Can 2 Jobs Be Merged Into 1?

Harvard’s Kennedy School plans to combine admissions and financial aid positions and to lay off those who hold the positions today. Some experts are dubious.

August 2, 2021
 
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The announcement was a surprise to staff members in the admissions and financial aid offices of the Kennedy School at Harvard University.

Most of their jobs were being eliminated, but not to save money.

A memo to the faculty and staff from Debbie Isaacson, senior associate dean for degree programs and student affairs, said, “Recruiting, admitting and enrolling a ​talented, passionate and diverse student body at Harvard Kennedy School critically underpins the school’s ability to fulfill our teaching and learning mission. To further strengthen our efforts to attract the best students, we are restructuring our enrollment services team. Going forward, we will merge our currently separate admissions and student financial services teams into one integrated group. This new group … will consist of a new senior director of admissions and financial aid, two senior counselors and four other counselors on admissions and financial aid, and a coordinator. Each of the counselors will have responsibility for all aspects of recruiting, awarding aid to, and yielding our students.”

Such “integrated” systems have been used with success elsewhere at Harvard -- including Harvard College, the university’s main undergraduate college -- and “will better serve ​prospective, admitted, and enrolled students by providing holistic support and consistent stewardship prior to and throughout their studies at the Kennedy School,” Isaacson added. (That statement is disputed. More on that later.)

She referred to the current staff. “While we are excited about this approach, unfortunately moving to this new structure requires the discontinuation of current roles within our admissions and student financial services teams. This is a very difficult reality given how close-knit our community is. We have notified those of our colleagues whose roles have been affected, and we are working closely with them to provide full support and guidance during this transition,” she said.

To be clear: Isaacson was not talking about having a dean of admissions and financial aid (as is common), but every single position having dual responsibility.

Isaacson’s memo raises a number of questions: Is this system in place elsewhere? Does it make sense? And if a college decided to move in this direction, is the Kennedy School going about it in the best possible way?

On the first question, there is a wide consensus among experts that this model isn’t widely used.

Melanie Gottlieb, interim executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said she consulted with her staff on the question. “It’s definitely a novel approach. None of us could come up with any other example of this.”

“Given the complexity of the regulatory environment in which it lives, financial aid is generally kept separately,” she said. “It definitely brings up a lot of questions: Does this mean assistantships, fellowships or institutional grants only? Does someone else process the FAFSA, manage direct loan requirements and processes, or are these new positions also doing that? Those would have significantly different implications and related workloads and expertise.”

A similar reaction came from Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

“One thing I can say for certain is that this is certainly a unique setup,” Draeger said. “One-stop shops have been around for a while, but this appears a bit different than traditional one-stops, where core financial aid and admissions functions are kept separate, partially due to the complexity of each of those offices and partially to retain operational firewalls. There will certainly be implementation challenges around keeping everyone up to speed with ever-changing, complex rules and regulations that I’m sure the school is well aware of. Some of those challenges might be mitigated by the fact that this is a graduate school, which has fewer federal student aid programs and rules to administer and comply with.”

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Draeger predicted that “a lot of schools -- particularly in the graduate sector -- will be watching closely to see if this results in better service and operational efficiencies.”

Harvard’s Kennedy School declined to comment for this article.

Todd Rinehart, vice chancellor for enrollment at the University of Denver and president of the board of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said, “I can’t imagine” such a system being used at an undergraduate institution.

“Certainly there are many undergraduate divisions that include both admissions and financial aid, and while they have some cross-training and knowledge, they tend to have separate skill sets and responsibilities,” he said.

Jerome A. Lucido, executive director of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice at the University of Southern California, via email, called the Harvard plan “an interesting approach to what can often be a clash of cultures within two units that are not working well together -- namely admissions and financial aid.”

He said the system “can work here because it is a graduate school with less complicated financial aid structures than undergrad institutions must face. The school, of course, must see this as a student life-cycle approach, as financial aid is important in both recruitment and retention of students.” He added that this approach “could be impossible at the scale of undergraduate programs.”

Lucido added that “in most cases, the knowledge and skills required of admission officers and student aid officers are growing in complexity, so this model runs against the grain in that respect. With new virtual recruitment efforts, the revision of campus tours, the dropping of test scores, and the like, in admissions, fairness and equity demands expertise. The same arguments can be made of responsibilities in the aid office. Again, this move at the Kennedy School runs against this grain. That said, they have tremendous name recognition, and likely play above much of the fray of competition and circumstances that others face.”

Robert J. Massa, principal and co-founder of Enrollment Intelligence Now, said via email that the Kennedy School’s move “makes a great deal of sense to me to combine the roles of admission and financial aid, as an offer of admission without needed financial assistance is somewhat empty. In an enrollment management organization, admission and aid officers are united in an administrative structure but, depending on their leadership, that doesn’t necessarily mean they understand one another.”

But he too believes that the key to success for the Kennedy School is that it’s a graduate program. “It is somewhat simpler to accomplish this consolidation than it would be in a more complex undergraduate environment, where aid packages can look very different depending on a student’s financial need, academic merit and qualification for federal and state aid programs.”

He also said it was important to remember that “financial aid is not just important in recruitment but also in retention. Aid officers need to pay attention to students throughout their enrollment period, not just during the recruitment cycle. And of course, there are federal and state regulations that must be followed, so there is still a need for a trained ‘director of financial aid.’”

Several people interviewed said they didn’t take seriously the statement that Harvard College had fully adopted this system. They noted the college’s commitment to need-blind admissions, in which admissions decisions are made irrespective of a candidate’s application for aid. “Your financial need and your aid application will never affect your chance of being admitted to Harvard,” says the Harvard website.

A Harvard official who is familiar with admissions, and who asked not to be identified, said, “These are not jobs you can just hire off the street.”

The official said that the people losing their jobs “chose these careers because they have a commitment to the institution.” And the officials stressed the deep knowledge some have of admissions and others have of financial aid. “You don’t just wipe that out in one swoop.”

And the official noted that the reorganization was taking place now, after these individuals helped the Kennedy School through the pandemic. “These people worked their butts off. They did heroic work.”

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