Since early fall we have been hosting live internet chats through Petersons.com for college-bound students and parents. We choose different weekly topics, and families may submit questions ahead of time, join us live for the discussion, and search archives of past chats. The array of participants has been remarkable, and several key trends have emerged that have led us to make observations that might be of interest to college stakeholders. Of most direct import to college admissions and public relations officials could be the fact that most of our participants have been students themselves, students from a wide range of backgrounds. This will come as no surprise to those familiar with current college-sponsored efforts to use the internet as a marketing and informational tool.
Most colleges have already figured out how important a good website is for admissions and enrollment purposes. Some have even actively promoted college-run or at least college-supported internet chat rooms, blogs, and e-mail or IM (instant message) Q&A opportunities with admissions representatives. Let us note, however, that the digital divide appears to be bridged and the hesitancy to divulge personal information diminished through the opportunity to communicate in a noncommittal way online. We field questions from Africa, Asia, Europe, and across America, from students with near-perfect SATs at private schools, those in need of significant financial aid who will be the first in their family to attend college, students struggling to bring their C grades up to Bs, and those who have experienced divorce, personal illness, and war. Students contact us from home, and from school and public library computers. At the most basic level, we strongly encourage colleges to open up web-based opportunities for students to communicate directly with admissions and financial aid officials. Students, and, yes, many parents are quite comfortable with this medium and are in desperate need of reassurance, encouragement, and accurate information.
We include financial aid officers here to reflect the fact that so many of the questions we receive from families focus on the cost of college, the process of applying for financial aid, and the opportunities for independent and college-sponsored scholarships. As readers of our past columns might recall, we have long encouraged financial aid personnel to take an active role in the admissions process, educating families about aid opportunities and demystifying the application process. It remains clear to us the every college needs to take an active role in pushing students to apply for aid, and to apply now.
An October 2004 analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics by the American Council on Education (www.acenet.edu) has been getting a great deal of press. "Missed Opportunities: Students Who Do Not Apply for Financial Aid" (see chart, next page) emphasizes that many low- and moderate-income students, many of whom are full-time enrollees, do not apply for financial aid. Some 1.7 million low- and moderate-income students did not file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in 1999-2000, missing their main opportunity to access the bulk of the need-based financial aid available. ACE estimates that 850,000 students who did not file for aid would have qualified for some amount of a Pell Grant that year. Many students who did file a FAFSA were late in doing so, thereby lowering their chances to receive government or institutional financial aid.
The ACE analysis, though focused on data now five years old, suggests that many families remain confused and uncertain about the financial aid process. They miss deadlines, and don't understand that they should file for aid as close as possible to January 1 of the year they will begin college. They don't realize that the FAFSA is the main need-based aid application, the one that provides access to all federal funds for aid, many state aid programs, and many institutional and private aid or scholarship programs.
Our ongoing conversations with families, including our weekly chats, confirm that parents and students remain skeptical about whether aid is available for them, and, if so, how much. They don't know where to start the process, how to compare actual college costs among prospective institutions, or how to analyze their award offers.
How can colleges and universities help? It's unlikely that colleges could or would ever require all applicants to file the FAFSA and other aid forms during the admissions process. Yet IHEs might consider strongly suggesting, upfront, that all applicants do so. They can provide clear links from their admissions home page to the FAFSA web site (fafsa.ed.gov), which has dramatically eased the application process. They can mail FAFSA forms to applicants with admissions materials, with brochures explaining institutional aid policies, clear examples of costs of attendance, and portraits of typical students who receive aid and what their average aid packages look like. Such information can also be posted on the college website.
Colleges should also make a concerted effort to promote aid applications and reapplications among current students. Many students miss reapplication deadlines during the first year of college and lose eligibility, making it more likely that they will withdraw from school. It is likely that you have current students on campus who might qualify for aid, but never thought to apply, or think it might be too late to do so.
Middle-income families are often surprised by how much aid, both need- and merit-based, they might qualify for. Will more aid applicants increase the burden on a college's aid budget? Perhaps. But we are convinced that helping students access the federal and state dollars available for educational assistance will help every institution attract and retain better students in the long run, students who will persist in their studies through to graduation and be more capable of repaying loans and giving back to their alma mater.
Howard Greene and Matthew Greene are independent education consultants, and the authors of Greene's Guides to Educational Planning. To contact them visit www.greenesguides.com.