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11 Creative Strategies to Improve Community College Financial Aid

Which students are least likely to apply for financial aid?

Apparently it’s those who need it the most, according to The Financial Aid Challenge. Community college students with low to moderate income are the population most unlikely to file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). FAFSA filing is the first requirement for students who seek federal financial aid; for many community college students, financial aid is the only way they will complete their programs. Yet, FAFSA apps aren’t coming in for the neediest students.

So what can community college financial aid directors do to make it easier for students to pursue financial aid? Below we discuss why community college students might not use financial aid. Then we expound on advice from The Financial Aid Challenge to offer solutions for your community college.

Language Barriers

One quarter of degree-seeking community college students come from an immigrant background, according to a 2003-04 report by the National Center for Education Statistics. Your students may be fluent English speakers, but many community college attendees have parents who do not speak or understand English well, especially in reference to complex financial aid communication. Don’t risk translation errors or add undue pressure by relying only on the student to translate. Instead, make your school melting pot friendly by:

Doubling Up: Provide bilingual services and materials. If you have a large non-English speaking demographic, offer multilanguage media or translation options on your websites.

  1. Partnering: Work with multicultural leaders to encourage college attendance within their communities.
  2. Reaching Out: Conduct workshops or information sessions for students interested in community college and communicate financial aid opportunities. Be sure to keep the message culturally and linguistically appropriate.

Archaic Processes

Perhaps you’ve met financial aid directors or administrators with “that’s how we’ve always done it” attitudes. Of course, we know you would never think like that, and you’re open to using creative methods to reach students, especially those with unique situations. Some ideas include:

  1. Being More Available: Offer evening and weekend office hours. This is extremely effective as the community college student population is more likely to be working while in school and may have difficulty contacting your office during regular business hours.
  2. Analyzing: This can be an eye-roll inducing word around the office, but knowing what is working and what isn’t is the key to improving processes. Incorporate evaluation metrics and data collection into office practices, including internal QA. No school is too small to be measuring efficiency.
  3. Employing Technology: Some community college students fall out of the financial aid process during verification, a frustrating undertaking that requires further cooperation from their parents if they are dependent and can delay when they receive needed funds. Platforms like StudentVerification make the verification process nearly painless by providing a student self-service portal. Any student who can take a picture with a smartphone or log into a social media account has the skills to use StudentVerification.
  4. Starting Right Away: Get financial aid information in front of the student as early as possible. Good times are after the student has submitted the college application or once he/she has been accepted.

Distrust or Misunderstanding

According to The Financial Aid Challenge, some groups of community college students and/or their parents may be wary of government agencies that ask for financial information. As certain financial disclosures are required to complete the FAFSA, this presents a distinct problem for financial aid offices. Remedy the issue by:

  1. Getting Help: Partner with other education institutions or community organizations to offer financial aid counseling to all students. Students and their parents may already trust these organizations, which will boost your credibility.
  2. Connecting: Team up with local high school counselors to provide grade-specific information to students. If you build a relationship with students in advance, they’re bound to be more trusting of your organization even before they are accepted. Plus, your presence at their school – especially if you target messaging to the high school crowd – may drive enrollment as well. To speak to high school student’s interests, focus on your school’s extracurricular activities such as intermural sports, clubs, community events and on-site fitness center.
  3. Quit Emailing: Do not ask for or accept sensitive documents through email. Parents and students are likely to be uncomfortable with sending certain information via email, including tax documents, social security or ID cards and bank statements. If your system doesn’t have a secure portal to upload documents, look into a platform like StudentVerification, which protects files with government-grade data encryption.
  4. Talking About It: Do not shy away from the problem. Instead, face it head on by acknowledging the unease students and their parents may feel. You may include a page on the financial aid portion of your school website that responds to concerns by outlining your department’s safety measures and the qualifications of your staff members. Be sure to put a positive spin on it, naming it something like “Our Commitment to Protecting Your Data” or “Security and <insert name of school>.”

Your Solutions

What has your financial aid department done to reach more students? Even if you work at a four-year university, share your tactics and success stories below so that other financial aid professionals may learn from you.