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Community Colleges

Helping Students Access Financial Aid

University Business, Nov 2011

At one time, each of Connecticut’s 12 community colleges ran its own financial aid office by its own rules. Ten years later, the Connecticut Community College System has doubled the number of students. Now all 12 colleges use FAFSA alone to determine eligibility. All use the same “satisfactory academic progress” requirement for students who receive aid and those who don’t. Simplifying eligibility rules and centralizing some functions freed financial aid staffers to focus on helping students instead of pushing paper, Marc Herzog, the former chancellor, told the College Board. Centralizing administrative and technical responsibilities saved $2 million and improved efficiency.

Other ways community colleges can help students access financial aid and use it wisely:

  • Reach out to students. The aim is to “assertively communicate,” says Judith Scott-Clayton of the Community College Research Center. “There’s an assumption that if the information is online, students have it, but they may not know to look for it.”
  • Simplify the formula for eligibility. This is so important because few colleges have enough people to provide one-on-one counseling, Scott-Clayton says. 
  • Be available to students. As Debbie Cochrane of The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) points out, “Many colleges don’t make it easy to get answers.” The financial aid office can’t run on a 9-to-5 schedule. Too many students are only on campus at night. 
  • Don’t wait for students to ask about FAFSA. “The Financial Aid Challenge,” a College Board report, suggests that schools make filling out the form a normal part of the enrollment process. (Note: It can’t be required because undocumented students, previous loan defaulters, and those convicted of drug crimes aren’t eligible.) Several states have launched campaigns to publicize financial aid options. The College Board cites California’s “I Can Afford College” campaign and the College Foundation of North Carolina, which increased the FAFSA filing rate by more than 50 percent. Tennessee and Arkansas publicize college aid through the state lottery, which is used to fund scholarships. Applicants are required to fill out FAFSA. 
  • Participate in the federal loan program. Without access to these funds, some students will turn to high-cost private loans.  
  • Tell students how much they could get in Pell Grants and loans. At some colleges, financial aid staffers encourage full-time enrollment by telling students how much aid they could get if they take more courses, Cochrane says. Northern Virginia Community College goes even further, offering scholarship assistance to select at-risk students who enroll full time and remain in good academic standing.
  • Work with community groups to reach out to prospective students. For example, College Goal Sunday mobilizes volunteers to hold one-day financial aid workshops that include FAFSA help. In immigrant neighborhoods, some students and parents are reluctant to fill out government forms. Community groups can help break down barriers. To reach out to Spanish-speaking parents, Pierce College in Los Angeles collaborated with California’s “I Can Afford College” campaign to provide bilingual workshops, Spanish-language materials, and messages on Spanish media. Community colleges in five states have partnered with Single Stop USA, which helps low-income students obtain food stamps, health insurance, child care subsidies, and earned income tax credits and provides legal and financial counseling. Coordinating with local high school counselors to provide information to students on college affordability and aid, as the College Board suggests, can prevent a last-minute rush at the financial aid office. 
  • Create a one-stop shop. Miami Dade College has opened Single Stop offices on two campuses and is opening a third. “We are able, in essence, to provide students with expanded financial aid to stay in college and complete their degrees,” President Eduardo Padrón has said.
  • Teach financial literacy to students. At Tidewater Community College (Va.), students who want federal loans must fill out a current budget and a post-college budget that includes their expected salary (using links to online pay information), living expenses, and the loan payment. “Students increasingly are turning to financial aid to help meet rising college costs,” even at community colleges, says Deborah DiCroce, Tidewater’s president. “We want them to understand it’s an investment in their future and take it seriously.” The plan started this fall and feedback has been positive. Some students say they’re borrowing less. Others are surprised to see how much or how little they’re likely to earn for different courses of study. DiCroce hopes students will be motivated to complete a certificate or degree, as the money has to be repaid no matter what.