When you think of the term JEDI, what comes to your mind? Most people don’t immediately think of Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. They think of the Force. And that’s great, but the Force isn’t helping historically excluded students get to and through college. JEDI, however—and the people leading the JEDI movement at campuses across America—makes an impact.
Recently, I moderated a panel discussion at Shift Summit, JEDI: Leading with Justice and Equity in the Student Experience. During the session, four experts discussed how they reimagined engaging with students by removing barriers that have historically deterred students from obtaining a degree. The session went deeper than data; it uncovered the systemic friction points and talked about simply removing them for students.
Their work was inspiring. From no-questions-asked gift cards to ensure students could cover expenses to one-on-one advising where and when students needed it, the panelists had developed solutions to support students to and through graduation. These initiatives were planned through the lens of justice and equity, first and foremost, and ensured that all student experiences were considered during the decision-making process.
One of the most important takeaways of the panel was that for historically excluded students, every step of the aid and enrollment cycle is critical; and the timing of (and between) each step matters for these students, their communities and how we all move forward together.
But I want to take a step back and look at the full, frustrating path these students face, which starts with the term “historically excluded.”
Is that a real thing?
When I use the term “historically excluded” students, I usually get a few side-eyes: People wonder (not so subtly) how these students are still excluded when schools are no longer segregated and there are several programs across sectors that help disadvantaged students.
This is not untrue.
However, equity is a process. It’s ongoing. We must always examine our spaces to ensure that processes and programs are impartial, fair and provide equal possible outcomes for everyone.
The reality is that history is inescapable. What we experience in the present is the result of what occurred in the past. Over time, policies and practices have been put into place without certain students in mind. Acknowledging that some students have been historically excluded from conversations, planning, and decision making, simply indicates that one understands and is committed to including all students today.
So where do we start? We start by examining systems that we live and work within and address one process at a time, through the lens of justice and equity including all perspectives. We’re in the thick of students trying to make it through the financial aid process. We lose too many students to verification melt each year, which alters the trajectory of their lives. That’s why understanding the perspective of students who melt because of the verification process helps us make that process better for all. And in this case, understanding the process means we go through it, step by step.
The way it is: Scenario A
Consider this: A student overcomes a ton of financial friction and got accepted into college. They’re selected for verification and immediately feel anxiety around talking to a financial aid counselor. Complex, serious language adds to the stress and the confusion. That same student may not have the community support around them (think about a first-generation student whose family has never navigated the college-going process before).
Complex forms continue to arrive in the mail and the industry-speak adds frustration to existing friction. That means a student may spend hours trying to learn and navigate the process—like form fills that could take weeks, even months. This includes stressors for parents, who may be hesitant to turn over personal information to their student or the school, a notary or even an IRS office. Any lost or incorrect forms? That could mean this student has lost out on some first-come-first-serve scholarship opportunities. Their path is becoming less clear by the day.
And processes that drag on for weeks run up against spring deadlines when many colleges are accepting enrollment offers. And for a student who may have applied to multiple colleges (first-generation students are applying to upwards of 10 institutions), this process isn’t just happening once. Now, this student doesn’t have time to compare aid packages; potentially leaving them to make a less-informed decision. Perhaps the process was too complicated, and the decision was made for them.
Acceptance doesn’t mean attendance, and that is a dangerous blocker for all students—especially historically excluded students.
The way it could be: Scenario B
Now, imagine that same student but with three differentiating factors once they receive their acceptance letter: Simplification, automation and personalization.
There are no manual forms. Everything is automated. Students aren’t running around trying to collect documents—they’re using a one-stop-shop with clear language and instructions that were designed to eliminate complexity and guide them through financial aid and enrollment.
The entire process is personalized: Forms, language and education around financial aid meets the student where they are, with content that resonates with the student and reminders that notify them about their specific next steps.
A simplified process supports a clearer understanding of where students are in the financial aid process and where they want to be. This simplified process guides the student toward enrollment at your institution. It doesn’t reroute them toward non-enrollment.
Wizard-driven forms are accessible anywhere around the clock for students and their families. Powerful virtual assistants fill any knowledge gaps to answer questions about a student’s specific situation—sans jargon.
Simplification, automation, personalization. These three pieces come together to help students quickly move through the financial aid process, have more time to weigh their options and ultimately maximize that time to make a more informed decision around college.
Simplification, automation and personalization
As I compare these two scenarios, I am reminded forcibly of the JEDI panel at Shift Summit: What would happen if institutions implemented streamlined, proactive processes from the first point of contact with students? What would that mean for the barriers that stand between students and enrollment? It’s clear that it may be the deciding factor between going to college and not pursuing higher education at all.
Simplification, automation and personalization are three critical components that help enroll, retain and graduate more students. A solution that streamlines higher education for students supports the time students deserve to make informed college-buying decisions.
At schools across the country, incredible work is happening to move students toward the graduation stage—and there is more work to be done. Why not start now?