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How colleges can make the hard conversation around money easier

Brett Schraeder, Managing Director, Financial Aid Optimization

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I’ve been working with financial aid offices for 26 years. They’re wonderful people, who genuinely want to help students who could otherwise not afford college. But they feel the specter of the federal government’s involvement always. Most of the language financial aid offices use is lifted from the federal handbook, and sometimes sounds like it comes from the IRS. It’s full of stark legal language.

Meanwhile, communications offices are focused on getting students excited to apply, enroll, and learn more about the football team and social clubs, rather than revising financial aid communications. That means that financial aid messages are most often less than welcoming.

The fact that we ask low-income students to tell us many times that they lack financial resources, and then ask them to prove it to us, under threat of losing funding, is problematic.

At some point, students in that position might say, “I’m just done with that.” As a low-income student, you have to be committed in a way that’s different than a middle-class family. You’re obligated to tell your institution that you don’t have the ability to pay multiple times across your college career.

Even though the FAFSA has gotten easier to fill out, that doesn’t account for the psychosocial and cultural barriers. Students have to ask their parents about the contents of their bank accounts, which they might not want to reveal to their children. And parents are forced to discuss their money and their children’s future in the same conversation. What could be more emotionally fraught than that?

To improve financial aid communications, we recommend three major changes.


Make your communications student-centric.

We’ve found that students perceive the FAFSA filing system to be a more daunting process than it actually is, and you can help students by breaking down the requirements in a way that doesn’t use incomprehensible legal language.

We always recommend that financial aid offices use the Gunning-Fogg Index to audit their communications and help schools ask important questions like: do our messages make sense to our students, or would they need an advanced degree to decipher these instructions?


Educate parents.

Our parent communication preferences survey revealed that there’s a vast and unmet desire from low-income parents to access more information about financial aid, scholarships, and paying for college. As my colleague Kathy Dawley explains, equipping low-income parents with information to help their students enroll and matriculate can level the playing field.


Make it multi-channel.

Year after year, our research on student communication preferences has found that first-generation and underserved students are much more likely to discover information about college on social media, over traditional channels like print and email, compared to other student populations. Using digital channels effectively can expand the reach of your financial aid and affordability messages with the students who need them the most.

To get you started, we built a toolkit designed to lower the barriers around FAFSA filing. These resources include promotional materials for schools to deploy across social media, text message, and email campaigns.

Financial Aid Optimization

We can help you craft a pricing strategy that supports your students and your enrollment goals. Our experts guide your financial aid policy development while our analytics platform allows you to monitor real-time performance throughout the enrollment cycle.