37% of adult learners say FAFSA jargon is confusing

Daily Briefing

37% of adult learners say FAFSA jargon is confusing

Nearly 54 million adults in the United States hold an associate degree or have attended some college without earning a bachelor’s degree. For too many of these students, the financial barriers to degree completion seem impossible to overcome. Roughly 60% of adults have considered returning to school to complete a degree but 70% of adults say they don’t think they could afford it.

Adult learners may write off college because they lack knowledge about financial aid, warn researchers ZW Taylor and Ibrahim Bicak from the University of Texas at Austin.

Bicak and Taylor asked 813 adult learners applying to four-year universities to indicate what terms were unfamiliar or confusing in federal student aid application instructions. Respondents reviewed financial aid instructions from a public, private, and for-profit university.

Sixty-two percent of respondents understood the jargon, while the remaining 37.3% reported 1,208 unfamiliar terms—an average of nearly four terms per respondent.

Adult learners reported that acronyms, including “MPN” (Master Promissory Note), “FAFSA” (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and “ITINS” (Individual Taxpayer Identification Number), were confusing. Students were also stumped by the terms “grants,” “portal,” and “pocketbook.” The researchers note that these terms were often not defined in the text.

Learn more: Two strategies to ease the path to re-enrollment for adult degree completers

“Without knowledge of these concepts, prospective adults may be forgoing the pursuit of a postsecondary education out of an impression that such an education is unaffordable,” the authors warn.

Enrollment leaders and financial aid teams should focus their financial literacy programming and federal student aid resources on low-income adults, Taylor and Bicak recommend. They found that an adult learner’s income level is a bigger determinant of whether he or she will understand financial aid jargon than their first-generation status.

To minimize confusion, institutions should define the acronyms they include in their instructions and be mindful when mixing federal and state jargon, the researchers recommend.

More colleges are recognizing how confusing higher ed terminology can be for new students—especially low-income or first-generation students.

To make their language more student-friendly, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill went through a “translation exercise” for some of their most-accessed campus resources for incoming students. The university used the Gunning Fog Index to evaluate their financial aid communication and found that a reader would need to already have a partial college education to understand the text.

To make text more accessible, experts recommend a few strategies: reduce the number of words per sentence, simplify complex words, and reduce proper nouns and unfamiliar jargon. These steps are especially helpful for colleges who serve a number of students from families with no post-secondary education or who are not native English speakers (Fredman, NASFAA, 1/31).

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