Improving Student Access to Financial Aid

May
2011
Esther Matthew, Counseling and Library Faculty Issues Committee

Resolution 20.02 S09 of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges directed the Senate to encourage local senates to review and, where appropriate, act on the recommendations presented in Green Lights & Red Tape (GLRT), a 2007 report published by the Institute for College Access and Success. In an effort to assist colleges in doing so, this article summarizes the key points from the report.

Each California community college student’s financial assistance options are impacted a variety of factors, including the demands of their sometimes conflicting roles. The first obligation is to ensure student access to financial aid by providing information and assistance to students. At the same time, a financial aid office must be efficient and cope with the difficulties and challenges of the administrative demands. Furthermore, community college financial aid offices receive far less funds for operations than the university systems, which prevent them from providing better student services. These operational and fiscal issues are accompanied with the regulatory constraints of federal and state guidelines, all of which are largely beyond the college’s control.

The focus of Green Lights & Red Tape is the varying financial aid policies and practices which significantly impact access to student aid. The findings are coupled with practical recommendations for colleges to consider in support of a student-centered position for financial aid. State and federal policy suggestions have also been included to assist in maximizing the benefits of financial aid for students.

Factors that contribute to the likelihood of college success are enrolling immediately after high school, full time attendance, or at the minimum half time attendance and working 15 hours or less a week. The other factors which encourage student attendance and success are having access to financial aid information, receiving assistance during the application process, and timely aid disbursements. It is these key activities by which financial aid offices and their administrators should be measured.

Financial Aid Policies and Practices

Although there are a number of factors beyond local college control, there are many campus policies and practices affecting financial aid administration which are controllable. Some campus policies give students an encouraging “green light” by helping them to make the most of available financial aid. Alternatively, other practices create obstacles and “red tape” for students looking for aid.

The factors impacting how colleges balance access for students with office efficiency may not be readily apparent. The larger institutional culture, such as campus assumptions, previous experiences, attitudes, priorities, and management styles, influences office operations and shapes perspectives about student needs and resources.

Financial Aid Communications

California community colleges have the lowest course fees in the country, yet some observers perceive that fees comprise the greatest financial issue for students. As a result, the Board of Governor’s Fee Waiver (BOGW) is viewed by many in the community colleges as the primary form of assistance. However, students have many other expenses. This is especially true in California: even though fees comprise less than 5% of all college costs, the high cost of living, when combined with other college expenses, makes up the far larger amount. Students must apply for more assistance by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to cope with the greater financial burden. However, while the majority of those California students in greatest need attend community college, only 34% apply for federal financial aid. Some students may qualify for fee waivers and other aid after completing the FAFSA, while not qualifying initially after only completing the simple one-page BOGW application. With the emphasis on the BOGW and its attraction to students, colleges can develop better practices by combining the BOGW and FAFSA application processes to help ensure students get the aid they need.

Although many colleges have encouraged students to complete the FAFSA, more can be done to ensure that students get basic financial aid information. When dispensing information, financial aid offices tend to rely on websites, mail, email, information tables, and pamphlets. These methods exhibit a wide range in content and communication styles as well as variations in effectiveness. Students’ inaccurate preconceptions about college costs and aid make it difficult to get students to apply. They respond to repetition and timely messages about financial aid. Students need to know concrete and manageable strategies for getting aid and in the terms they are likely to respond to. While acknowledging that financial aid offices are not experts in marketing, it is important to develop a strategic communication plan that includes proactive and creative outreach activities which take into account the unique makeup of the local community. The California community college student population is widely diverse. Colleges should provide culturally appropriate information and do so in languages other than English.

Communication approaches guided by local attitudes include decisions about what information to withhold from students. According to the GLRT research, some colleges opt to withhold information about federal loan programs and provide it only upon request. While federal loan programs are available at all but 16 colleges, students are generally not told about this alternative in spite of the fact that approximately 50% of students indicate an interest in student loans on the FAFSA. “The financial aid administrators we interviewed shared the belief that, for the majority of students, borrowing for community college is unnecessary and potentially dangerous.” (p.21) Their preference was for students to work more and borrow only when transferring. Students who may need to borrow are forced to engage in more fiscally risky activities, such as using credit cards or applying for variable-rate private loans.

Students without other options may unintentionally threaten their own chances of success by increasing their workloads or cutting classes from their schedules. While caution should be used about borrowing, colleges need to develop policies and practices that will actually serve to protect and assist students.

