• Dealing with the Ongoing IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) Outage

    We all know the importance the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) plays in the lives of Financial Aid administrators, student applicants, their parents and the affordability of higher education in general. The FAFSA is complicated, time-consuming, and collects a wealth of information about a given student’s ability to qualify for additional aid. The IRS has a Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) that has helped students and their families fill out the FAFSA with greater efficiency and accuracy.

    As you’re likely painfully aware, the DRT has been unavailable since March 9, 2017. The IRS has issued a formal statement, available on the US Department of Education website, that outlines their perspective on how the outage of the DRT affects students and the application process. In short, the implications are:

    - Tax data usually made automatically available by the DRT is unavailable indefinitely

    - Students and their families have been directed to manually review their most recent tax returns in order to find the information usually provided by the DRT. They should request copies from their family’s tax preparer, the IRS website, or by calling 800-908-9946

    - Online applications for the FAFSA and Income-Driven Repayment (IDR) Plan are still operational

    Our friends at the National Scholarship Providers Association (NSPA) have been doing an excellent job staying on top of this issue. If you’re an NSPA member, we recommend following their updates on the matter which have been coming through their usual weekly announcements. The National College Access Network (NCAN) also has an excellent running blog post about recommended actions to take that doesn’t require membership to follow.

    Our team at AwardSpring has been briefed on the implications of this outage. If your students or their families call in to our team for support on this matter, we’ll be sure to share this information with them and direct them to your Financial Aid team for any additional information or concerns.

    Kurt Reilly
    Co-Founder & CEO

  • Reviewing: Best Practices

    One of the most valuable benefits of using a centralized platform to manage your scholarship applications is the time it saves you and your review committee. Uniform scoring, when appropriate, can eliminate the need for your committee to review the same applicants multiple times across multiple scholarships. Allowing you to control what information is available to reviewers can also mean less opportunity for unintentional FERPA violations. As scholarship review season approaches, how can you achieve higher participation from your reviewers and get the most of out their efforts? Simplify your process! Here’s how:

    Make sure your reviewers know what you’re looking for. What purpose are your scoring rubrics serving? You’ve asked your reviewers to rate applicants’ essays with a highest possible score of five. Does your committee know what to look for in an essay response? What separates a score of three from a score of four? Outlining your expectations and sharing them with the committee ahead of time will help ensure that there is a high degree of consistency in the way applications are scored as well as minimal confusion on the reviewers’ part.

    Don’t duplicate your efforts by creating score cards based on scholarship eligibility. If this is your first time managing your scholarship process online, your review committee might have previously been tasked with screening applicants for eligibility in addition to evaluating the more subjective parts of their applications (such as recommendations and essays). Most online scholarship management platforms match applicants with scholarships they’re eligible for based on pre-set scholarship criteria so there’s no need for your reviewers to take on this extra work. Allow your reviewers to focus on other areas of an application and provide their subject matter expertise during the review process by not creating score cards for criteria that have already been evaluated by the software.

    Pre-screen applicants before assigning them to reviewers. You may have scholarships with general criteria that give preference based on certain factors. You’re likely to get higher numbers of applicants on these types of general scholarships. If the number of applicants is so high that it would be a burden for the reviewers to evaluate all of them, consider identifying the top applicants and eliminating those applicants who are unlikely to be awarded that scholarship. For example, if the scholarship in question awards to college students with a 2.0 or higher GPA and gives preferential consideration to female applicants, consider having the committee review only female applicants.

    Set the number of reads on each application. There may be some review committees that prefer that all members read all applications. Other committees might be open to dividing up applications evenly amongst themselves. In the latter case, determine how many sets of eyes you’d like on each application and set this ahead of time so as not to assign a disproportionate amount of applications to any one individual.

    Blind certain pieces of information from reviewers. What do your reviewers need to see on an application? Some information you collect on the application might be considered sensitive or just plain unnecessary for the reviewers. Keep your review process unbiased and uncluttered by hiding this information from reviewers.

    Promote your process. Review committees can be resistant to change when they’re used to doing things the same way year after year. The idea of transitioning to an online review process may seem daunting to them. Be sympathetic and make things easy on them wherever possible, but above all remind them why you’re moving online. Your unified goal is to award scholarship dollars to the most qualified and deserving applicants. Housing applicant data, reviewer scores, and award information in a central location provides benefits that extend beyond any one party involved.

    Collaborate with peers. Networking with similar colleges, universities, and foundations can be beneficial when setting up your review process. Seeing how other administrators have overcome obstacles can help you avoid the same pitfalls.

    There are plenty of ways you can improve your review process, and we’re here to help you figure out how! We’ve worked with our clients to provide suggestions, help adapt platform features to fit their processes, and even facilitate conversations with other clients. Don’t hesitate to reach out to our support team to schedule a strategy call to talk through any questions or concerns you may have.

    Jill Murphy
    Implementation & Training Specialist

  • 2016 Year in Review

    As happens during this time of the year, I have been reflecting on what a momentous year it has been. While searching through my notes, I realized that not only are we closing out 2016, but the AwardSpring platform is two years old. Given that, let's take a look at what we've accomplished in those two years.

    Two years ago, we had our first customers start using the platform as a beta. We had three customers daring enough to start preparation work in December for January 1 go-live. We added conditional (skip) logic into the software just three days prior and it wasn't yet possible to delete a scholarship. We were hurrying to prepare our platform for real customers and closing lots of bugs. We didn’t sleep much.

    Setting up the first AwardSpring site.
    Chris setting up the first AwardSpring site.

    We learned a lot from our customers during that first cycle. Features that we thought were important got put on the back burner, features that we thought could wait were needed immediately. In a lot of ways this exemplifies how we work. Being responsive to customers is crucial to our success. In the first six months, we shipped the following:

    - Reviewer Blinding
    - Help Center
    - SIS Integration
    - Single Sign On

    We also revisited the design of several pages on the site. For example, we completely redesigned the awarding screen to make it customizable. This was a common theme for work that we have done since our initial launch. Each customer has a unique process and features we build need to allow for this wide variation.

    Customizable award and deny screen.

    We continued to improve the software through the back half of 2015 and into 2016. In total, we have updated the software with 29 feature releases in 24 months. The frequency of releases is important to us as it means we can quickly address smaller issues and customer requests. In previous lives at other companies, my team was only able to address concerns during quarterly or yearly releases.

    It is easy to focus only on the software when looking back. The software has many tangible, visible changes. However, one of the biggest, less visible changes has been to our support process. Prior to taking over STARS Online, support was… interesting. Since then, we have introduced a dedicated support team, added the ability to message our support team from inside the software, and expanded our phone coverage. We have also added dedicated implementation specialists to guide our customers through their first award cycle to ensure they can effectively use the software.

    As you can see, our customers are the center of nearly all of the changes we've made in two years. To help formalize the feedback process, we automatically ask customers for feedback after every support interaction. Our client development team also reaches out multiple times a year to see how things are going, address any issues, and schedule additional training.

    In many ways, we're an entirely different company than we were two short years ago. However, our core values remain the same which keeps us focused on customer needs and drives constant improvement.

    We couldn’t be more excited about the future. We have some amazing ideas about how to continue to make scholarship management easier and expand the kinds of tasks the software can help you accomplish.

    If you have feedback, questions, or ideas for where we should head in the future, feel free to send me a note or give me a call.

    Daniel Orofino
    VP, Product Management

    Contact me: 847.859.5017 x 7325 | dorofino@awardspring.com

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