How should financial aid offices communicate with students during the pandemic?

Dive Brief: 

  • About half of college students said they wanted to hear more from their financial aid offices during the spring term, according to a recent survey from Ithaka S+R, a research and consulting group. 

  • More than 15,000 students across 21 colleges answered the survey between April and May. A significant share of students also wanted more outreach from their academic advising offices and counseling centers. 

  • Experts said colleges should reach out to Pell Grant-eligible and other disadvantaged students to connect them with resources and help them apply for financial aid increases if the pandemic has stressed their finances. 

Dive Insight: 

The coronavirus has taken a heavy toll on the U.S. economy, and several polls suggest it’s negatively impacting the ability of students and their families to pay for college. During the spring term, students “were generally satisfied” with communications they received from their institutions, the new survey found, but many expressed a desire to hear more from their financial aid offices. 

For instance, two-thirds of Pell-eligible students wanted more communication from the financial aid offices, compared to 43% of non-Pell-eligible students. 

“A lot of it just centers around not being sure about their academic and financial standing,” Christine Wolff-Eisenberg, manager of surveys and research at Ithaka S+R, said. Many students don’t know if they’re going to be able to afford another semester or replace a lost job before the fall term begins, she added. 

Because more families may be struggling, financial aid offices should proactively reach out to students to ask them if they have concerns, said Madeleine Rhyneer, vice president of consulting services and dean of enrollment management at EAB, a higher ed consultancy.

At large colleges where reaching out to all students isn’t feasible, financial aid offices should target messages to Pell-eligible students and those who just miss the threshold, Rhyneer said. “You can’t overcommunicate in a pandemic,” she said. “And frankly, you can’t overcommunicate in almost any admission year.”

Students can also request that college officials adjust their financial aid applications to account for special circumstances, such as job losses and natural disasters. In April guidance, the U.S. Department of Education encouraged schools to use this process to more accurately reflect students’ financial need during the pandemic. 

Nearly half (47%) of institutions saw a year-over-year increase in requests from students to adjust their applications between the beginning of March and late May, according to a recent National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators poll. And 22% of institutions said they started to proactively inform students about the process after the crisis started. 

Meanwhile, the Ithaka S+R survey also found that between 30% and 40% of students said they were concerned about meeting their basic needs over the next month, such as being able to afford rent or having enough food to eat. Moreover, students experiencing housing or food insecurity were sometimes less likely than their peers to know where to find resources like food pantries and shelters. 

To remedy these issues, colleges should target their communications about resources to the neediest students and create a robust digital presence to help students with their financial aid, Wolff-Eisenberg said. 

Students who planned to reenroll tended to be more aware of where to find institutional resources than those who didn’t, the survey found. “There’s a bottom-line here about retaining students,” she said.

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