Study: Many Adult Learners Struggle With Financial Aid Applications Due to Jargon

By Joelle Fredman, NASFAA Staff Reporter

The first study conducted to determine adult learners’ understanding of financial aid jargon found that many struggle with commonly found terms in institutions’ aid application instructions such as “FAFSA” and “FSA ID”—which the authors argue can be at least somewhat remedied by simply defining those acronyms.   

The study—conducted by the University of Texas at Austin’s ZW Taylor and Ibrahim Bicak—asked 813 adult students who were applying to four-year institutions to indicate what terms they were unfamiliar with from federal student aid application instructions provided by a school from each sector—public, private nonprofit, and for-profit. While 62.7 percent of the respondents reported no unfamiliar jargon in any of the texts, the remaining 37.3 percent reported 1,208 unfamiliar terms—an average of almost four terms per respondent.

Taylor and Bicak found that the most misunderstood jargon in the first text—which came from a for-profit institution serving 90,000 students—included “MPN” (Master Promissory Note), “FAFSA,” “grants,” “portal,” “pocketbook,” and “FSA ID.” In the second text—which belonged to a private, non-profit institution of 7,000 students—respondents were unfamiliar with terms such as the “CSS Profile” and “IRS-DRT” (Internal Revenue Service Data-Retrieval Tool). In the third text—which was taken from a public institution of 50,000 students—respondents were unfamiliar with acronyms such as “ITINS” (Individual Taxpayer Identification Number), “TASFA” (Texas Application for State Financial Aid), and “ISSS” (International Student and Scholar Services). The authors noted that these terms were often not defined in the text.

“Without knowledge of these concepts, prospective adults may be forgoing the pursuit of a postsecondary education out of an impression that such an education is unaffordable,” the authors warned.

 The authors found wealth to be a big determinant of whether the survey respondents understand the jargon, and argued that “first-generation status among prospective adult students may not be as important as income regarding financial wellness and knowledge of the federal student aid application process.”

“As a result, financial wellness and knowledge programming should focus on adults in poverty to bolster their sense of financial wellness and knowledge and assist during the federal student aid application process,” the authors wrote.

They argued that to help students better navigate the financial aid process, institutions should define all of the acronyms they include in instructions, be mindful when mixing federal jargon—such as the IRS-DRT—with state jargon—such as TASFA, and “should not take federal student aid knowledge for granted, as many prospective adults in this study’s sample reported being unfamiliar with seemingly common student financial aid concepts such as the FAFSA.”  

As NASFAA explained in a September 2018 issue brief on award letters, using consumer-tested, standard terminology and common data elements will make it easier for students to become more familiar with key terms.

“[I]nstitutions of higher education and those responsible for providing financial wellness programming should collaborate and review their institutional, state, and federal financial aid application materials,” the authors wrote. “By defining acronyms, cutting irrelevant material, and avoiding the blending of jargon from different aid sources, prospective adult students may no longer find themselves asking, ‘What’s the FAFSA?’”


Publication Date: 1/31/2019

David S | 2/1/2019 4:3:17 PM

Speaking as a long-time financial aid veteran, complaints that we as a profession overuse jargon - no matter who our audience - is nothing new. This means we as a profession must do better, including award letters, websites, social media, email blasts, in-person presentations, video clips...every means of communication we use. If students, parents, colleagues around campus, guidance counselors...whoever...aren't "getting it" over and over, chances are the problem isn't on the receiving end. Stop using financial aid speak and acronyms...assume that your audience knows nothing about financial aid, because most of them have gone through most of their lives not needing to.

Rebecca S | 2/1/2019 9:49:11 AM

In all of the student-facing publications I create or edit, I assume the best practice is to write out the full definition of an acronym, explanation of a phrase, or link to a website, the first time it is mentioned. Otherwise, the resulting piece will be readable only to FAAs and select higher ed administrators in-the-know. It seems this study highlights the danger that we can be TOO brief in our explanations.

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