Student Aid Perspectives is an occasional, longer-format series designed to offer thought-provoking articles on current student aid topics written by expert authors. The opinions offered and statements made do not imply endorsement by NASFAA or the authors' employers and do not guarantee the accuracy of information presented.
By Amy Glynn
The stage for the 2021-22 school year is being set with escalated concerns about college enrollment. Fall 2020 saw freshman enrollment down 13% across all institution types. Alone, this dip in enrollment would be alarming, but couple the fall enrollment numbers with the current 14% dip in FAFSA completion, and the future becomes a little murkier for colleges. Traditional dependent students — who are the majority of first-time freshmen — in years past have been early submitters of the FAFSA. Over half of dependent students — 51% — submitted the 2018-19 FAFSA prior to Jan. 1, 2018.
Couple these troubling early indicators in the 2021-22 enrollment cycle with the fiscal difficulties millions of American families are facing, and the enrollment slide could be even worse in fall of 2021. Economic difficulties tied to job loss, unemployment, and increased medical and family expenses due to COVID-19 have made the ability for schools to address financial fit between themselves and students even more critical. The most prolific starting point for this discussion is the financial aid offer.
Aid offers have always been a pothole on the road to college enrollment. We need to make sure last year's pothole does not become this year's sinkhole.
Financial aid offers have been at the center of confusion for students and parents for generations. Every school has its own way of communicating with students that can be complicated by technology constraints. This has resulted in schools referring to the same data element in hundreds of different ways.
Reviewing aid offers to ensure that they appropriately use the NASFAA Glossary of standard terminology is a good first step. However, words that are new concepts and unfamiliar terms should be accompanied by help text explaining the terms. For example, labeling a number "direct cost" does not help the student understand what direct cost means. Instead, we need to take advantage of the time families spend with their aid offers and provide clarity where feasible. To this point, the aid offer shouldn't be a singular paper letter. Modern award "letters," should include electronic communication that can use expandable help text, video content, and even embedding a bot or live chat to provide real-time assistance to students.
No one should look at an aid offer and be left wondering, "Can I afford this school?" Cost should be clearly and comprehensively displayed to help drive financial literacy of the aid process. This means clarifying the cost of attendance with differentiation between direct (billable) and indirect (discretionary non-billable) charges. When presenting aid, clear differentiation between gift aid and self-help can dispel misconceptions about affordability.
Whenever possible, calculations should be transparent and performed on behalf of the student. A good example would be presenting students the net price — a value that already carries a federal definition of cost of attendance minus grants and scholarships. Never should a student walk away wondering how the school got to a certain number. Every award recipient should know with certainty that direct cost + indirect cost - grants - scholarships = net price.
Over the years, financial aid offers have become a catch-all for education to students about financial aid. As a former director of financial aid, I have been guilty of doing this in the past. It's hard to get students to read communications from the aid office, but there is one notice they always open without fail: the financial aid offer.
These notices have been used to communicate eligibility, renewal criteria, interest rates, cost, alternative funding options, and next steps. Unfortunately, this approach has made the financial aid offer cluttered and even more overwhelming. The results are students who cannot identify a clear call to action. We need more Marie Kondo here. Her method encourages us to tidy up life by category while we keep only those things that speak to the heart, and discard items that no longer spark joy. When it comes to the aid offer, the only things that should speak to the heart should be related to the purpose of the communication — to create a clear understanding of the financial fit between the institution and student.
When all else fails, make it easy for students and parents to connect with counselors about confusion and to engage in personalized advising about affordability, alternative funding, and additional resources. The aid offer should provide multiple ways to connect, with nudges at multiple points in the communication set. If a student does not have a zero expected family contribution (EFC), consider a call to action linking to educational resources about your EFC appeal process. Let them know resources are available and the institution is eager to help. Embedding live chat or a bot can help answer questions on demand and connect families to the resources they need, right when they need it. Families are looking at financial aid offers based on 2019 financial information and a lot has changed since then.
To keep college within reach, we have an obligation to unlock every dollar that is available to students and help them chart their personal path to college. Early indicators suggest that the 2021-22 recruitment cycle is going to be a test of the skills, creativity, and dedication of all those in enrollment, admission, financial aid, and student services. Financial aid offers have been a pothole on the road to college access for many years. 2021 is the year to make sure that pothole is filled in and students can speed past without incident.
Amy Glynn has more than 10 years of experience helping colleges and universities improve operational outcomes and student experiences. She is currently vice president of student financial success at CampusLogic, where she focuses on helping colleges and universities remove barriers in the financial aid process.
Publication Date: 1/19/2021