Lessons from the Conference Circuit: Key Takeaways for Financial Aid
The ELM team (Brendon Sanger, Biz Daniel, Raina Chezem, Rob Smith, and Scott Orris) returned from an exciting fall conference season full of insightful conversations. After connecting with nearly 3,000 financial aid professionals across 14 conferences, they wanted to share the key trends and takeaways most relevant to what FAOs are talking about. Read on and let us know if you agree!
This season's hot topics illuminate emerging priorities and challenges for financial aid offices:
FAFSA Simplification: The planned changes, which involve calculating aid eligibility based on the Student Aid Index (SAI) instead of Expected Family Contribution (EFC), have yet to be fully implemented, causing frustration. The number of family members in college will no longer impact the SAI, and rules surrounding the calculation of income for supportive parents are also changing. Learn more.
Gainful Employment Regulations: Starting in 2026, academic programs at for-profit institutions and non-degree programs that lead to unaffordable debt levels for graduates may need to provide disclosure notices and meet debt-to-earnings ratios to maintain federal aid eligibility— which aims to increase transparency around program costs and outcomes.
Staffing Shortages: Many financial aid offices face staff shortages and lack of training, impacting compliance and student services.
"Key themes we saw as emerging priorities for financial aid offices largely revolved around the three points above. Much of the focus is on preparing office staffing for these changes, leading campuses through the adjustments without disruption, and, most importantly, staying compliant." Biz Daniel shared.
Critical takeaways for financial aid offices were the varying reactions to FAFSA simplification and these other challenges. "While distress over the changes and shortages was fairly universal, the approaches and responses were not." Brendon Sanger explains, "Some FAOs seem to feel paralyzed by these challenges and expressed sentiments like 'we can't even consider any strategic improvements until FAFSA simplification is done and we're fully staffed' to us." Brendon finished.
Other FAOs see things very differently. "There is an emerging strength of determination to accept change and attack improvements and efficiency creation in their offices to ensure the office is in a better place a year from now. Many also realize that understaffing may just be the new normal for the foreseeable future, and efficiencies are the only solution. Others discussed FAFSAA simplification as this year's significant change, as HERRF or verification were previously. If you wait a year with no challenge or change to improve your office, that may be indefinitely procrastinating efficiency." Brendon also said.
So what can schools do during this period?
Schools should look for efficiencies everywhere. "Staffing challenges are not likely short-term. Resist the temptation to be overwhelmed by the external changes you have no control over. Instead, control what you can and find areas to streamline while encouraging your office to embrace improvements outside their comfort zone. 'This is how we've always done it' is not only a tired explanation… it's most likely part of the problem," noted Rob Smith.
"Change happens daily in the financial aid profession, so adapting and facing change head-on is crucial," added Scott Orris.
Schools don't have to do this alone. The most recent conferences attended were full of corporate partners willing and able to help you with various efficiency solutions.
Conference travels allow the ELM team to help dozens of schools improve their private loan certification and disbursement process. By switching to ELMOne, schools saved countless work hours, allowing team members time to focus on other crucial tasks. The team assisted many schools in finding features and service options within ELMOne, making the partnership work even better for their current process.
Biz Daniel said, "While ELM is not directly involved in the FAFSA simplification process, we are working with NCHER and the committee to advise on future adjustments to CommonLine, which will soon contribute to even more Financial Aid Office efficiencies."
The teams are grateful to meet with many dedicated professionals and learn how to better support essential work in higher education. We would love your feedback and opinions on the conference season and our interpretations above.
Brendon Sanger meeting Harlan Cohen
Rob Smith and Brendon Sanger at Swasfaa/Tasfaa
Biz Daniel and Scott Orris at SCASFAA
Rob Smith and Brendon Sanger at RMASFAA
Raina Chezem at MASFAA