The process of filling out FAFSA is stressful for many students. They’re intimidated by the jargon involved and worry about the consequences of a mistake on the form. Low-income students, in particular, commonly face financial aid anxiety and aid-induced melt.
As this year’s FAFSA season gets started, here are a few ways colleges can help support students and their families through the process.
1. Keep applicants informed
As the demographic composition of students continues to shift to include more low-income applicants, it’s more important than ever for enrollment teams to ensure tuition cost and affordability are communicated clearly, says Madeleine Rhyneer, the current vice president of consulting services and dean of enrollment management at EAB and former VP of enrollment at Susquehanna University.
For instance, on your website, inform prospective students of upcoming deadlines for the FAFSA and provide checklists specific to your institution’s application process, recommends Margaret Sullivan, a senior analyst at EAB. “Pricing and aid information on websites should be a bridge for colleges to begin relationships with prospective students, not a barrier that halts progression toward enrollment,” she writes.
Institutions can also minimize confusion by making the language on their websites surrounding financial aid more student-friendly, explains Sullivan. For example, the University of Denver‘s pricing and aid webpage doesn’t assume that students know the differences between various forms of financial aid, and instead clearly outlines merit scholarships, need-based grants, and loans. Prospective students can even sign up to receive a weekly email series on “Financial Aid 101” to learn more.
2. Encourage applicants to complete the FAFSA early
Early FAFSA completion has numerous benefits both for prospective students and your institution. Not only does starting FAFSA applications early give applicants ample time to address questions or issues that could arise, but submitting the FAFSA as close as possible to October 1 betters applicants’ chances of receiving financial aid.
For your institution, early filing can streamline communication and allow your team to send financial aid packages with acceptance letters. This gives students time to parse their financial aid awards and “make an educated choice about where they are going,” says Brian LaPorte, college and career counselor at Naperville North High School in Illinois.
Early filing also gives your team more time to assess how your institution’s enrollment numbers compare to previous years. And it gives your team a chance to dig deeper if you feel your numbers are lacking, notes Rhyneer.
3. Assure applicants that verification is normal
Although the U.S. Department of Education aims to verify about 30% of all federal aid applicants during each FAFSA application cycle, the majority of applicants selected for verification tend to come from low-income families. In fact, the National College Access Network (NCAN) estimates that 50% of low-income students are selected for verification, and of those selected, 22% won’t finish applying for aid. This phenomenon—known as “verification melt”—prevents students from receiving millions of dollars of much-needed aid.
It’s therefore important that enrollment teams proactively communicate with applicants and their families to encourage them to complete verification if they’re selected. And perhaps more importantly, assure applicants that being selected for verification doesn’t mean they’ve done anything wrong, recommends Joan Zanders, director of financial aid at Northern Virginia Community College.
“Many of our students think when they get a verification notice that it’s some kind of ineligibility notice,” notes Kim Cook, executive director of NCAN.
4. Notify students when you receive their FAFSA
After submitting a FAFSA, students will receive acknowledgement from the government that their information has been passed on to schools, but they rarely get confirmation from the schools themselves that the information has been received.
“Most schools don’t send any kind of acknowledgment until weeks, and sometimes months later, when they either send a financial aid award or a request for verification information,” says Kathy Ruby, an expert in financial aid optimization at EAB who has formerly served as a financial aid administrator and enrollment manager. She adds that during her time as a college finance counselor, families often asked “How do I know the school received my FAFSA? When will I know they received it?”
Ruby acknowledges it can be a challenge for schools to send notifications in October when many financial aid offices are setting up their systems for the year, but the benefits make it worth the effort. “It’s a great opportunity for a school to be proactive and customer-friendly, and of course, provides another touch point in the enrollment funnel,” she says.
Perhaps most importantly, articulate your support for applicants and their families, suggests Rhyneer. Rhyneer says that during her time at Susquehanna, she and her team would reach out to families and not only reiterate the value of filing early, but also empathize with them and stand ready to answer any questions they might have along the way.