The Pandemic Has Changed How Financial Aid Offices Communicate With Students

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

The ongoing pandemic has upended many traditional forms of communication between students and financial aid offices, coming at a time when more students are acutely in need of additional support.

From notifying students of the availability of emergency aid grants allocated through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to processing an increase of professional judgement requests, financial aid offices have had an increased workload since the onset of the pandemic.

“We were getting hit from all angles just for students who needed money to live,” said JoEllen Soucier, executive director of financial aid at Houston Community College (HCC). “It was organized chaos is all I can call it.”

The organized part is the key, Soucier said. Keeping students informed with targeted communication in a variety of ways was crucial for her and her staff to allocate more than $14 million in emergency aid in the spring and deal with a barrage of student requests in the first few weeks of the fall semester.

A survey conducted in June by research group Ithaka S+R found that approximately half of college students who responded wanted more communication from their respective financial aid offices during the spring semester. Notably, two-thirds of students who are eligible for Pell Grants wanted more communication from the financial aid offices, compared to 43% of non-Pell-eligible students.

Financial aid offices took notice and used the summer to create communication strategies for the fall, with some specifically tailored to support their students most in need.

Since HCC — which has a large population of Pell Grant recipients — is so expansive and serves a student population of more than 50,000, it utilizes a call center to field the most commonly asked questions, many of which relate to financial aid packages and scholarships.

And with the unprecedented nature of this year, students had more questions about their financial standing, aid offers, and how a family member’s job loss — or their own — could impact their ability to afford another semester.

Soucier said she keeps in close contact with the call center to see what topics are being consistently brought up by students, and then forms specific communication plans around each topic.

For example, Soucier said her office developed a “mini communication plan” specific to student loans, “because we know that is the most common reason why students are trying to reach us.”

Meeting students where they are is more important now than ever, Soucier noted, and with many not on campus and seeking assistance remotely, giving them a multitude of options is vitally important — virtual advising can only do so much if students aren’t aware of it.

Soucier’s office has had a dedicated coordinator of communications and social media for a few years, and once the pandemic hit, their role was to promote the financial aid office’s services to students, from the newly introduced chat bot to virtual advising appointments.

“Some of the advisors are literally booked solid for a 12-hour period,” she said of the virtual appointments. “It took off very quickly.”

At Syracuse University, phone lines that had never before seen more than 20-minute wait times now experienced significant backlogs, with students waiting as long as an hour to talk with a financial aid counselor.

In response to the increased wait times and perceived lack of communication with the financial aid office, the university’s student association started working with the administration and the financial aid office to provide more communication options, such as the implementation of a chatbot.

KC Woods, associate director of the office of financial aid and scholarship programs at Syracuse, stressed how important it is to hear directly from students in order to improve communications. He noted that the office had considered adopting a chatbot for years, but the push from students helped get the administration on board and approve the expense.

“When the students come up with the idea and say they would like it and start the conversation, there's all of a sudden more buy-in from the administration,” he said. “The more student input that we can get, the easier the stories that we can tell and back up what we want to do to help get some funding for different types of initiatives that might be helpful for communication.”

The advent of chatbots, which are increasingly being used by financial aid offices, has been a boon for connecting with students. Especially now, Woods said chatbots and resources where students can find answers on their own time — without a wait time and without human error — makes sense.

“The overall goal is to try to get people the easy questions answered,” he said. “If they can get the questions themselves, it allows us to get to some of the more difficult and complex ones.”

To promote these services and resources, financial aid offices are turning to social media to connect with students.

Schools including the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Missouri have dedicated Twitter handles for their financial aid offices, posting to raise awareness about the FAFSA application cycle, promote the availability of institutional aid, and share information on access to student services.

Most importantly, Twitter and other social media platforms are best used to point students in the right direction, said Emily Haynam, executive director of student financial aid at the University of Missouri.

Haynam said she and her office were hearing from students who didn’t know they could qualify for emergency aid last semester. So they went back to the drawing board to rethink how they connect with students through email, shortening the length and putting the most pertinent information at the top — and, of course, letting them know through social media.

“We had to go back out with shorter information to students,” she said. “And then that's where we really hit social media hard and just said, ‘Hey, if you don't know if you you qualify, it doesn't hurt to apply.’”

She added that the financial aid office’s social media feeds are actually run by students, who then run each post by staff before they are published.

“We try to tap in that way,” Haynam said, noting that students know how to best connect with their peers and are familiar with trending hashtags and what students are talking about. “We've had some really talented students that have taken the bull by the horns.” 


Publication Date: 11/3/2020

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