As higher education becomes increasingly out of reach for some students and families, it’s important that state agencies and higher education leaders adjust their approaches to make sure state financial aid remains accessible to students, according to a new report from the New England Board of Higher Education.
In the report, the board puts forth several recommendations and insights for redesigning student aid programs throughout the New England region.
"State financial aid can play a significant role in making college affordable," the report said. "Especially when aligned with state approaches to tuition and institutional appropriations, aid to students can dramatically and strategically lower the cost burden for enrolling in and completing postsecondary education."
One way to improve state financial aid for is to make sure aid programs are better aligned to student populations, the report said. While the types of students who enroll in college have shifted noticeably, many state financial aid programs have remained the same. Students who enroll in college immediately after high school, attend full-time, and live on campus make up a smaller proportion of all college students.
Some features of state aid programs, such as spring deadlines, might discourage or shut out students who delay their decisions to apply for aid and attend college, such as adult learners, the report said. The board recommended seeking feedback from students and drawing on evidence from pilot programs in other states, and getting a more complete picture of the student population through student testimony or panels, or a data analysis of current students.
The board also highlights the need for collaboration between higher education leaders and legislators, and improving communication with students and families.
"It is no wonder students and families are confused, misinformed or even misled on college affordability," the report said. "They regularly receive messages about paying for college that are delivered outside their typical forms of receiving information, filled with technical jargon or based on assumptions that do not apply to them."
These issues with communication can leave students with costs associated with attending college that come as a surprise, or lead to them missing important deadlines. The board recommended giving students and families the opportunity to check their understanding along the way through games that test their knowledge, or short online pop quizzes. It also suggested doing tests to identify what language better resonates with students and families, and working with high school counselors and other organizations that can work as intermediaries with students and parents.
Higher education leaders can also help students along the way by taking a more hands-on approach helping them navigate the financial aid process. Higher education leaders can do this through providing opportunities for "high-touch" interaction with students, such as a live chat option, and by using text message "nudges”" at times when "intrusive financial aid services are most critical –– much like early alert systems that are triggered when students’ academic performance slips."
Finally, the board recognized the growing need for states to be able to collect, maintain, and analyze data related to students and financial aid. It recommended first identifying research gaps in answering questions about college affordability, and working with other partners –– institutional researchers or philanthropic foundations, for example –– to expand data capacity.
"Regional collaboration offers an opportunity to approach affordability in a comprehensive and aligned manner," the report said. "At a time when all six New England states are increasingly dependent on college-educated residents, and college is increasingly unaffordable for those residents, the opportunity to strengthen state investment in college affordability on a regional scale is too important to pass up."
Publication Date: 3/8/2016