There are plenty of myths circulating around financial aid. One is that financial aid is hard to qualify for, even if you are low income. Another is that high school students are aware of college financial aid opportunities. Yet another is that institutions will help students properly complete their financial aid applications.
First, financial aid dollars are there for the taking, but it comes with the assumption that the forms will be completed perfectly and turned in on time. Second, many students have no idea about financial aid or what they need to do to find those dollars. Third, most institutions do not have the resources to help students complete their forms or notify them if they didn’t complete their forms properly. Let’s get into the data to see the ramifications of these misconceptions.
A recent article published by EdTech Times highlighted a concerning issue around financial aid: many students fail to receive financial aid not because they do not qualify but because they didn’t complete the forms properly or turn them in on time. This is an unfortunate side effect of complicated forms that come with little direction and no timeline to help students know exactly when the forms are due. It doesn’t have to be this way. We’ll get to that after we present a few sobering facts.
One of the studies the article references is from the National College Access Network. This report found half of the low-income high school graduates surveyed had not applied for financial aid simply because they were uninformed about what financial aid was. Either the students don’t understand financial aid is available or they are intimidated by the financial aid process.
To their credit, the current financial aid process isn’t simple. It’s complicated and requires a lot of information that must be inputted in an exact format and submitted within a certain timeframe. Many high schools lack the counseling to inform students of their options. Even those that do may not have the man hours available to ensure every potential qualifying student has the information they need to complete the forms as required. The complexities of financial aid applications lead us to another interesting statistic.
NerdWallet estimates $2.7 billion (yes, you read that right) in FAFSA Pell Grant funds were never allocated to students in 2016 because the applications were incomplete. With the cost of tuition rising, this is a shame. There is money to be had, yet there is little education around its availability and even less about how students need to complete the forms. Students are left to figure it out themselves, which often never happens.
If higher education institutions had the resources, they would be able to quickly identify those applications with missing or incorrect information. They would have the personnel to track down the student and/or family members to inform them of the mistakes – in plenty of time for them to make the corrections and resubmit.
Unfortunately, those resources are nowhere to be found – at least not at most colleges and universities. It can take a financial aid office months to go through all of the incoming FAFSA forms and even longer to locate each applicant to walk them through their mistakes. Oftentimes, students aren’t ever contacted, never learning that only a few missing items on their forms caused them to miss out on available dollars to help pay for their dreams.
These dreams are often never realized because students incur so much debt, they become discouraged and drop out. They simply cannot continue with their educational journey because the funds are not there to pay for it. Between room and board, books and living expenses, and of course, tuition, many students have no other choice but to get a job instead of pursuing graduation.
The policies and stipulations for financial aid are likely to remain constant. FAFSA is very clear about their stance on financial aid applications: “paper applications with errors or missing information will be returned for corrections; therefore, their processing will be delayed.” The length of these delays will be dependent on the institution catching the error and finding the resources to give the student notice.
Can we really deny students the opportunity to go to and complete a post-secondary education simply because there aren’t enough resources to get them through the financial aid process?
If we think about other areas of our lives, we can identify situations and technologies where we are instantly alerted of an issue. Take, for instance, using a gift card to make an online purchase. The website will ask for the gift card number so it can be redeemed. If even one number is mistyped, you will be notified immediately that the card was not accepted. It might even go so far as to tell you why – that the number inputted does not match their records or does not exist.
Higher learning institutions can do more to help students obtain the available FAFSA dollars that separate eager students from the degree they desire. By integrating the right technology into the FAFSA process, institutions can boost enrollment while giving students the support they need to realize their dreams.
How does it work? It’s all about automation. Automation is ideal for those repeatable, and somewhat basic information and processes. The financial aid process is just that. The forms are standard. The information is thorough but relatively basic. Identifying missing information is simple when the verification is automated. Contacting the students for missing information is sped up when the communication process is automated.
Through automation, financial aid offices can relieve the burdens of form reviews, verifications and communications. They can free up their time to educate students about the availability of financial aid instead of going over every form with a fine tooth comb. Automation is not only faster and more efficient, but it is more apt to catch the errors and omissions. It also reduces the institution’s risk exposure when they pay for ineligible courses.
Institutions who have implemented such financial aid automation software have seen significant increases in financial aid application submissions, as well as increases in financial aid grants. Students are more informed sooner, so they have plenty of time to make corrections and resubmit before the deadline. They receive more financial aid dollars and can pay for more of their college expenses.
It isn’t rocket science. It’s taking the technology we already have and applying it to the traditionally labor-intensive process both students and financial aid offices no longer need to tolerate. The financial aid is there. It’s time to make it easier to get.