up to $118,168 annually.

How to Become a Financial Aid Director

Due to the constantly changing parameters and the high-stakes decisions being made daily, individuals hoping to establish a career as a financial aid director should consider investing in an advanced degree.

A program like Northeastern’s Master of Education in Higher Education Administration (MEd) is designed to provide financial aid directors—and those with other higher education aspirations—with the necessary hands-on and interpersonal skills needed to thrive. “Students in [our] MEd program are typically looking to hone their skills in preparation for leadership roles in higher education administration,” says Joan Giblin, an assistant teaching professor within Northeastern’s Graduate School of Education.

Below, we explore the top three opportunities this degree provides students hoping to achieve a career in this field.

1. Learn from Industry Professionals

Northeastern’s master’s in higher education has been structured around the idea that in order to become established professionals in the field, students need the opportunity to learn from established professionals in the field. That is why, over the course of the program, students have the chance to learn from faculty who are not only familiar with the ins and outs of each particular career path under the higher education umbrella, but who have successfully navigated those paths themselves over the course of their careers.

“Our faculty are accomplished practitioners…[who know] what employers want because they are employers,” Giblin says. “They understand the realities of the higher education world, and understand how theory informs practice and how practice informs theory.” Although this, she explains, is not the approach of every program, Northeastern believes in embracing hands-on learning under the guidance of higher education experts like these. 

What’s more, this program structure allows Northeastern students the chance to form professional relationships and network with the industry-leading faculty in their program. With 85 percent of jobs across industries being filled through networking, financial aid directors looking to advance in the higher education industry can benefit from having positive working relationships with professionals like these.

2. Develop A Broader Understanding of Higher Education

Even those who embark upon a master’s in higher education with a specific future career in mind—such as that of a financial aid director—can benefit from the broad approach to exploring higher education that Northeastern’s program takes. Through courses that cover topics from higher education law and policy to change agency to budget development, students can hone specific, relevant skills and develop a deeper understanding of how a university functions as a whole. Aspiring professionals who graduate with this broader view of the industry are better able to understand their part in it—a critical component for advancing to a director-level role in this complex field.

3. Obtain Real-World Experience

Northeastern is known worldwide for its emphasis on experiential learning and the opportunities it provides for students to practice the skills they learn in the classroom. Due to the highly practical nature of many higher education roles, the master’s in higher education administration has been designed to allow students to be exposed to this type of learning consistently—both inside and outside of the classroom.

“We provide opportunities across every single class for students to apply their learning to the real world,” Giblin says. While these applications may take the form of case studies, simulations, or even more expansive XN Projects, she explains that this approach aims to “help students become practitioners who will thrive in the world of higher ed.”

A financial aid director’s role is constantly evolving due to changing regulations and the introduction of new forms of aid. The real-world experiences students gain at Northeastern allow them to witness how others interpret, react, and adjust to those kinds of changes in real time. Whether this type of hands-on exploration comes in the form of an in-class case study or an experiential learning opportunity, simply having the chance to practice these processes under the guidance of seasoned professionals is critical in teaching students how to navigate common, high-stakes issues.

The program’s approach to learning culminates in a “Contemporary Issues” capstone course. This class offers students the opportunity to apply the understanding of the higher education industry—including their specialized sector such as financial aid directing—that they’ve garnered over the course of the program, and use it to address contemporary issues in that area. The inclusion of courses like this that, Giblin explains, are meant to get students thinking about how they will transition their classroom-based skills out into the real world, and how they will address the current realities of their chosen career post-graduation.

“We work to make sure our students apply their learning at every possible opportunity,” she says.

Interested in pursuing a career as a financial aid director? Explore Northeastern’s Master of Education in Higher Education Administration degree to learn more about how it can help set you on the path toward success.

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