• 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

  • 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

  • Preparing for Your Next Award Cycle

    No matter how well you prepared your AwardSpring site before your first award cycle, there will likely be adjustments you can make to your site to better streamline your process for your next cycle. Perhaps you didn’t anticipate that certain questions that would trip up your applicants. Maybe you forgot to ask an additional question or essay that could better illuminate students’ qualifications for your reviewers. 

    It's best practice to make these types of changes as you are preparing for your next award cycle. You have the chance to revisit your application and qualifications to smooth any wrinkles that arose during your previous cycle. 

    Here are some suggestions of changes you might want to consider:

    Make workflow corrections Were there particular sections that made the process difficult for applicants? Did you forget to ask an important question? Look back through old emails and tickets from your applicants if you need a refresher on what needs to be adjusted.

    Request custom reports Although you can request custom reports at any point during your award cycle, it is beneficial to ask for them in advance. During your cycle, you might have discovered that the default reports in the AwardSpring system could be tailored a bit more to your process needs. If this is the case, requesting custom reports at the beginning of your cycle will ensure you have your report when you need it. It’ll be right there in the report dropdown!

    Create donor profiles Between cycles is the perfect time to start building out donor profiles, if you haven’t already done so. We built the donor functionality to drive engagement and educate applicants about who is providing the opportunities. Donor profiles can include both internal fields (contact tab) and public-facing information such as profile photos and social media links (profile tab). Profiles can be maintained by either the donors themselves or by you the administrator, depending on how hands-on your donors want to be.

    Acquaint yourself with new features We are regularly adding new features and improving existing ones so we might have removed a constraint you experienced when setting up your previous award cycle. Release notes from the entire year can be found in the Help Center if you would like a full review of the new tools that have been built over the course of the last year. Implementing them might require making larger changes to the application itself so between cycles is the perfect time to do so. Some notable additions from the past year include external requests, custom reports, and impersonating student users.

    Add instructional text Were there places in your application that presented issues for your students? If you found yourself talking through the same questions, you might want to consider adding instructional text to your application to curtail confusion. For example, if you want to clarify for students where they can look up their student ID, you could include a hyperlink in an instructional text box to help them locate that information.

    You can find useful articles about how to make changes to your site in our comprehensive Help Center. And, as always, our support team is always available to talk through any questions you have come across or to help adapt features to fit your process. Don’t hesitate to reach out!

    Cass Montemagni
    Implementation & Training Specialist

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