The FAFSA for the 2020-2021 academic year became available for students and their families to complete on October 1. And there are some changes that could influence how many students apply for federal financial aid—and whether they ultimately enroll in your institution.
Here’s what you need to know about the FAFSA, as well as action items your enrollment team can take to ensure prospective students understand these changes and complete the application in a timely fashion:
The changes you need to know
- New tax forms under Trump’s tax plan will prevent some families’ federal tax return information from being electronically transferred to their FAFSA forms through the IRS DATA Retrieval Tool.
- Because more families will have to manually input their federal tax return information on the FAFSA, there will be a greater chance for error than in previous years.
- Mistakes on the FAFSA could jeopardize an applicant’s eligibility for aid and send more applicants through the verification process, according to Charlie Javice, CEO of Frank, a company that helps applicants file the FAFSA for free.
- Javice not only predicts that fewer applicants will complete the FAFSA as a result of the tax form changes, but adds that because 60% of students never get through the verification process, the changes to the FAFSA represent “a big step backward when it comes to college access.”
How your team can prepare for these changes
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.
“It will give [students] time to get [their] questions answer[ed] and qualify for the most amount of aid available at the state and school level if [they] file earlier,” notes Javice.
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.
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.
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