how clear information about financial aid options can improve enrollment and persistence
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How Good Communication about Financial Aid Options Can Improve Enrollment and Persistence

Students will succeed when they have solid financial advice

It’s difficult to provide clear information about financial aid, and not because schools don’t try. The United States offers students a wide variety of financial aid options, especially those who are first-generation, low-income, or minorities. Since prospective students are interacting with the financial aid office, the bursar, and the admissions office, maintaining a clear and consistent message is difficult.

However, successfully explaining how to finance a college education is an essential part of improving completion rates for students. Doing this is a team effort. Secondary schools, colleges, families and the students all work together to secure the requisite financial aid. If the process goes well, students are more likely to enroll and also to persist until they earn a credential. Because it’s so important, there are some things that community colleges should do to improve the entire financial aid experience for students.

An efficient financial aid process

Community colleges are less likely than private universities to have the financial resources for internally funded scholarships.  This means that the school is unlikely to offer discretionary aid, and so needn’t spend time deliberating over what package goes to which prospective student. This means that financial aid decisions could, in theory, be made quickly. The more quickly the student has the information about financial aid, the more likely they are to meet student enrollment deadlines.

However, the application process for government aid does take time, and it can be confusing. If a prospective student tries to navigate the system alone it’s easy for him or her to become frustrated and miss key deadlines. Working with a financial aid officer who can guide the student through the process, so that the student finds out quickly what sort of aid they qualify for, makes a big difference. This is a big part of making the aid process move more efficiently.

Being a partner in the admissions process

For some students, financial barriers are the most significant reason they don’t enter school. Therefore, the financial aid office must be a partner in the admissions process. Clear communication between admissions and financial aid is necessary to effectively recruit interested students. Inconsistent messaging will leave prospective students confused and unsure about whether college is a real possibility for them.

Too often the school assumes all the work of attracting students falls to the admissions office and overlooks the key role that the financial aid office plays. One of the reasons people gravitate to community colleges is that the tuition is so affordable. Being clear about tuition and fees gives students an important data point as they compare their college choices. The financial aid office is by far the most qualified to explain this information to prospective students.

What about student loans?

Although two-thirds of community college students receive a federal Pell Grant, 80% of these Pell recipients still have remaining unmet financial need (McKinney, 330). Without borrowing, most students would find their remaining expenses unmanageable, and so borrowing is a necessary part of financing higher education. However, these students are also likely to struggle to repay federal loans. About one in three community college graduates had defaulted on their loans within fifteen years of entering repayment (McKinney, 330).

Since many students must borrow some amount, the financial aid office must provide clear and helpful information before they make a serious financial commitment. This means that they should not just leave the financial aid office with a loan package but hopefully also understanding important concepts, like interest rates, the risks of defaulting, and other non-tuition expenses they might incur while in school.

How financial aid operations impact persistence

The financial aid office is not only important during admissions. Of course, while students are in the aspirational phase of searching for colleges, straightforward cost information, financial aid policy information, and community outreach to increase financial literacy, are all important. Similarly, students visiting campus should have helpful meetings with financial advisors. Yet, even after students have enrolled on campus the financial aid office plays an integral role in their eventual success.

Whether or not a student persists to receive a degree can depend on whether they get ongoing information about student aid policies. They also must have timely information about upcoming aid packages and also understand how to make an aid appeal if necessary. All of this depends on the financial aid office. Financial aid officers are in charge of disseminating this critical information to the student body. Rising to the challenge will improve student persistence overall.

Communication is critical

Community colleges have a responsibility to their students to provide sound financial advice. Particularly because their students take a true financial risk when borrowing, the financial aid office must be a place where they can build financial literacy. One of the things that both the admissions and financial aid offices can do is make sure that students have sound information about the job market and which degrees are most likely to advance their careers. Who better to give this sort of advice than the officer tasked with explaining how to assess the risks of borrowing money for an education?

When a student leaves the financial aid office they should have a more comprehensive understanding of several things. They should know whether they can pay for their education, and also about the risks of borrowing and what sort of returns they can expect in terms of career advancement. An education is a solid investment in their future. Making sure that the investment pays off is at least partly the task of the financial aid office.


Green, Tom. “The Role of Financial Aid Operations in Fostering Student and Institutional Success.” ed. Don Hossler and Bob Bontrager. Handbook of Strategic Enrollment Management. vol. first edition, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2015

McKinney, Lyle , Moumita Mukherjee, Jerrel Wade, Pamelyn Shefman, and Rachel Breed. “Community College Students’ Assessments of the Costs and Benefits of Borrowing to Finance Higher Education.” Community College Review. vol. 43 (4). 2015, p. 329-354