WASHINGTON – The financially neediest students are the least likely to apply for financial aid, according to a new study titled “The Financial Aid Challenge” by the College Board’s Advocacy and Policy Center.
Less than 60 percent of eligible community college students completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) compared with 77 percent of eligible students at four-year schools in the 2007-08 academic period. During that time, full-time enrollment at two-year schools increased 24 percent nationwide.
“The [report] highlights the startling fact that millions of dollars are left on the table each year by eligible students who just aren’t applying,” said College Board President Gaston Caperton, who added that the report is part of a series on community colleges the organization plans to release. Caperton, College Board officials, and community college experts announced the report’s release in downtown Washington on Wednesday.
Two-year schools educate more than half of all students in higher education—primarily low-income, first-generation and minority students who often lack basic financial literacy, said Dr. George Boggs, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges.
“To see so many students who could be qualifying and are not shows a breakdown in the student aid system,” said Boggs, who also applauded the federal government’s move last year to simplify the FAFSA form and process.
But simplification needs to happen at the institutional level as well, said Marc Herzog, chancellor of Connecticut Community Colleges. Most two-year students and their parents are mystified by the financial jargon and without clear information about their options they often remain clueless.
When community college students don’t receive financial aid, they are forced to attend school part-time or work more than 20 hours, the report said, which reduces their chances of completing a degree and jeopardizes national goals for degree completion.
Accessing the financial aid office is a challenge for students taking evening classes or for those who don’t navigate college well, said College Board Vice President Ronald Williams.
“When it comes to financial aid within the institution we tend to wait for students to arrive and then we react to them. In many ways, we look for ways not to provide services,” said Williams, a former community college president. “We need to be less reactive and more proactive.”
If financial aid isn’t a school’s priority, the office is often tucked away and underresourced, adding to the difficulty for students who don’t speak English well or are wary of providing personal information to the government, experts say.
In Connecticut, Herzog — a self-described recovering financial aid director — decided on a centralized financial aid services model consisting of six financial aid and technical staff members that coordinate financial aid for 12 community colleges from the system office.
Along with providing daily support for financial aid officers at individual schools and aligning all their policies, the bureau is the technical backbone of their massive internal data system that manages student records and streamlines daily processes, according to Herzog.
Other strategies, such as providing free checking accounts to students from local banks and packaging all applicants as full-time students, initially has resulted in significant increase in applicants and saved the system up to $2 million in salaries and administrative expenses, Herzog said.
For cash-strapped community colleges in this economy, the price tag on a new technological infrastructure could be expensive, but Herzog said the benefits outweigh the short term costs. The economy, he said, is a perfect excuse for investing in efficiency.
“We’ve had an 18 percent increase in student applicants while I got $50 million less,” Herzog said, adding he’d rather have teachers in a classroom than clerical workers filing aid papers.
Report authors made recommendations to fill financial aid service gaps that include offering bilingual services, offering extended hours, using online media, building partnerships with secondary schools and community organizations and linking financial aid to enrollment or registration.
The report also describes other examples of best practices in California, New York and Kentucky schools. But financial aid officers know one primary hurdle for them is the lack of resources available to help deal with the revamped student aid reform regulations.
The historic investment in financial aid comes with its share of “complex and labor-intensive” rules that squeeze administrators out of time and sanity, according to Haley Chitty, spokesperson for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
“Financial aid administrators lack the resources to do a lot of counseling outreach because they are focused on making sure the school is compliant with Title IV regulations,” Chitty said. “There is just not enough time and manpower to give a lot of these students the attention they need.”
Although he agrees with the report’s recommendations and examples, Chitty said the number of students applying and the number that are eligible are both at record levels.
“With record numbers applying, a whole host of regulations to be implemented and with community colleges hard hit with the fewest resources, it’s not easy,” Chitty said. “But there is an opportunity for schools to use technology to be innovative to find ways to do more with less. In some ways, there is no other option.”