By Jeremy Tiers, Director of Admissions Services
Prospective students (and parents) continue to tell us in our ongoing survey research that the hardest, most confusing part of the entire college search process is figuring out financial aid and the FAFSA.
Talking about money and filling out a bunch of forms isn’t easy or fun. But, you and I both know it’s an extremely important conversation. And I would argue it’s one that all admissions professionals need to be prepared to lead, at least when it comes to the basics.
Unfortunately, outside of sending financial aid brochures and telling students to complete the FAFSA right now, most colleges and universities have decided to wait until they deliver financial aid packages before having a serious, concrete discussion with families about cost and paying for college.
Let’s talk about why that is the absolute wrong approach to take, and then I’ll give you some ideas of things that you can do to help make this part a little easier and less stressful for everyone.
First off, financial aid should never be a one-time conversation. Because it’s so overwhelming and there are so many moving parts, when you try and cram everything into one or two big conversations (many of which are 201 and 301 level for the people you’re talking to) there’s a high probability that you’ll increase their anxiety level. Instead, I recommend that you do your best to break things into a bunch of single, easy to digest, 101 level conversations throughout a student’s search once they demonstrate some interest in your school. The number and type of conversations you have will be based on a student’s stage (i.e. high school sophomore, junior, senior) as well as a student or family’s knowledge and comfort level. And be prepared to repeat a lot of the same things multiple times.
The other big problem is fear of not being able to afford your school which is preventing a large number of students from doing things like reading your emails, signing up for one of your virtual events, visiting (if that’s even possible), and/or applying. That same fear is also a primary reason many admitted students take forever to make their decision, and it’s why some sophomores and juniors don’t put you on their list in the first place. There is good news! A lot of this is fixable, and you can change the narrative.
The number one thing more schools and admissions counselors need to do is open the door earlier in a personal way that encourages students/families to have a 1-1 conversation with them about cost, financial aid, scholarships, and their plan to pay for college.
Now let’s talk about what you can do with the current senior class because that’s the primary group you’re working with. You have higher ranking inquiries, students who have started their app and stopped, and students who have completed their app. Those are the groups I really want you to focus on most.
Create a short, very direct, personalized email for each of those senior groups that comes from their admissions counselor, acknowledges that financial aid is a hard and confusing topic, and focuses on setting up a time to have a 1-1 low pressure phone call or video chat to talk about financial aid 101 and their family’s plan to pay for college. That should be your starting point. More on that in just a minute.
If you have parent/family contact information for those same groups of seniors I just mentioned, I would recommend sending a similar message a day or two later to parents/families that references the email you sent the student and has the same goal of facilitating an initial conversation.
Have your call to action simply ask if they’re open to setting up a phone call or Zoom together one night that week to talk about and answer questions around this important and confusing topic.
To be clear, most of the financial aid conversations you have with prospective students and parents/families should be with the student and his/her parents/family, not just the student alone unless they’ve made it clear to you that this will all fall on them. That doesn’t mean you can’t touch on things like the FAFSA or different deadlines with just the student. But anything beyond that should always involve the parents/family. In most cases, they are going to be the biggest outside influencer and play a significant role in various decisions, so go ahead and do your best to make them feel like a valued partner as early as possible.
Now, back to that initial conversation about financial aid and a family’s plan to pay for college. I want you to ask them about that, specifically how they plan to pay for <Student’s Name> college whatever the choice ends up being. Every student/family you’ll deal with will pay for college in one of three ways – The parents/family will be covering all remaining costs after scholarships and financial aid; The student will be covering all remaining costs; Or the parents/family and student will do some type of split with any remaining costs.
Gathering that information will be helpful in allowing you to keep the process moving forward and knowing where to lead the conversation next. Having said that, be prepared for some students/families to tell you they don’t have a concrete plan yet. Your goal in that situation should be to give them ideas on how to begin developing a plan.
Once you’ve moved past that initial conversation, then it becomes figuring out what they know and what they don’t when it comes to all things financial aid. Your job, with possible help from other colleagues in admissions and financial aid, is to fill in as many blanks as needed in an easy to understand fashion. Some of the common blanks or singular conversations you’ll find yourself having a lot each year will include:
- Sticker price vs. true cost
- FAFSA (and why filling it out earlier vs. later is the best move)
- Different kinds of institutional scholarships
- Grants vs. loans
- Subsidized vs. unsubsidized loans
- Outside scholarships (and how to search for those)
- The ‘net price’ conversation (i.e. not every college and university uses the same terminology on their financial aid award letters). Do you know what wording your school uses to represent the remaining costs the student is responsible for?
If your knowledge level of each of those things isn’t where it needs to be, please make time to educate yourself. Those are all 101 or 201 level conversations that I want you to feel confident leading.
The last thing I want to touch on that will help separate you from other schools has to do with sharing relatable financial aid stories on things like value and outcomes.
Sometimes filling in all the blanks still won’t result in action. Be prepared to share similar situations where someone like them made the decision to take out loans or pay more to attend your school, and why. It’s much easier when they have a current example (or two or three) of someone like them, or someone in a similar situation to theirs, who moved forward with confidence, made the investment in your school, and is happy with their decision.
As always, thanks for taking the time to read my latest article. I hope it was helpful, and I’m happy to answer questions if you have any – just email them to me.
If this article was helpful, I encourage you to forward it to someone else on your campus who you think might also benefit from reading it.
And if you’re interested in more articles like this with tips and strategies you can use right now, you can find them here in our Admissions BLOG.