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How to Become a Financial Aid Specialist

Are you organized and have excellent communication skills? Do you enjoy helping others? A position as a financial aid specialist might be the perfect role where you can put your customer service skills to work.

The financial aid specialist works in a college, university, or government agency and is responsible for assisting prospective and continuing students and their parents by reviewing and evaluating financial aid eligibility, providing timely delivery of accurate information, services, and funding to all students, and ensuring the quality control, application, tracking, and verification of student files.

They receive, process, and disburse a variety of financial aid packages, including grants, loans, and scholarships based on federal, state, and college or university policy. The financial aid specialist maintains student files and provides excellent service to students and prospective students in person, by phone, and by email. They verify student files, reconcile discrepancies, confirm eligibility for awards, and notify students. A financial aid specialist has a broad knowledge of financial aid programs and resources, as well as a thorough understanding of all federal, state, and institutional guidelines and regulations.

Sample job description

We’re searching for an experienced financial aid specialist to join our team. The financial aid specialist is assigned to the day-to-day technical duties of the Financial Aid Department including awarding federal and state aid. This critical position needs someone with good problem-solving skills who is a team player, all the while maintaining a professional and positive attitude. Financial Aid Specialists have high technical knowledge of financial aid programs and procedures to independently assist students using a variety of mediums. As an ideal candidate, you have proven experience working in the financial aid department of a college or university, reviewing, verifying, and analyzing financial aid applications and documents to determine the type and amount of financial aid available to students

Typical duties and responsibilities

  • Provides financial aid program information to students, including application procedures, award packaging, and financial aid academic progress 
  • Processes applications and other documents for student financial aid eligibility 
  • Verifies files for high school and college transcripts
  • Initiates requisitions for financial aid disbursements to students
  • Receives, evaluates, and verifies financial aid data and documents submitted by students
  • Calculates student needs and adjusts financial aid as necessary 
  • Submits initial, renewal, and correction applications 
  • Certifies student enrollment, ensuring adherence to academic progress policies and eligibility requirements
  • Participates in financial aid workshops and presentations
  • Assists students and prospective students regarding eligibility requirements of financial aid
  • Maintains awareness of best practices, emerging trends, and new legislation relating to financial aid 
  • Maintains student financial aid data in online computer systems or other systems
  • Compiles federal, state, and institutional financial aid expenditure reports
  • Interacts with other departments, such as Admissions and Student Records, Financial Services, and Student Affairs as needed

Education and experience

  •  Associate’s degree 
  • 3+ years of experience working in the financial aid functional area in a college or university setting 

Required skills and qualifications

  • Excellent communication, interpersonal, and leadership skills
  • Ability to work independently
  • Working knowledge of financial aid eligibility requirements and programs
  • Good organizational skills
  • Proficiency with a variety of computer applications and reporting tools, including Microsoft Access and Excel
  • Excellent customer service skills

Preferred qualifications

  • Bilingual in English-Spanish
  • Bachelor’s degree

Typical work environment

Financial aid specialists typically work in office settings at universities and colleges. They spend their days interacting with students and prospective students via phone, in person, and by email. They might be required to work overtime and weekends as the demands of the position dictate. 

Typical hours

A financial aid specialist typically works 40 hours per week during normal business hours. Evenings and weekends might be required to process time-sensitive information.

Available certifications

Financial aid specialists work for colleges, universities, and government agencies that provide financial aid to students. Many institutions offer certifications to help them enhance their knowledge and develop new skills. Here are some top certifications for financial aid specialists: 

  • NASFAA Certified Financial Aid Administrator. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) offers the Certified Financial Aid Administrator certification, which validates competencies essential to effective financial aid administration and provides candidates with an increased opportunity for career growth. There are several paths to eligibility, all of which include having a bachelor’s degree or higher, some level of experience, and prior NASFAA credentials.  You must then pass the exam to obtain certification. The designation is valid for three years and must be renewed by completing 60 recertification points.
  • Certified College Funding Specialist (CCFS). Administered by the Association of Certified College Funding Specialists (ACCFS), this designation demonstrates your competency in the role of a college funding specialist. Topics include code of ethics, admissions, financial aid basics, financial aid formulas, financial aid assets, and sources of financial aid. 
  • EDUCATION LOAN ANALYST (ELA). The ELA is a continuing education course, designed for Certified College Funding Specialists who want to achieve a more in-depth knowledge of the student loan system and how it works. You will gain in-depth knowledge of education loans and the financial aid system, the types of federal education loans, federal loan repayments plans, and consolidating education loans, among other topics.

Career path

To begin your career path toward becoming a financial aid specialist, you will need an associate’s degree from an accredited college or university. Some universities and colleges only require a high school diploma or equivalent with experience, usually 4 or 5 years. Financial aid specialists train on the job, where they learn about guidelines and regulations specific to the institution and state in which they work. Those who have earned a certification in financial aid may advance their career faster than those who haven’t. Financial aid specialists with years of experience can move up into management positions within the department. 

US, Bureau of Labor Statistics’ job outlook

SOC Code: 13-2071

2020 Employment30,770
Projected Employment in 203038,300
Projected 2020-2030 Percentage Shift 24% increase
Projected 2020-2030 Numeric Shift7,530 increase

Financial aid for higher education used to be a matter of a student reporting their family’s financial situation to the government and their school and receiving a package of grants and loans based on those finances. Work-study programs were also available to earn money while attending school. Rising college costs and changing student demographics have changed the old models. Federal aid, institutional grants, scholarships, and loans are all still big pieces of the puzzle, but several trends have emerged for financial aid support. 

Traditionally, financial support was calculated yearly, which didn’t take into consideration unexpected expenses that could upset the best financial aid plans. The rise of emergency financial aid programs helps to counteract these issues, providing emergency aid when needed. Funded by private donations and corporate grants, emergency aid programs are helping students by ensuring they get the right aid at the right time. 

Other programs, such as accelerated study in associate programs, are aimed at getting community college students through their associate’s degree curriculum as quickly as possible and reducing costs. They typically pay all tuition not covered by financial aid and provide textbook vouchers, transit passes, and a dedicated advisor. Students must commit to full-time attendance and regular meetings with advisors and tutors.

As more and more students balance work and school, colleges are assessing how to best provide for them. Nearly half of four-year college grads start out at a two-year school, and over 40 percent of college students are over age 25. New trends and programs will continue to emerge to meet the needs of students in an ever-changing landscape.