With college costs still top of mind for most families, financial aid is more important than ever. Community college leaders are especially challenged to communicate the importance of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to their student body, which appears to be less likely to apply for federal aid. According to the report "FAFSA Completion Rates by Level and Control of Institution," 58 percent of Pell-eligible community college students applied for aid, compared to 77 percent of four-year students in the 2007-08 academic year.
"It just doesn't make sense that the institutions that have the lowest income have the lowest application rates of any sector," says David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and research at the American Association of Community Colleges.
"For many students, their ability to continue their education hinges on the availability of financial aid," points out Michelle Ma, director of marketing, public relations, and governmental affairs at Coastline Community College (Calif.). Research has shown that students who work and attend college part-time are less likely to persist.
One of the first things stopping students from applying for aid is a belief that they won't qualify. The federal budget talks held over this past summer, with their focus on the Pell Grant and education funding, might have brought the FAFSA to people's attention, but not necessarily in a good way as it cast doubt on the availability of aid. "You hear about how Wall Street needs certainty to operate and it's the same thing for Main Street," says Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. "All the doubt is not helpful for college access."
Additionally, when people think about college costs, they tend to focus on tuition, but not other costs to attend, such as books and general living expenses, says Baime. It's a sentiment Ma echoes. "Financial aid is extremely important to community college students. Here, tuition is only $36/unit (for California residents)—which seems extremely affordable—but if you factor in the cost of living, books, transportation, and other incidentals, going to school in California can be extremely expensive."
'Students sometimes have the impression that they will never qualify, so they figure there is no point to the process.' —Cynthia Pienkowski, Coastline Community College
A misconception about financial aid is that people tend to categorize it as grants, says Draeger. "But you can't take out federal student loans without filling out a FAFSA." He also theorizes that parents might not want to share financial data with their children. Or, they might not want to provide data to the government, says Baime, adding that for-profit applicants, who have a similar student profile, apply for aid with greater frequency than community college applicants.
"Students sometimes have the impression that they will never qualify, so they figure there is no point to the process. Some feel it a weakness to ask for financial help," says Cynthia Pienkowski, Coastline's director of financial aid. "Despite many attempts by the State and Federal governments and colleges themselves to promote and publicize the programs, many students have said they had no idea financial aid existed."
The report "Apply to Succeed" by The Advisory Committee On Student Financial Assistance found that the complexity of the FAFSA form was not as much of a barrier to completion as people believed—a fact especially true with the new, simplified version. "I think more students are applying because the FAFSA has been simplified," says Jamie Quiroz, a financial aid specialist for Cerritos Community College District (Calif.). "It can take 10 minutes now, where before it took a few hours." Draeger notes that "the simplification was long overdue. It makes it easier for all students, but particularly for low-income students. The skip logic is helpful. It has also increased the validity of the data, because people can import their IRS data directly. It has come a long way."
While the new version is easier to complete, it also leads to more involved follow-up if the application is flagged by the school or the government to be checked for errors, says Jerome St. Croix, director of student financial services at Monroe Community College (N.Y.). "It's gotten better and it will continue to get better." He thinks the new feature allowing parents to import their IRS data will be helpful, but adds that "colleges tell students to fill out the FAFSA in January, when they haven't done their taxes yet."
The streamlined form makes it easier to communicate with students about what is holding up their files, says Kimberly Westby, dean of student support services at Cerritos. However they are struggling to keep their systems up-to-date with changes in regulations. "We're a community college and we're very different from the CSU: a student can walk through the door today and fill out an application," she explains.
Vote Early, Vote Often
Helping people understand they might qualify for aid and overcoming their fear of the application are key parts of the message financial aid offices are communicating early and often. "Make it part of the intake process and orientation," Baime advises.
Campus leaders have seen variables ranging from adult students who, while they didn't qualify for aid before, qualify now because of life changes, or students who decide to enroll on the spur of the moment and don't have all their documents in hand. St. Croix says Monroe students are encouraged to complete the FAFSA when they enroll. Every January, Westby uses Cerritos' PeopleSoft system to identify students enrolled for the spring term and email them a reminder about the FAFSA.
"The best time to have that conversation is when people are in high school," says Draeger. He has seen communication efforts including attending local college nights, as well as reaching out to nontraditional students through state workforce and retraining programs.
"I facilitate financial aid 'step-by-step' workshops at several high schools throughout our college district, and all are well-attended," shares Cristina Arellano, Coastline's EOPS (Extended Opportunities Programs and Services) recruitment staffer who also conducts many of the college's outreach events. "While high school counselors understand the importance of FAFSA, students, and especially their parents, always want detailed instructions on how to apply and reasons for why it's important. We just help the high school counselors communicate those message points to that group."
Baime says that, in recent years, counselors in the Connecticut Community College System would point out to students that they might qualify for a larger Pell Grant if they enrolled full time. "They had dramatic increases in the Pell received by their students; it doubled over a few years," he notes.
At Monroe, in addition to visiting high schools, nearly every student-facing department promotes the importance of filing for aid in their communications, ranging from letters to email and posters on campus to social media. The full court press paid off. "We found that we had more students through the pipeline in an earlier time frame," says St. Croix. "We have more students packaged with aid than we did this time last year."
"We are particularly fond of web-based communication methods," says Ma. "We can easily tweet out a message that 'Scholarship applications are due Friday' and include the link to the online application. We'll see a surge of hits to our scholarships site that day, but then it dies off. When using social media, you have to realize that your tweet or Facebook post will soon be buried by thousands of others, so you need to post the same thing frequently for maximum effect."
"I think the students are receiving and responding to these communications," agrees Westby. "During our early application period, we had almost 20,000 FAFSAs received. The word is out." The Cerritos financial aid staff creates packages for more than 8,000 students in the first week of school and received more than 28,000 FAFSAs.
Westby credits the response to their "4 Easy Steps to Cash" campaign. Step 1 is completing the FAFSA. Step 2 is submitting the forms. Step 3 is reviewing the award letter. Step 4 is distribution of the funds to students' Higher One accounts. "I think sometimes financial aid administrators try to communicate all the regulations," she cautions. "I think, the more you can simplify it, the better it is for students."
To ensure students complete the FAFSA, colleges are offering assistance in both understanding the form and access to computers for the online version. At Monroe, students can attend financial aid labs where they receive assistance in applying for both federal and state aid. At Cerritos, workshops are held both on and off campus during the priority application period from January to April. Coastline staff find that integrating the state and federal aid forms is important because students might not be aware of all the aid sources available.
"Try to simplify the process for students," says Westby. It was during a program review of how the FAFSA was communicated to students that the 4 Easy Steps for Cash campaign was developed.
Working with enrollment and admissions staff and reaching out to local high schools are important strategies, says St. Croix. "One of our missions is to be out in the community." Any mention of the college should include information about financial aid opportunities, he believes.
"Don't assume students know step one about applying for financial aid," advises Ma. "Be very vocal about all opportunities out there, and reiterate again and again the importance of applying."
With everyone working together, students will get the message about available aid. "We understand the funding challenges facing our colleges; the emphasis is appropriately focused on the classroom, but we feel that insofar as resources are part of the solution, they should be devoted to this," says Baime. "This is a problem that needs to be solved, and we think our colleges should do everything possible."
"Apply to Succeed" (The Advisory Committee On Student Financial Assistance)
California college affordability campaign
"4 Easy Steps to Cash campaign" (Cerrito Community College)
"FAFSA Completion Rates by Level and Control of Institution"
The Institute for College Access & Success