For many at higher education’s four-year institutions, the calendar marker of Mother’s Day used to mean that it was time to relax and catch your breath. Decision day had passed, and Fall classes were taking shape. It may feel like a past life, but it used to be that Fall enrollment was highly predictable by mid-May. Commencement ceremonies had concluded, and graduates had begun their descent onto the job market.
The experience at community colleges is a little different (and more frenzied.) These institutions are often working with students on a significantly compressed timeline, which makes summer a time of increased activity for students and staff.
One industry, two very different schedules
When shopping for college at a four-year institution, students normally begin the process between 18 and 24 months before they plan to attend. This means they start engaging in the process during their junior year of high school. For this reason, aid applications open more than 10 months before they step foot on campus.
However, many students attending community college are usually not planning their college journey two years in advance. Instead, many community college students are making a last-minute change in plans to stay closer to home, find a more affordable option, or because they faced rejection from their top choice institutions. Some are older students looking to pursue a higher ed degree after years in the workforce or earn a degree that allows them to change careers.
Due to the open admission processes at community college, applying and enrolling is easy—almost as though applications could be completed on a whim. With community colleges often receiving financial aid applications mere weeks before classes start, this compressed timeline makes it even more important for community colleges to be well-oiled machines.
Students attending community colleges have seen their lives change significantly over the past year. They are more likely to be impacted by COVID as they more often support family, work in jobs impacted by COVID, are low-income, and first-generation students. We have seen this play out with declining enrollment in community colleges over the past nine months. Students have faced competing priorities and, understandably, where providing basic needs for themselves and their families have taken precedent over continued education.
Part of this decline can absolutely be attributed to the amount of energy, time and persistence necessary to complete the financing process when attending school.
Here are five things community colleges can do to ease financial aid friction – for themselves and students – to ensure more students will make it to the first day of class.
Anytime, anywhere engagement
Community college students have a lot of competing priorities. Many are working, caring for families and trying to fit school into an already full schedule. Classes are often scheduled with this in mind. However, administrative services like financial aid, registration, business offices and academic advising may not be as accessible during off-hours. Using an AI-supported chatbot can make it possible for most students to get their most common questions answered on-demand, through a variety of channels like text, email or chat on the website. With chatbots able to handle 80% of routine tasks and customer questions, a significant amount of time can be freed up for staff.
But even more importantly, a virtual assistant can answer questions when students have them. Community college students do not have the luxury of waiting in line during business hours to get help only when the office is physically open. Instead, they need to be able to get answers to questions when they are asking them. Inability to get those answers is often enough to change the enrollment trajectory for a student who is wavering about their decision to add one more thing to their schedule – no matter how positive or impactful it may be.
Students applying to community colleges are often doing so with a much shorter runway than those attending four-year institutions. Applications are sent weeks to months before classes start instead of seven to nine months beforehand. This means there is less time to educate students on the process of applying, necessary next steps and their funding options. To combat that compressed timeframe, colleges need to be more intentional about the communications they send.
They should be proactive and digital. Provide clear next steps to guide students through the funding and enrollment process. Communications delivered digitally that are resource plans for students can be highly beneficial. Stick to a single purpose with your communications. For example, if you are sending an award notice, limit the information in it to what is necessary to understand cost, funding options and next steps. Do not leave things to chance. Complete calculations on behalf of students while providing video content to increase comprehension. Consider embedding your virtual assistant to answer real-time questions from students when they review the information. An estimated 3.2 million community college students receive Pell grants, which serves as a strong indication of the low-income status of this population. Students who don’t understand how they can afford school will not enroll, especially in today’s difficult financial environment.
Matching vs. searching
For too long, the onus has been on students to seek out sources of funding to pay for school. However, in a world of growing complexity and unsavory characters, this can be incredibly time-consuming, frustrating and even dangerous for students.
We have ample data about students and their circumstances. We also have a better handle on legitimate programs and funding resources available to them. Imagine if we could use data to help students learn about (and gain access to) resources and programs that would make going to and paying for school easier? Take, for example, the new FCC Broadband Assistance Program. It is available to Pell-eligible students to help offset the cost of Internet service. Aid offices know which students are Pell-eligible, so reaching out with information and instructions on applying for this subsidy is something that should occur automatically. The same approach can be taken with other public benefit programs and college resources.
Imagine taking it a step further and applying the same methodology to scholarships. Access to these awards could close the gap for many community college students and eliminate financial emergencies that occur during the semester. The result? Fewer students withdrawing from school.
Reduce the burden
Community colleges are uniquely positioned to simplify financial aid processes and profoundly impact the trajectory for students. The federal verification process is designed to validate financial information for students who are receiving grants and subsidies to ensure those programs are paying out to eligible students. As such, community colleges that proportionally are more likely to have students who receive these benefits see high volumes of students selected for verification and can spend up to 22% of their financial aid operations budget on the process.
To combat this burden, it is important to move the process into the current century and ensure that verification documents are collected through a mobile-friendly platform using smart logic to collect minimal amounts of data and documentation. Institutions that “over verify” and request unnecessary documentation from students see a 10% lower verification completion rate compared to institutions that follow minimum verification requirements.
The additional documentation requirements also result in a completion time that is 145% longer than a school that follows minimum requirements, a luxury that community colleges do not have. A self-service portal to process financial aid documents allows students to access the process whenever and wherever they want. It also allows for embedding a virtual assistant for immediate answers, with the ability to escalate, when necessary, to an advisor.
Update and simplify the appeals process
Nearly 50% of households have seen a reduction in income over the past year. Add to this the fact that aid offers are calculated from a FAFSA with financial information that is two years old. That means families are being asked to pay more with fewer resources. As part of the American Rescue Plan, colleges are required to educate students on the financial aid appeal process to combat this issue. This idea is good in theory, but there are pitfalls. And most of them occur when processes neglect proper communication and technology.
Begin by looking at your current appeals process and see if there are ways to simplify or streamline: If it is not already a digital process, consider converting to one and take advantage of time-saving automation and pre-population. Ideally, this solution would not allow incomplete appeals to be submitted, which reduces the number of times you touch a student’s file. Additionally, look at documentation requirements and see how you can simplify them – if possible.
Remember: The point of an appeal is not to limit funding to students. Instead, it is to adjust financial information to more accurately reflect a student’s current financial circumstances. From there, you can move on to required outreach to students. It should be well designed and clearly identify eligibility and next steps.
A simplified, streamlined process that spans communication to document collection to appeal processing is essential to short and long-term success. Investing in advanced automation will help you unlock every dollar available to your students, even during the most difficult times and improve their ability to continue their educational journey and earn their degrees.
Technology doesn’t have to be scary. But in an industry where decades-old practices are still the norm, implementing automation, AI and non-manual processes is daunting. But the investment and improved experience for both staff and students will pay huge dividends. These changes are vital to the longevity of higher education; most critically to the success of community colleges, the true cornerstone of American higher education.