We wrote a blog post several months ago about how to navigate the FAFSA processing delay though January. As January came to a close, the Department of Education warned of an even longer delay for institutions to receive FAFSA data—the first half of March. This delay obviously presents several challenges for schools to make financial aid awards in time for students to digest them and decide by the traditional May 1 reply date.
As schools grapple with these delays, many enrollment leaders may wonder how to keep their schools top-of-mind for applicants. Though the delay can be frustrating, there are ways you can use this delay to your advantage and continue developing relationships with students and their families. Below are seven things you can do to help students navigate this delay and keep them interested while you wait for their FAFSA data.
7 recommendations to connect with students about their FAFSA information
1. Survey students about their FAFSA completion status
You can contact students (and their parents) and ask, “Have you submitted your FAFSA?” The answers should be one of the following: Yes, No, I’m not planning to, or I’m having trouble. This approach gives you immediate feedback on who might be most interested and allows for ample follow up for those who respond “No” or “I’m having trouble.” If you want to add another data point, ask those who say “Yes” to share their SAI from their confirmation email. While you may not use it to create an aid award, you can get a good sense of how your pool is trending by understanding if the proportions of high/low/middle SAIs are markedly different than the previous year’s EFCs. Remember to use secure channels to protect sensitive student information, and let students know how you’re keeping their information safe.
2. Help students visualize their award potential
Create “example awards” that you can share on your website or via email. Using a range of SAIs and academic abilities/merit levels, create 3-6 fictitious awards for students that show both what the award will look like, and give an idea of what a student might expect based on their situation.
3. Utilize ranges in your award examples
Show average awards by income or SAI range. Similar to the previous example, show families what an average award amount (or range of awards) looks like across a variety of SAI or Income ranges. This should give families a sense of what to expect in their particular case.
4. Leverage your Net Price Calculator
Commit to offering the award generated by your Net Price Calculator. For students who want to know more specifically what they might receive, ask them to invest the time in filling out your NPC and then commit to that award. For this to work, your NPC should be using the new calculations, but it may give some families the confidence they need to deposit.
5. Be flexible about your deadlines
During the early COVID days, the blanket extension of the traditional May 1 deadline ended up being a challenge for many schools, so some are reticent to make another blanket extension. However, being flexible is key. This may include preparing address requests for extensions from individual students or guaranteeing them an appropriate amount of time after they receive your award letter to make their commitment.
6. Offer refundable deposits
If a student is set on your institution but reluctant to deposit until they see an aid award, tell them you will refund their deposit any time before a certain date, or within a certain time after they receive their aid letter. For example, “Your deposit is refundable until one week after you receive your award letter.”
7. Program aid Q&A into your admit and visit days
Make sure you are creating space when students visit to allow them to ask questions about financial aid. You could encourage them to bring their FAFSA confirmation email with the SAI and offer to review it with them and perhaps even give them a tentative award. If there isn’t enough time for this, you should still acknowledge the delay in your announcements and communicate your plan to students who visit as they are the highest likelihood to enroll. Also, consider adding additional visit opportunities in late April as many students may just be receiving their aid awards at that time.
A note about inflation adjustments to SAI:
All of the above tactics assume the pre-inflation SAI calculation, so you will need to weigh how you address that. Try a simple note saying, “SAIs may change with yet-unpublished inflation tables, however, we expect that these changes will typically result in the same or more financial aid.”
Strategies to continue through March
In addition to these seven concrete ideas, the following from our previous post remain true, and perhaps are now even more important.
Over-communicate to students—and parents
The FAFSA delay issue is partially a marketing problem, and we advise that colleges not just communicate but over-communicate about the Department of Education’s processing slowness. The messaging itself doesn’t have to be complicated, but it should be shared consistently and pervasively. For example, the core message could be:
“Because of significant Department of Education processing delays, we will not have information about FAFSA submissions or financial aid until mid-March. Once FAFSA data is released to us, we are committed to sharing financial aid information as soon as possible. Thanks for your patience.”
The more concrete and specific your message can be, the better. You should strive to let students know what to expect, when they can expect it, and how they can prepare for it, while maintaining a positive tone and low-jargon approach. For example, if possible, give students a timeline from the point at which you get FAFSA data to when packages will be ready, like:
“Once FAFSA data is released to us, we are committed to sharing financial aid information within four weeks.”
Regardless, your messaging will only be effective if students and parents see it and see it often. Public webpages frequented by new and returning students, as well as official institutional portals, should be updated with your “FAFSA delays” message. You might even consider partnering with other area institutions to get the word out to students, counselors, and parents that colleges will be effectively blind to FAFSA data until March, since these delays represent a problem that all institutions will be facing. You should also audit outbound communications—emails, letters, texts—going to admitted students in February to see if there’s an opportunity to add FAFSA delay messaging there as well.
Prepare campus staff to reinforce the message
Don’t overlook the role that campus partners play in conveying information to students, either. Make sure that advisors, faculty, and staff who interact with students or families let them know of the change so they can be a source of reliable guidance and look out for complaints.
From challenge to opportunity
No matter how well you communicate about the new FAFSA-driven delay in financial aid information, the fact that the process will take longer isn’t going to be welcome news to students and families. But consider whether this unfortunate circumstance could be an opportunity for you to differentiate yourself from other institutions by how you handle this perceived service shortfall.
- For starters, you could invite students and families to opt into emails, texts, or calls when more FAFSA-derived information is available.
- You could also host online information sessions about affordability and financial aid resources, specifically timed to appeal to those students who are waiting to hear more.
- Resources-permitting, you could even staff a hotline or online chat service to field questions students have while they’re waiting for official FAFSA information.
No matter what, remember that people often forget the specifics of facts and experiences, but the emotional tenor of interactions stick with them. Whether it’s in your written communications or in-person encounters, manifest empathy, caring, and friendliness when communicating about these FAFSA delays. Unfortunately, personal warmth is not something every admissions office or financial aid team is able to deliver consistently, so there is a real opportunity for meaningful differentiation for those who do it well. Admissions staff will appreciate extra resources for making these prospective student interactions memorable and enjoyable.
Even without this latest disruption, financial aid, affordability, and most especially the FAFSA can be difficult for students and families to understand, not to mention sometimes emotionally fraught; enrollment leaders should be mindful of how much students and families can benefit from information, support, and clarity. For EAB Enroll360 partners, we have just updated our toolkit of adaptable FAFSA information resources, and I encourage you to check them out.
Beyond these resources for students and families, our Financial Aid Optimization team is continuing to track the rollout of the new FAFSA and its implications, so stay tuned for further updates as the year progresses.
Brett Schraeder joined EAB in 2015, but his connection to the company spans his entire career. He has over 20 years of on-campus experience, most recently as Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Brett has had an unusually comprehensive set of roles during his time on campus. He knows recruitment, data management, data analysis, financial aid at both strategic and operational levels, strategic planning, institution-wide budgeting, board management and governance, and marketing and communications. At EAB, Brett manages the Financial Aid team which helps partners think strategically about enrollment and financial aid. Brett works extensively with both public and private colleges across the country using analytics and best-practice strategies to help with enrollment and revenue generation.
Brett has served as adjunct faculty and guest lecturer at Occidental College, Sierra Nevada College and in the certificate program for college counseling at UCLA.