2020 Exposed Gaps in Higher Ed: At Community Colleges, Financial Aid Struggles Reign

Amid an economic crisis, a pandemic and a world of uncertainty, one thing remains constant: The important role of community colleges in the communities they serve.  

Representing nearly half of undergraduate enrollment in the U.S., these institutions are a vital component of the higher ed infrastructure, but they face a more uncertain future than ever. Their success is critical to the economic and educational stability of communities nationwide. 

In our last piece, we discussed the economic realities our students face. In this piece, we’ll discuss actionable solutions to remove a key barrier for millions of students:  

Financial aid confusion  

FAFSA completion rates among students age 18-25 are down, and we know that two-year students face barriers in submitting the FAFSA, even in “typical” academic years. 

While it appears that fewer students will be selected for verification this year, it’s important to note that low-income students are selected for verification at higher rates, potentially impacting community college students in disproportionate numbers.  

Verification is an involved process, even in the best of times, and new research finds that students selected for verification at community colleges are about four percent more likely to not enroll than those not selected. 

Compounding the verification challenges are stressful appeals processes, where students are asked to record and rehash every difficulty, trial and tribulation they (and their families) have faced over the past year, including job losses, divorces, illnesses and deaths.  

It's no secret: Our 2021 looks very different than what is reflected on our 2019 tax returns, specifically among BIPOC students who have been hit with the double burden of high unemployment rates and high rates of COVID

We are left to ask ourselves: ‘How do we make the verification and appeals processes (both logistically and emotionally) as frictionless as possible?’  

Quit it with the impersonal, complicated financial aid jargon. 
It is perfectly appropriate to have an appeals process that plainly states “Hey, we know things might be different than 2019, and your family may be earning less money. We are really sorry that you may have had a challenging year, and here are the things we need to review your award.” In other words, make communications personalized and human. 

Offer transparency in your process for independent student status.  
Community colleges may see an increase in the number of students who have dependents (like their parents) beyond a spouse or children, as a result of the pandemic. This potentially makes these students candidates for independent status.  

Provide template letters that students can use to request an appeal.  
SwiftStudent provides templates that can help students organize their appeal requests and begin conversations with their financial aid office Students have access to clear information about financial aid requirements and personalized templated letters to guide students’ conversations with their schools. 
Hold verification and appeals office hours where students can access personal support.  
When students are able to pre-register for 15-minute sessions, community college staff are better able to prepare beforehand to get students moving and continue a fast-moving and critical process for both students and staff.  

Enrollment declines have had a devastating impact on community colleges and coming back from 2020’s losses will be an uphill battle. But lasting change isn’t out of the question: The solution is to build systems that are compatible with students’ realities, like triaging dislocated workers and removing barriers to the financial resources students need to make their educational dreams a reality. 
Dr. Tara Zirkel, Ed.D., is the Senior Business Analyst for Community College Partnerships.

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