Q&A with Utah State University

Director of Financial Aid Patti Kohler shares her PPY & early FAFSA plan

Amy GlynnBy Amy Glynn

Utah State University is taking a strategic approach to implementing Prior-Prior-Year and early FAFSA, working with State-specific resources including UHEAA and USHE. Read on for my recent interview with Patti Kohler, Director of Financial Aid at Utah State University, as she speaks to the importance of having a cohesive plan.

Amy: What type of impact will Prior-Prior Year (PPY) have on the industry?

Patti: I’m not really sure yet—which I think is standard across the industry. These changes are definitely driving Financial Aid offices to revaluate timelines and processes. If we were implementing PPY on our older timeframes, this wouldn’t be a big deal. PPY makes the ease of doing a FAFSA less burdensome on parents and students, which is a great thing. PPY will come and go, and everyone will be thrilled that we can do this with less effort—and hopefully cleaner information—on the tax side.

Amy: Reevaluation is tough for a lot of schools—finding the time, and changing processes….

Patti: It is, but it’s never bad to reevaluate. There’s a big desire to improve industry-wide, but there’s not always the time because we’re under continual administrative burden. Early FAFSA and PPY are making a lot of us look deeper at how we do things, to big ideas that involve major process and timeline changes.

Amy: Talk about the impact you see PPY / Early FAFSA having on your students.

Patti: First and foremost, it will drastically impact the ease with which they can complete the FAFSA. It will also allow us to have more substantial conversations with students and parents, meaning we can approach recruiting differently. We do a lot of recruiting in the fall, with parents and students asking us to give them a clear picture of how they will be able to pay for college. With PPY / Early FAFSA, we can say to them: “you can complete your FAFSA right now and be given a good idea of what you’ll be eligible for in Federal Aid.” Granted, we won’t have final numbers until March or April, but we will have a very firm base for them to plan from.

Amy: Are you restructuring your recruitment efforts?

Patti: We’re moving our admissions recruitment to focus on juniors in the spring, rather than on seniors in the fall. We will still do a fall push, but it won’t be the biggest push for us. Honestly, we’ve been talking about shifting recruitment efforts for years but early FAFSA really solidified it for us.

Amy: You note you’re more concerned with Early FAFSA, why?

Patti: My biggest concern is the mixed messages we’re getting. The Feds are saying to parents, students, and to the FinAid community that the FAFSA is going to be available early, with the expectation that students and parents can get early information. But the Feds are also saying no PELL tables or timelines will be released early. This makes it seem like the Feds want schools to go out with provisional awards. My job revolves around these messages, and I see them daily. Students and parents aren’t as immersed in it, so I do wonder if they’re even hearing these messages. Maybe they aren’t.

Amy: Provisional awards can be confusing to students.

Patti: Yes. In the eyes of a student, there is no such thing as a provisional award. If we tell them a number, they’ll commit to that number in their mind. If we change it later, it’s a tough conversation. So we won’t be communicating provisional awards.

Amy: So you won’t be changing your timelines in the aid office for scholarship awarding, and Title IV awarding?

Patti: No, it won’t change our awarding. We’ve had a lot of conversations about this in the State of Utah. We’ve decided to keep our timelines the same—no big overhauls this year. Some private schools might change their awarding, but all of the state schools will stay with their current timelines.

Our tuition is determined by State Legislature and they do not determine tuition increases until the last week of March. Logistically, that means we can’t finalize Cost of Attendance (COA) telling students tuition until then. I can’t tell you how many students complain. The State meets and decides the last week of March, and two weeks later we’re sending out summer award letters. It’s hard for students.  As I mentioned earlier, we’re not real keen on provisional awards so we’re going to see how this year shakes out and then we’ll reexamine.

Amy: Are you doing anything to lobby to the state about changing their processes to enable schools to adjust timelines?

Patti: Yes. We’ve been advocating that the State Legislature set their tuition rates two years prior, rather than one. We’ve solicited help from Utah State’s president Stan L. Albrecht, the Utah Higher Education Assistance Authority (UHEAA), UHEAA’s executive director David Feitz, and also from the Utah System of Higher Education (USHE). It’s still too early to say definitively whether our efforts will have any impact, but the overwhelming feeling is that the State is very unlikely to change its timeline. We’ll keep lobbying, maybe they’ll pull out the tuition piece and set that earlier, and keep the rest of allocations for higher education later. That’s our hope.

Amy: There are a certain number of institutions that have committed to coming out with early awards, is that concerning?

Patti: No, not if everyone in your region is on the same page. We’re on the same page about keeping our deadlines—at least for this first year. Other folks should get together with their peers to figure out ‘hey, what’s the plan?’ It wouldn’t be good if you were the only one in your area to not do early awards, if that’s your area’s plan.

Amy: How are you planning to manage the shift in workflow and possible additional work related to Early FAFSA and PPY?

Patti: We’ve implement StudentForms that will help with our student verification and professional judgment processing. My hope is that the time saved by moving away from paper processes, and the ease of using PPY data will combine, leading to my counselling team being able to spend some extra time with at-risk students.

Amy: Student Information System-wise, how have you been preparing? 

Patti: Utah State is a Banner school, and they’ve said they’ll hit their deadlines. There are a lot of other systems out there that are smaller, and schools need to be talking to their data people to make sure that the systems will be ready. You need to give them a head’s up, that’s a FinAid responsibility. If they aren’t ready to go, there’s not much you can do.

Amy: There is concern that professional judgments may rise with PPY. How do you currently address the PJ process with students?

Patti: We don’t make public our professional judgment forms because we want students to talk to us first to have a conversation. We don’t want them to just put a form together and feel lost about it. We send out the forms to students after we’ve had a conversation with them. We are also moving the appeal process to the online StudentForms platform.  We will have to address it more pointedly for the 17/18 year, but I don’t imagine we’ll change up the fact that we want them to reach out to us first. 

Amy: What type of awareness campaigns are you planning to help prepare the campus community and students for the changes we’ve talked about?

Patti: We’re in the middle of planning some of those items. In the State of Utah we have an outreach association, UHEAA. They handle all of the outreach in the state. Their mission is to educate the high school group on how to pay for college. We’ll follow UHEAA’s timeframes on educating students in regards to both Early FAFSA and PPY.

In the summer I’ll be working with our enrollment teams to come up with a marketing campaign – what type of messaging to use, where to place the messages. We’re thinking Thanksgiving is a good time for a campaign, because a lot of students will be heading home for the holiday. We can get in front of them while they’re on a break with their family, possibly via direct mail. We’ve got the same idea for Christmas, and then we’ll be back with the normal timelines.

Amy: At CampusLogic we talk about the ABCs of Student Finance: accessibility, borrowing and cost.  What impact do you see PPY having on these three pillars of financial aid?

Patti: Primarily it will affect accessibility in that students should be able to get their FAFSA completed more easily because they aren’t waiting on anything from the IRS. That’s where we primarily see the impact. I think PPY will greatly decrease the amount of changes that will happen through verification, because more can use the DRT. Hopefully with more students using the DRT it will reduce confusion, etc. I don’t think PPY will affect cost – students will just have more accurate information sooner so they can make a more informed decision down the road.

Download a PDF overview of Utah’s PPY / Early FAFSA tactics >

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