In a Changing Academic Landscape, Importance of Early Intervention in Financial Aid Awareness Remains Constant

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter 

Life has been dramatically altered since the onset of the pandemic, but some things remain unchanged — it’s never too early to start thinking about financing a student’s higher education.

“The better [students] do academically starting in first grade, they're getting themselves ready for college,” said MorraLee Keller, director of technical assistance at the National College Attainment Network (NCAN). “But I would say you really kind of have to start planting the seed in middle school.”

This sort of early stage planning allows a student to determine what academic trajectory is best for them, but amid all the uncertainty surrounding the short-term and long-term economic impacts of the coronavirus — now nearly a year into its initial outbreak in the U.S. — the entire higher education sector is attempting to reevaluate the aid process as new challenges arise.

While long-term concerns stemming from the "enrollment cliff" — in which changing demographics and a decline in the U.S. birth rate will lead to a reduction in prospective college aged students — many institutions of higher education in the short term are turning their focus to capturing students who might fall through the cracks due to the chaos of the pandemic.

According to Brad Barnett, director of financial aid at James Madison University and a member of NASFAA’s Board of Directors, the timing of this unfolding environment is a bit of a perfect storm.

“We're dealing with the pandemic, we're dealing with some challenges in people feeling comfortable and going to college or going away to college, and online education versus in-person,” Barnett said. “We've seen some challenges industry-wide with recruitment and enrollment retention, but then we're also getting closer and closer to that enrollment cliff. So you’re starting to see just a change in some of the numbers and some of the demographics.”

These accumulating factors can impose a sense of existential dread, but in planning for the semester and academic year ahead, it's somewhat business as usual for the financial aid process.

“Timelines really haven't changed,” Barnett said. “Most schools, I haven't really talked to any schools who’ve changed hard filing dates for the FAFSA. So the process from what we're doing and from what I've seen with my colleagues has pretty much stayed the same.”

Michael Crider, a financial aid representative at Dakota County Technical College, always tells students it's never too early to start the aid process, other than the fact that the FAFSA doesn’t become available until October each year for the following award year.

Amid all the economic uncertainty, Crider said it’s important for students to be aware of the assistance aid professionals can offer.

“What I see a lot of is that people have the idea of going back to school or starting school, but then there's that hang up [about] financial aid,” Crider said. “For some people that's literally the difference of whether they're going or not, as crazy as that sounds.”

Showing students what financial aid is available is paramount to getting them in the mindset that enrolling in a given program is attainable.

“A lot of times we have to help [at-risk students] understand or dispel the myth that college is too expensive for them,” NCAN’s Keller said. “When you come from a low-income family, you may be seeing the sticker price of a college and you may have a tendency to rule out that particular college or college in general.”

Without setting realistic goals or understanding what aid a student might be eligible for, the process can become overwhelming.

“Otherwise the problem is that [students] are all set, as far as going to school, but they don't know how they're funding it and before you know it they're not doing it,” Crider said.

Even prior to the pandemic, some states began to implement new oversight that could help educators oversee a student's progress in engaging in the aid process — which could also come in handy as families nationwide grapple with the financial implications of the pandemic and reevaluate plans for college.

North Carolina’s Finish the FAFSA program, for example, enables both high school counselors and principals to see who has submitted a FAFSA.

According to JD Gibbs, director of financial aid at Lenoir Community College in North Carolina, the program further breaks down the application process by showing high school officials whether a student was selected for verification or if their guardians still need to be involved in completing the form.

“It's going to be beneficial going forward in the pandemic,” Gibbs said. “You can specifically target individuals, whereas before there was no real system to tell you who in your high school had completed the FAFSA. That program is very beneficial and will continue to be, because it just gives you a better target audience.”

While it could be beneficial for schools to start looking to engage younger prospective students ahead of the enrollment cliff, in the wake of the pandemic all focus is likely to remain on the immediate cohort of students — those either currently or soon to be pursuing higher education.

“A lot of people are just in emergency situations and don't have a lot of money at this point in time, as a result of the pandemic,” Barnett said. “So it is causing some people to think twice.”

While institutions of higher education are cognizant of helping students that may just be beginning their college search, for now their main focus is on the high school classes of 2020 and 2021. The other primary concern is keeping prospective students engaged in the college enrollment process that has gradually become entirely virtual.

The whole process — from initial application through enrollment — can be daunting, but for high school seniors in particular, having awareness about the financial aid process can be transformative.

“As far as access ... if you can get people that would have normally fallen through the cracks or taken a different route and at least give them some education,” Gibbs said “I think that the biggest impact.”


Publication Date: 2/24/2021

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