One of students’ biggest complaints about college is the cost. Yet many don’t use the help available to them. The first and most vital step potential students must take to access grants and school loans is to fill out a Free Application for Federal Aid (FAFSA). So why don’t more students complete the application?
According to a report issued by CollegeBoard, only 58% of Pell-eligible students who attended community college in 2007-08 year applied for financial aid. And four-year public institutions only saw three out of four eligible students apply for aid.
The effects of a student choosing to file or not file a FAFSA extend beyond the financial aid department, even playing a role in enrollment and graduation rates. Students who file a FAFSA have 72% greater odds of persistence, or returning for a second year of school at the same institution, than those who did not file, according to a study funded by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA).
Below, we address the roadblocks that prevent a student from completing the FAFSA and provide six solutions to help your institution increase the number of students who complete their applications and attend school.
1. Start Sooner.
Cooperate with high school districts in your area to make sure students are being counseled about their financing options for higher education and the steps to attain funding. The nationwide average ratio of high school students to counselors is 460 to 1. What can you do to make it as easy as possible for counselors to disseminate information about how to attend and pay for your school?
Or deliver the information to students yourself. Perhaps, in the off-season, you can arrange a task force of your financial aid officers or student advocates to present helpful information to high school juniors and seniors about how to fill out their FAFSAs.
Does your school have booths at local college fairs? If so, send a financial aid department representative to ensure that students are getting the right information about how to pay for college.
2. Simplify Information.
Communication doesn’t occur until the message has been received, and students may not be receiving your information if it’s clouded with financial aid jargon. Link to information with helpful phrases they might actually use, such as “Paying for College” or “Find Out How Financial Aid Can Help You.”
Much of the reason students complain about the FAFSA website has to do with understanding how the younger generation communicates and searches for information. While you may have used the Dewey Decimal System at your library to find a book to supplement your research, today’s youth has tools like Google that will give them exactly what they’re looking for and CTRL + F (find), which will highlight every instance of a keyword they’re seeking. In short, they want their information, and they want it easily and immediately. Use simple language geared toward a ninth grade reading level, and never be afraid of linking to resources or definitions (create a page for these – you do not want to direct them off your website unless you must).
3. Format Website Content.
Students of the digital era are used to being sold to every single day. Paid advertising adorns nearly every website, and Internet users have become adept at scanning past the clutter. Unfortunately, your website has to compete with all the other places they could go for information. This means you must format your content with headlines, bullet points and call-to-action buttons. If the info they want doesn’t have some kind of formatting pointing at it like a neon sign, they’ll go elsewhere. And “elsewhere” you can’t control the information they receive about your institution, financial aid or college in general.
If you want students to take a certain action, highlight that action with a button, bolding or a different font color. Avoid large copy blocks.
4. Alert Students of Deadlines…Repeatedly.
Nearly one in ten students who don’t apply for FAFSA cite missing the deadline as the reason, according to Missed Opportunities Revisited: New Information on Students Who Do Not Apply for Financial Aid. There are many channels through which your office can notify students of important deadlines, and we suggest you utilize as many of them as possible. Our suggestions:
- Offer text reminders students may sign up for as soon as they are accepted into the school (financial aid could cooperate with all departments to add other important dates)
- Update all social media with reminders for both parents and students
- Send dynamic emails in which students may opt in to have important dates added to their Google calendar
- Send email reminders
- Feature the FAFSA application deadline at the top of the Financial Aid home screen
- Feature a link called “Why is the deadline important?” to a page explaining which types of funding are “first come first serve,” how long processing times are and other reasons it’s important to file on time
5. Make Verification Easy but Also Secure.
Even students who initially file a FAFSA might fall out of the system during the verification process. In 5 Steps to Improve Your FAFSA Verification Process, we address tips for simplifying verification on the staff side so it is as quick and painless for students as possible. If the verification process becomes an overwhelming pain point, some students will bypass financial aid and, often, not pursue classes.
Many institutions have attempted to make the verification process easier by allowing students and parents to email documents. However, this is not a secure manner of transmitting sensitive documents, and many parents and students – rightly so – balk at the method. Often the only alternative is to bring the documents in person or send through the mail, which delays the award process.
Instead, use a software like StudentVerification, an automated, student self-service portal. One of the software’s functions is to secure data and files with government-grade data encryption. Through StudentVerification, your school will give students and parents one central place where they can log in, upload docs and track and complete their submission progress, all from the comfort of their own homes.
6. Survey Your Students.
Many studies theorize why students do not apply for FAFSA, especially low-income students who are most in need of aid. Obviously, solving this issue will increase your school’s enrollment rates. The best way to solve it is to conduct your own research. Encourage your school to conduct surveys and find out exactly why your student population is or isn’t completing FAFSA applications. You may find entirely unique characteristics of your student population or of your student services are contributing to lower FAFSA filing rates resulting in missed enrollment opportunities. Only when you have a clear idea of the exact problem can you craft the best solution for your institution and students.
Start your Engines.
Every financial aid department has its tried and true methods, the tricks learned over the years to keep up with the growing student populations, ever-changing compliance and occasional budget cuts. What are yours? Share in the comments below so that your fellow financial aid staff can benefit from your knowledge!