Communication efforts do not need to be carried by the financial aid alone. Inter-office and faculty collaborations can provide a key means for increasing student awareness about college costs and financial aid opportunities. Each campus has various student entry and contact points that can be utilized to support the financial aid office in this undertaking. However, efforts are needed to increase inter-office expertise and to provide staff and faculty with appropriate materials and basic information. There are strong benefits to providing students with regular reminders from a number of sources other than the financial aid office.

Community outreach efforts have primarily targeted high schools and have sometimes included visits by financial aid staff. For smaller colleges with limited resources, it may be better to integrate financial aid into the existing outreach efforts.

Some colleges provide outreach efforts for the larger population of adults. Approximately 50% of low-income adults hear about financial aid through the college. The size and diversity of this group make outreach efforts difficult and therefore are restricted. Generally, flyers are posted strategically in public places and advertisements are placed in newspapers and on radio stations.

Other funds should be used for outreach efforts rather than using the scarce and limited Board Financial Assistance Program’s Student Financial Aid Allowance (BFAP). Although beginning with 2003 BFAP quadrupled the state funds for financial outreach and staffing, funding is far lower than in the UC and CSU systems. The college’s broader outreach efforts could include financial aid information, eliminating the need for the financial aid administration to carry the costs and leaving resources for other services.

The Application Process

Direct and personal support should be provided once students have access to financial aid information. This is due to the complexities of the application process and varying degrees of understanding among the incoming student population. Colleges are aware of the need to provide one-on-one assistance for students and are shifting resources in an effort to help. Although such support requires resources and time, colleges have found that one-to-one assistance is effective.

While hands-on assistance is important and effective, current need outpaces the resources, and therefore colleges must also employ additional methods of informing students. Other strategies that have proven helpful are the use of computers to augment services, conducting workshops, and strategically designed financial aid staffing patterns.

In all college systems, both students and financial aid offices must deal with the complex and arduous application process. Unique to open-access community colleges is the wide time range when students apply. Many entering students do not know about financial aid timelines, various programs, and the complex application process. Therefore, students may receive funds after they are needed.

Students under the age of 24 are considered to be dependents, and parental income is considered when in financial aid applications regardless of the amount of support provided by the parents. In a few situations students can be considered independent and can receive a “dependency override.” However, the process of obtaining this waiver is burdensome and requires additional documentation. A few colleges refuse to provide overrides, while others view the process as another way to serve students. All colleges should use professional judgment and exercise the option of granting overrides when suitable.

Financial Aid Disbursements

Beyond basic federal and state aid, there is a need for discretionary funds and access to student loans. Students who have few available resources and are experiencing a temporary financial crisis can greatly benefit from a college funded institutional grant. The availability of these types of flexible funds can positively impact student attendance.

Colleges have some discretion in the timing of financial aid fund disbursements. However, dispersing unearned aid when students withdraw or reduce course loads puts colleges at risk of financial liability and of having to make complicated and time consuming adjustments. There are a number of ways to limit the college’s liability, such as providing funds at multiple times during the semester rather than at the beginning. This system may assist students in better budgeting and may act as an incentive to continued attendance and eventually to college success. Further, one-credit short-term student success courses are proven to protect colleges from financial risk as well as increasing students’ chances of academic success.

Students need to purchase books early, and this is a primary purpose of financial aid funds. Multiple aid disbursements and bookstore credit can meet this need. Additionally, students can benefit from having clearly defined aid disbursement and application timelines so that they know when funds will be arriving. Colleges should strive to develop policies that balance their chances of risk with timely student access to funds.

In summary, attitudes about financial aid, management styles, and priorities impact the way financial aid services are delivered. These non-monetary and controllable factors run the gamut from promoting student access to the practices that create obstacles to student success. The majority of financial aid administrators believe that their role is to support students, while others move toward an office-centered, “hands-off” model. The research has provided specific examples of how colleges balance their sometimes conflicting responsibilities. Each campus should engage in organized efforts to make needed changes toward a more student-centered position. Furthermore, state and federal factors that fall outside the direct power of institutions should be addressed. The federal and state recommendations are not included here but are included in the paper Green Lights & Red Tape (http://www.ticas.org/files/pub/Green_Lights_Red_Tape.pdf). If acted upon, these changes could positively impact students’ access to financial aid further.

In order to assist colleges in beginning a review and dialog of existing financial aid policies and practices, a self-assessment survey is available on the Counseling and Library Faculty Issues webpage (go to: http://www.asccc.org/sites/default/files/GLRT_Survey.pdf). This survey is intended to serve as a tool for individuals to begin the discussion locally on their campuses about existing financial aid policies and office procedures.

The articles published in the Rostrum do not necessarily represent the adopted positions of the academic senate. For adopted positions and recommendations, please browse this website.