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What Admissions Officers Need to Know About Financial Aid

Key questions and answers on the aid application process and packages offered
University Business, Mar 2010

Talking about affordability can be a scary conversation for a recruiter. That is part of the reason more and more institutions have moved to transparent merit policies and other "entitlements" with clear eligibility criteria. But even if recruiters have these tools at their disposal, they still need to be able to talk with confidence about need-based aid and that is where it can get complicated.

Before a family has filed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and received a full aid offer, admissions officers have a responsibility to give students and their parents a sense of confidence that the institution will be a good partner in making the education affordable. Otherwise, the applicant may just give up or lose interest before January 1st, when the FAFSA form can first be filed.

Almost every institution Scannell & Kurz has worked with has a portion (sometimes a large portion) of the admit pool that doesn't apply for financial aid; typically, yield rates on this portion of the pool are quite low. That is because most of these families have either lost interest or decided that they can't afford the institution before it was time to complete the FAFSA. They probably have applied for aid; they just haven't sent the FAFSA to all the institutions that admitted them.

Recruiters must demonstrate that families from all walks of life have found a way to meet the college's costs.

To keep these families interested long enough to give the institution a chance to put a financial aid award in their hands, admissions recruiters must not only be able to talk about the features and benefits of the institution, but also be able to demonstrate that families from all walks of life have found a way to meet the college's costs. Data on the percent of students receiving aid and the average aid award, the percent of last year's class coming from various income bands, and sample packages for families in different economic circumstances can all help families see that there are others like them at the institution.

As a result of the latest reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, all institutions will have to post a net price calculator on their websites. This will further increase the already well-established trend toward greater transparency.

However, the requirement will represent a challenge for some institutions that group students in a way where significant unmet need is left. So admissions officers will need to plan carefully whatever approach toward meeting this requirement will be most appropriate for their own institution. Some schools may want very detailed calculators that gather enough quality and socioeconomic data to give a detailed estimate of the package. Others may prefer a more general approach that meets only the minimum requirements.

Recruiters also need to be able to talk confidently about the process of applying for aid and be familiar with some basic terms. At a minimum, they should know answers to the following questions:

  • What forms, in addition to the FAFSA, are required by your institution?
  • Are there important deadlines to mention (institutional or state)?
  • What does it mean if a student is selected for verification? What percentage of applicants does your institution verify? (For example, some institutions verify only those files selected by the government—typically about 30 percent of all filers. Other institutions verify 100 percent of filers to ensure that institutional need-based aid is being awarded properly.)
  • What is an Expected Family Contribution (EFC)? Although this is the amount that a family is calculated to be able to pay, not every institution fully meets the need and, consequently, the actual contribution may be much higher than the EFC figure. Also note that many families believe their EFC is too high to start with. Even before filing the FAFSA, families can get an estimate of their EFC through online resources like the College Board's website,
  • What is financial need? Need is calculated by taking the full cost of attendance (both direct costs that will be due to the institution as well as estimated indirect costs for things like books, personal expenses, and travel) minus the EFC.

But the recruiter's job doesn't end once the family files the FAFSA! Most institutions begin to send their aid letters out in February and March and recruiters need to be able to walk a family through the "package" they were offered. In fact, many institutions now have recruiters call as soon as an award letter is sent as another step in building the relationship with the family.

Recruiters don't need to become financial aid experts to make these calls, but they should be able to explain which awards are grants and which are loans and help families calculate the net cost of attending. Often families react to the amount of the award alone without taking into consideration that there are cost differences between institutions, as well. If your institution has high four-year graduation rates or offers a three-year bachelor's degree option, it may also be helpful to talk about the savings associated with early or on-time graduation.

Also important is communicating the steps for borrowing and key differences between various types of loans: subsidized versus unsubsidized Stafford (or Direct) loans; Perkins loans; Parent Loans; and private loans. Payment-plan options can be brought into the conversation, as well. If a work award is in the package, recruiters should be able to explain how a student gets a job on campus. Some families will want to discuss policies for renewing awards, so recruiters should be familiar with requirements for continuing to receive merit, as well as need-based, aid. Recruiters should also be prepared to talk about what annual tuition increases have been like and what families might expect in the future.

Willingness to pay is a function of what families think they are buying.

If a family has concerns about meeting institutional costs, recruiters should be able to explain the process for making an appeal. The financial aid office can provide admissions staff with a list of circumstances that would be considered in making "professional judgment" adjustments to the EFC, such as unusual medical expenses, changes in income or job status, K-12 educational expenses, etc. Admissions officers should also be able to tell families when they should expect to receive a response to their appeal.

When it's clear that the family needs to talk to someone in financial aid, protocols need to be in place to ensure that the hand-off is as smooth as possible. For example, how is the financial aid office organized? Are particular counselors assigned to particular parts of the alphabet? If so, should the hand-off be to that counselor or is one counselor assigned to work with new students?

Also, if it is not possible to put the family directly through to the office (which is highly likely given the volume of calls in most aid offices once aid letters go out), the admissions office should be able to tell families when they can expect to be called back. Clearly, communication between admission and financial aid staffs during this time of year is critical to ensure that families receive excellent service. After investing so much time in recruiting and admitting a candidate, the institution can't afford to drop the ball at this stage of the game.

Finally, recruiters need to remember that messages about affordability and net costs must be balanced with messages about value. Willingness to pay is a function of what families think they are buying. Consequently, recruiters need to be well versed in the features and benefits of the institution's programs and the "return on investment" in terms of career and graduate school outcomes. Although these messages have hopefully been sent throughout the recruitment cycle, they are critical at the "close," particularly in the current economic climate. If families see your institution as a "commodity", indistinguishable from other options, they will choose the lowest-cost alternative. If they understand the unique advantages and opportunities offered by your institution, they will be more willing to make the financial sacrifices required.

Kathy Kurz is a partner in the enrollment management consulting firm Scannell & Kurz, Inc. She can be reached via the website,