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October 23, 2014

New director plans updates for financial aid office

Three months into the job, Randall L. McCready, Pitt’s first director of financial aid in at least 50 years, has discovered his department is using procedures other institutions have discarded a decade ago, such as manual data entry and paper aid acceptance letters.

He and boss Marc Harding, chief enrollment officer in the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid (OAFA), told the Oct. 20 meeting of the University Senate’s admissions and student aid committee that they want to fix the structure of the department, streamline its processes, and possibly change the job descriptions of all 17 employees who report to McCready — and that the financial aid department ideally should double in size.

“We need to evaluate everything in the office,” Harding said, down to the shared admissions and financial aid reception desk on the first floor of Alumni Hall. There, prospective students and their parents, hope in their shiny faces, end up waiting next to a third-year student loudly upset about financial aid.

Combining the admissions and financial aid offices decades ago once led to efficiencies, Harding allowed.

“Some good things were happening … but it needed more attention. It is a huge, huge entity … You need someone having his or her arms around the enterprise.”

Harding introduced McCready to the group, noting his local origins — a Blair County native, McCready has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from California University of Pennsylvania — and his experience in financial aid offices at Kent State, Marquette and most recently the University of Wisconsin-Parkside in Kenosha.

McCready has helped install PeopleSoft procedures from the software’s inception, he said. “I know what a very successful operation can do and how you get the pieces together. There are very simple changes that can be made to improve our processes that elevate our world-class status institution to where the rest of the world is today. If I get the system in place and get the right people, we can run like unbridled horses out onto the prairie.”

Automating manual procedures also will lead to improved response times from Pitt to students and parents, Harding added.

Separating financial aid from admissions also will help people understand his office’s impact and reach, McCready said: “Historically when you have financial aid embedded in an admissions office, people believe that it is just about the new student … Financial aid touches all parts of the student lifecycle, even beyond graduation.”

An institution of Pitt’s size optimally would have 35 financial aid employees, McCready said, adding, “I’m not going to hire people for the sake of hiring them. I need to get the right structure.” Under the previous OAFA administration, he said, “everyone was pretty much told what they were supposed to do.” He plans to give employees more opportunities to take charge of more tasks.

If staff members are worried about their future, he said, “they’re nervous because they haven’t been empowered to do the things they really can do.”

Asked by committee members how faculty might have an influence on the manner in which school-specific scholarships are distributed and tracked, McCready cautioned that the decision-making there is still top-down.

“We have a lot of institutional dollars that a lot of people have an interest in,” he said. “So a lot of people have to be at the table. You want to strategically target it so you are making the most of the dollars, for the best revenue of the University.”

Juan J. Manfredi, vice provost for undergraduate studies and a chancellor’s liaison to the committee, noted: “The big decisions at the highest level are made by the provost,” with input from deans and other administrators. But federal and state aid rules govern much of how financial aid is distributed: “You have very little room to move,” apart from scholarships funded by individual or institutional donors, which often come with specific restrictions too.

McCready suggested that such scholarships should be tracked centrally. “It’s not a matter of shifting who is making the decision, but how it is reported,” he said, so the University can have a better tally of how many National Merit Scholars it has, for instance.

Noting that his own recent work had come at a regional campus, he called for increased relations among financial aid offices in Pittsburgh and at the regionals: “We are one University system. We need to look the same. We need to feel the same.”

—Marty Levine

Filed under: Feature,Volume 47 Issue 5