With national student debt at a stunning $1.2 trillion and financial pressure playing a key factor in retention, colleges must take the initiative to help students maximize opportunities for financial aid. Yet many colleges have downsized their financial aid offices and automated various functions.
At Mercy College, we take another approach: We’re dedicated to humanizing the financial aid process and valuing, above all, personal interaction. Mercy offers one of the lowest private college tuitions in New York state, under $17,000 per year.
Yet with many first-generation college students and families with low or zero EFC (expected family contribution), financial aid is still a pressing concern. So we’ve devised a student services model that addresses the need for both affordability and accessibility—and, as a result, Mercy students are below the national average in debt when they graduate.
Our student services model encompasses financial aid, registrar, bursar and advising in one centralized office. Each student is assigned a mentor in the Office of Student Services who stays with them throughout their college years.
The mentor assists with course advisement, registration and all aspects of financial aid. Mentors get to know the students, their academic strengths and challenges, career aspirations and personal situations.
Students appreciate not having to visit different offices and wait on long lines for the various tasks of registration, bursar, advisement and financial aid. Our office is open 54 hours a week, including early evening hours on weekdays and on Saturdays to accommodate students who juggle classes, work and family. Students appreciate finding an open door and a real person who excels in communications when they visit student services.
On a deeper level, our holistic approach enables mentors to understand precisely what level of assistance each student requires to successfully navigate the financial aid process. Some students need help with basic financial literacy, such as setting up a bank account and budget. We explain loan payments, how to plan for the future and how various options will affect their financial health when they finish school.
These big-picture conversations are paramount in instilling the confidence and skills that empower students to complete financial aid requirements—and ultimately enable them to finish college.
Many students are without parental assistance and oversight, or experience, in the business elements of college. Our team monitors closely to see that students have completed admission forms, registration, FAFSA and financial aid forms. To avoid missed aid opportunities, we encourage students to use one of the dedicated computers in our office to complete the necessary applications.
First-generation family matters
One of the greatest roadblocks in the financial aid process for many first-generation students is the federal verification process, which involves both income verification and documenting that the student is a citizen or eligible noncitizen. If the right documents are not provided, the student can’t receive aid until the errors are resolved.
Rather than sending a notice that additional documentation is required, as many schools do, we make it our mission to collect the documents. We guide students in using the IRS website or visiting a field office to obtain income verification. We help them contact the Immigration and Naturalization Service if needed. Students are not alone in this confusing process.
We also assist in the sometimes delicate task of persuading parents to provide necessary documentation. Parents might be mistrustful of the system and apprehensive about providing documentation—or may aggressively discourage the student from attending college. In these cases, our mentors can mediate the process to secure cooperation. Empathy is key. Mentors are trained in conflict resolution strategies and understand the parents’ point of view.
Whenever possible, we try to get parents to come in for a face-to-face discussion. The human element usually wins out and reluctant parents often decide to accommodate the student. These in-person meetings can be a turning point in gaining parents’ support of the student’s college aspirations—a gratifying result that goes far beyond the goal of obtaining information for financial aid.
Joseph Trentacoste is assistant vice president of Student Services at Mercy College in New York.