Financial Aid Offices Learn to Adapt, Embrace Uncertainty as Another Decision Day Passes Amid Coronavirus

Related Topics in the Ref Desk: Enrollment Status

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter 

There is no shortage of ways the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has upended the higher education calendar, particularly as it relates to enrollment and admissions schedules.

While the May 1 National Decision Day — when high school seniors declare which college they’ll be attending in the fall — remains in place and should bring with it clarity to admissions and financial aid offices, it's taken on new meaning again this year as institutions grapple with a shrinking applicant pool and lingering uncertainty over whether enrollment declines will continue.

The primary cause of concern for institutions at this point in the calendar is determining what their fall enrollment numbers will look like, with significant enrollment surpluses post-May 1 deposits from students unlikely.

“The troughs could be potentially deeper, and given the fact that a lot of colleges are already on thin ice when it comes to the budget scenario, those troughs could be really concerning,” said David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC).

Hawkins said institutions will get a clearer enrollment picture in the coming weeks as they get a sense of their commitments. He added that while this year is much better than last — when the admissions schedule was turned on its head — it's still not a “typical” year and many institutions will still have enrollment opportunities, financial aid, and housing available for the fall semester past the May 1 priority date.

To that end, more than 350 colleges and universities are still accepting applications from prospective freshman and/or transfer students for the upcoming fall term as of the first week of May, according to NACAC’s annual College Openings Update. The list is updated daily and could continue to grow in the coming weeks, Hawkins noted. 

“The pandemic has so thoroughly drained upon which students can apply to and afford college,” Hawkins said. “Uncertainty and anxiety about whether institutions are going to make their class is exacerbated this year. Colleges have to become accustomed to this new way of doing business.”

Financial aid offices say the remaining uncertainty means they are in nearly constant communication with their institution’s admissions office to get a sense of enrollment figures and to be prepared to offer prospective students more aid to entice them to enroll.

“In some ways, enrollment management turns into a little bit of a science,” said Nick Prewett, director of financial aid and scholarship services at Stony Brook University in New York. “So, if you're down in applications, maybe you're admitting more students, or maybe you're starting to offer more aid to kind of make up for that.”

Prewett said a major difference this year is that students are expressing a desire to live on campus and want to hear from their potential schools that campus and resident dorming facilities will be open to students come fall.

At Stony Brook, Prewett said the current plan is to have students return to campus in the fall for in-person classes, with some online offerings still available. That plan was communicated to students well in advance of the May 1 deadline to allow them to make an informed decision about where they wanted to attend, he added. 

“I think a lot of students just have that desire to be back in a classroom and in an educational setting that's not their living room or their couch,” Prewett said.

Both Prewett and Brad Barnett, the director of financial aid at James Madison University (JMU), said one trend in financial aid that has been accelerated by the pandemic is the dual roles that financial aid professionals must now occupy as they become more intertwined with the admissions office.

“This year has been much more interesting here, as far as our level of involvement in the discussions [with admissions] and some of the planning regarding how we're trying to get our students to campus,” Barnett said in a call with NASFAA just before he was set to meet with his university’s dean of admissions ahead of the May 1 deadline. 

While JMU has not adjusted its May 1 deadline this year, Barnett said he worked hand-in-hand with the admissions office to get snapshots of applications and commitments from students at earlier points this year.

“Throughout this entire admissions cycle, we're looking at headcount data much more so than we ever have in the past and making different changes to financial aid packages even midstream based on the number of students who are actually in the pool,” he said.

Prewett said he’s worked to get his staff up to speed on what admissions and enrollment targets the university is aiming to achieve and how the financial aid office can compliment those efforts.

“Five or 10 years ago it was, ‘Here's financial aid.’ And now it’s, ‘Here's what our class target is and here's how many students we have and here's what our goal is’ and different things like that,” Prewett said. “So it's just important for financial aid folks to really incorporate that as well.”

He added that in the past he had staff members who didn't know what the university’s admissions goal was or where the school was in terms of applications at a given point.

“It's just important to communicate that information along the way so that everybody's on the same page,” Prewett said.

Emily Haynam, the executive director of student financial aid at the University of Missouri, has yet to experience a “normal year” as the head of a financial aid office since she was promoted to her current role last June in the midst of the pandemic.

This year, though, she’s noticed a distinct shift in students’ desire to be on campus.

“Our in-person events that we're hosting are booked solid — people want to come to campus,” she said of summer orientation programs and early enrollment options for students.

However, that shift does not automatically mean all who apply will end up enrolling. Haynam and her colleagues in the admissions office are encouraged that as of the last week of April, they had far fewer canceled applications than in previous years. 

“It's hard to put a reason on why students haven't done that, but one of our presumptions is because they're waiting to make decisions until they really know what that campus experience is going to be like as a result of the pandemic,” she said. 

By coordinating with the admissions office and knowing that their yields were down despite a lower rate of cancellations, Haynam and the financial aid office was able to offer additional institutional scholarships to help those who demonstrated financial need in order to afford housing so they could live on campus.

“As an aid office, we're continuously looking at how can we get the word out with special circumstances or professional judgment to make sure students are aware they can call us and talk to us about those situations,” she said. “And we can help guide them through that as early as possible in that decision-making process.”


Publication Date: 5/10/2021

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