Like all of us, you’ve probably been closely tracking the progress of the new FAFSA form this year: in particular, how the Department of Education is planning to roll it out to students, families, and institutions. (If you haven’t, I recommend checking out our most recent webinar update.) The latest news from the federal government suggests that students and families will be able to access the new form at the end of December, but data from the new FAFSAs will not be available to schools until the end of January.
We can all imagine the confusion that will ensue. Students and families who fill out the FAFSA presume that colleges will get their information immediately and be able to make financial aid determinations. But that simply won’t be the case for the most motivated FAFSA filers, which includes current students as well as prospective students. Many will submit their FAFSA in early January, then go to their institutional portal to check if it has been received and whether they have a financial aid offer, only to find nothing.
As an enrollment leader faced with this FAFSA conundrum, how can you keep January from going off the rails, and make sure your institution doesn’t end up disadvantaged for this cycle?
Over-communicate to students—and parents
The FAFSA delay issue is in part 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 at least the end of January. 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 for a few weeks, 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 January 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.
The challenges won’t be confined to January, unfortunately. If you host any admitted student days in February or early March, students who attend these events might not have your aid offers in hand yet—or worse, they might have offers from another institution but not from yours. It will be even more important that staff members be prepared to address the timing issue with these students head-on, sharing your institutions’ timeline for aid decisions and giving them confidence that you will support them.
From challenge to opportunity
No matter how well you communicate about the new FAFSA-driven delay in financial aid information, the idea that it might to take a few extra weeks to hear back 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 in to 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 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.
Next steps for navigating the FAFSA delay
- Over-communicate processing delays.
- Use clear, specific language in messages.
- Update webpages, portals, and communications.
- Collaborate with other institutions for wider outreach.
- Inform advisors, faculty, and staff about delays.
- Anticipate challenges for events in February/March.
- Clearly communicate institutional timelines.
- Allow opt-ins for FAFSA info notifications.
- Host online sessions on affordability.
- Consider a hotline for questions.
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 “white-label” 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.
Michael Koppenheffer leads marketing strategy, creative execution, and analytics for EAB’s Enroll360 division. In this role, Michael brings two decades of experience in creative and data-informed marketing leadership, including a lengthy stint as head of EAB’s own corporate marketing function, to the firm’s work with partners in the undergraduate space.
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.