Combating Misinformation Among Students and Parents

 Voices - Masthead  

By Brittany Hackett, Communications Staff 

When students and families have questions about how to afford college, the first place many people go is their campus’ financial aid office. But what happens when they come in with misinformation about financial aid? NASFAA reached out to its membership to find out how financial aid offices around the country are combating misinformation and educating students and families about their options to pay for college.

Ron Day, former NASFAA national chair and director of financial aid at Kennesaw State University (KSU), said that it is “a constant battle” to ensure that students are provided with accurate information and that the “delivery of correct information is vital to providing access.”

“It is vitally important to ensure the proper and correct information be provided from professionals with the financial aid office, thus demonstrating a trust to students and parents,” Day said,” noting that aid administrators are “the go-to individuals for accurate and trustworthy information.” 

Aid administrators are often confronted with students and families who are confused about how aid is awarded and how much they will have to pay back. 

Ashraf Mourad from Bloomfield College said that misinformation about student loans and defaults, and how colleges award aid packages, are two issues that represent the biggest myths he encounters when he speaks with students. 

Many students who are new to the process assume that borrowing any student loans will place them in almost instant default because of the poor economy and job market. 

“This is largely due to all the talk in the media about a trillion dollar student loan bubble, alongside similar stories of students graduating with onerous debt that is holding back the economy,” said Mourad. This hesitation leads many students and parents to “object to their financial aid when they see a subsidized loan, no matter how modest the amount or how generous the grant of scholarships being offered,” he said.

Questions regarding the Pell Grant Program and student dependency often arise on Heritage College & Heritage Institute’s campus, financial aid administrator Nicholette Golesh said.  She added that her school uses Department of Education resources to help students and families understand these issues, as well as “taking the time to really explain and counsel students on these aspects of financial aid and to help ease some of the fear it can create.”

According to Day, “a good bit of time is used to ‘un-train’ students and parents from the misinformation being communicated,” whether from the media at large or even other departments on campus. He noted that his office engages in continuous training to assist with the release of correct information, as well as providing training to other offices on campus.

“Campuses have well-intentioned individuals in various office and positions that provide information to students that often is completely or partially incorrect,” Day said. 

The KSU financial aid office utilizes social media, its website, and the school’s student news initiatives to provide up-to-date information on regulatory changes that will impact students. The office also provides “Financial Aid 101,” a basic training activity for students, faculty, and staff that offers basic financial aid information with the goal of reducing misinformation.

But the misinformation doesn’t end with the finer points of financial aid, like how a package is awarded or the amount of loans a student must take out.  Several financial aid administrators said the media and its coverage of student debt plays a large role in broader misinformation about higher education in general.

Many students and families “have come to believe that unless they are accepted into a highly selective school, it’s not worth going to college because they will receive a subpar education,” Mourad said, referring to this as “the Ivies-or-nothing syndrome.”

He said he thinks this has led some young people to “mistakenly” postpone their higher education plans. “What is more, I am worried that this phenomena will only become worse once the federal government rolls out their college ratings system,” he said.

“Read practically any source of information outside the NASFAA Today’s News or others specific to our profession,” David Sheridan, director of financial aid at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, said, “and you would reach the conclusion that the average student loan borrower has borrowed about $250,000 to earn a degree in Icelandic Philosophy with a minor in Jazz Oboe and is now making artisan pickled okra in Brooklyn.”

Humor aside, Sheridan notes that he tells those who will listen that the average amount student loan borrowers owe is roughly equivalent to the price of a “fairly well-equipped Mazda,” with many owing less.  

“While we would love to see the default rates go down, for unsecured loans borrowed in many cases by teenagers to pay for something that can’t be thrown in the back of the truck by the repo man, I think the repayment rate is pretty good,” Sheridan said.

What myths about financial aid have you heard on your campus? How does your office combat this misinformation? Share your thoughts in the comments section below! 



Publication Date: 8/6/2014

Kimberly L | 8/11/2014 10:55:27 AM

Three cheers for Douglas!!! Although well intended, the SAR causes many problems, as students and parents only see the words they want to see.

Michelle M | 8/8/2014 9:16:12 AM

Sometimes the problem comes from families who have a good idea of what they want to know, but don't know how to ask the right questions. Staff and counselors answer the questions they are asked, not necessarily the question that is intended. I have found this often to be the case with students who withdraw from courses during the semester. They come in and ask if their aid will be okay if they withdraw after the 60% point, to be told, yes, there will be no changes at this point, only to find themselves on suspension down the road as a result. This is often a problem with front line staff is either not well enough trained, or so very busy that they are unable to answer not just for the moment, but the future. At our school this is compounded by a different SAP rule for academics than the federal rules for SAP for aid..

We really do need to listen to what is being asked in the context of the whole student, not just the financial aid aspect..

Cynthia B | 8/6/2014 10:56:33 AM

I concur, Doug, our district receives the same type of comments from our student population. "FAFSA told me I am already eligible and approved, why is my amount different or why do I need to provide any other documentation?" Our offices fight this continually and it perpetuates distrust. This language should be revised to support colleges and universities in reducing confusion within financial aid. It is complex enough without adding to frustration levels of students and parents.

Theodore M | 8/6/2014 10:24:12 AM

While not really a myth, there is a growing expectation that student's will get scholarships as a reward for their hard work in high school. Often the most wealthy are the ones who feel most entitled.

An actual myth we deal with is that non-resident students believe they will only pay non-resident tuition for one year.

Lori V | 8/6/2014 9:44:47 AM

When we conduct financial aid nights at high schools, etc. we try to explain to families that taking out loans is an investment in oneself, in their life, their future. We use the old analogy of paying anywhere from $20-$60k for a car that will last them 3-5 years, maybe 10 if they take great care of it and choose to keep it....but yet they don't want to invest that in themselves by taking out loans. We really could use some help from the USDE pushing better PR for colleges and universities. We hear often the 1-800 number gives bad info, that has been going on for years. Of course we all know that the response one is given is all in and how the question is asked by the student/parent.

Val M | 8/6/2014 9:8:00 AM

We are now hearing radio ads in our market area from companies that will "help you get forgiveness of your student loan"! I cringe every time I hear this, knowing students are being charged for help with federal loan forgiveness programs that are absolutely free.

James C | 8/6/2014 8:53:38 AM

I agree with Doug's comment. Also, how much mis-information is given by 1-800-4-fed-aid? We know by talking to our families it is quite a bit.

Marvin S | 8/6/2014 8:52:05 AM

We now have staff follow the comments and respond to questions on our Facebook Class of 20XX pages (which is a growing group each year). The questions are not about specific aid packages, they are about such things as "should I borrow a 'Stanford' loan" or "how and when do I get my book money". While there is no such thing as a dumb financial aid question, you certainly get to see some dumb answers from fellow students. I highly recommend aid officers dig in to this new source of misinformation and do what they can to correct misinformation and educate students.

Douglas L | 8/6/2014 8:40:27 AM

My biggest pet peeve is the email a student receives when they complete the FAFSA. On the surface (i.e. if the student doesn't read the fine print), it implies that the student has been approved for financial aid. I can't tell you how many students (many, many) come into our office regularly stating "FAFSA already approved me, so why are you asking for more information and holding up the financial aid that I am already entitled to".

Doug Levy
Macomb Community College
Warren, MI

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