It was a nagging trend that troubled Ronald Williams. The vice president of the College Board noticed that among the many obstacles preventing students, particularly Hispanic ones, from seeking higher education, there was one that simply seemed contradictory.
Pots of financial aid were available to help many students, often lowand moderate-income ones who would likely need such assistance to attend community colleges.
But they weren’t filing for the funds.
“A number of community college students were eligible for aid but didn’t actually apply for aid,” said Williams, who previously led Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Md. “It struck me as really strange that so many of our students who should be aware of the fact that the government will help them get through school actually do not know this.”
That, he said, prompted discussions on how to raise awareness about this financial aid contradiction, devise short- and longterm solutions, and ultimately improve opportunity and access for legions of incoming students.
“I think the issue really grew out of my frustration with student access,” Williams said. “When you work on a community college campus, you become conscious of something very quickly: you have students who have a lot of will, and intellectual capacities, but they face an enormous number of challenges to bring those capacities to bear on the work they need to do, and one of those challenges is access to finances.”
His instinct bore results: the College Board’s Advocacy and Policy Center recently issued The Financial Aid Challenge: Successful Practices that Address the Underutilization of Financial Aid in Community Colleges. The report was prepared by JBL Associates Inc. at the request of the College Board and the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).
The report found that although community college students are the most likely to be eligible for need-based federal aid, they are less likely than their peers at other types of institutions to file for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Of considerable note, during AY 2007-08, 57.8 percent of Pell-eligible students who attended community colleges on either a full- or part-time basis applied for federal financial aid, compared with 76.8 percent of similarly eligible students attending four-year public institutions.
As open-access institutions, the nation’s public and independent community colleges and their branch campuses enroll diverse student bodies, with millions of students varying in age, sophistication, family background and income. Tuition is often low enough that students believe they can afford college without any financial help.
But, the report noted, “With less revenue per student than other types of colleges, community colleges do not always have enough staff to provide the support and help needed by their diverse student body to solve the multiple life issues and problems students may encounter.”
From fall 2007 to fall 2009, full-time enrollment at the country’s community colleges rose by 24.1 percent, according to a policy brief by the AACC. However, this growth has not always been accompanied by elevated financial support from state and local sources. “Community colleges are being asked to do more with less,” the report read.
The FAFSA, which reports on a student’s and family’s income and assets, determines a student’s ability to pay for his or her education, and thus one’s eligibility to receive federal, state and institutional grants, loans and work opportunities.
As a result of not seeking a FAFSA, and therefore not receiving any financial aid, students often are attending college part time to save money, or are working more than 20 hours each week while studying full time. Both of these actions impair students’ abilities to successfully complete a degree, experts said.
“Community college students clearly are not receiving the same level of financial aid that students in other institutions are receiving,” said Dr. George Boggs, who ended his tenure as president and CEO of the AACC in December 2010. “I don’t think financial aid offices were given a high enough priority. Leaders have put their money into the classroom primarily to offer the classes students need. I’d like to see them give more of a priority to help students be more successful.”
Education leaders describe the myriad challenges students confront when seeking aid, from not receiving consistent, early and accurate information about colleges to basic misunderstandings about financial planning for a college education.
Additionally, financial aid offices often lack sufficient human and technological resources to help students, and some groups of community college students might distrust or misunderstand government agencies that request personal information as a prerequisite for receiving aid.
“Many of the students are coming from families with parents who have are coming from countries that have gone through civil war, people from El Salvador or Nicaragua, and they have a particular concern about authority. They do not like to provide a lot of information and are nervous about contacts with bureaucracy.”
“And,” he added, “there are few things more bureaucratic than financial aid. It asks you for everything but your DNA. Think of what that means. You have populations that are nervous about government to begin with but now have to give all of this information to someone who is anonymous. Layer on top of that the challenges around illegal immigration, and they are nervous about this country in which they live.”
Chief among the concerns is often a lack of importance placed on financial aid administration at many community colleges. The report found that the colleges with stellar FAFSA submission rates approached students personally and incorporated the FAFSA filing as part of the enrollment process. So ultimately, the colleges did not wait until students initiated contact.
Nevertheless, financial aid offices encounter obstacles ranging from limited space, resources, and staff turnover to communicating with diverse populations, keeping up to date with technology and ensuring compliance with new regulations.
Additionally, college financial aid offices often struggle with resources to reach out to students who file the FAFSA but never follow up. A number of schools also aren’t connecting with students because they don’t offer financial aid services on weekends or at night, even though many part-time students have work and family obligations that keep them off campus during the day.
"The core goal is to be able to seek potential students and family members where they are, and not expect that they will be able to get to your campus,” said Dr. Charlene Dukes, who succeeded Williams as president of Prince George’s College. “It’s easy to host a financial aid night on campus. But it says something about the commitment of the community college to host events right in the community of the population of students you are hoping to attract.”
At Prince George’s, several staffers are bilingual and assigned as community liaisons, concentrating on making inroads into previously untapped neighborhoods. “Even if an individual speaks the language, you have to make sure you are communicating
with parents and extendedfamily members,” Dukes said.
Resolving the problems begins with embracing a new mindset.
“They [college presidents] have to begin to think of the Office of Financial Aid as an outreach office as well,” Williams said. “They have to be more proactive in delivering services to students rather than reactive because of the demands that are placed on it.”
In the short term, college leaders should assess their policies and procedures surrounding financial aid administration, and determine whether they are addressing needs proactively, or reactively.
Unfortunately, Williams said, “The Office of Financial Aid is not a place where we pay a lot of attention. We don’t conceive of the Financial Aid Office as an outreach office. We see them as places where you go to get information.”
The report notes that community colleges that have greater percentages of students applying for and receiving financial aid often are providing bilingual services and materials, offering evening and weekend office hours, integrating financial aid counseling with other outreach efforts, and applying multiple approaches to convey financial aid information to all students.
Additionally, these schools employ efforts such as: using multilanguage media, online resources and local opinion leaders to raise awareness, link financial aid applications and follow up with college enrollment or registration, and coordinate activities and meet with local high school counselors to provide grade-specific information to students.
Schools highlighted in the report additionally involved the families of students when providing financial aid materials and activities, and built lists of community organizations that help students with the application process.
This latter component is one that Williams identified as pivotal toward bringing more Hispanic students into the fold, particularly as colleges develop inroads into the communities in which the students live and work.
There also need to be stronger connections with communities, and not just high schools, to navigate additional areas in which Hispanic students and families congregate and socialize, so they can make inroads to educate and ultimately attract more informed applicants.
“You have to figure out where to go in those communities,” Williams said. “You have to gain access to communities because they are largely closed to us, and they are the people who may speak little English but are making decisions, and kids pay attention to them.”
“We need to broker a relationship not only with the schools but with the communities themselves,” Williams said. “Many Hispanic families’ decision making is still made by adults. Think of what happens when an adult does not speak the language of the host country, and you are putting lots of paper in front of that person, often not in their native language but in English.
“And,” he added, “we need to put some responsibilities on states as well, because they have broader mechanisms to provide information than individual institutions.”
Accordingly, the report points out, change must start at the top. The community college programs that have been effective in increasing the percentages of students applying for financial aid have a common factor: the presence of statewide coordination. These colleges have found support and leadership in the state’s executive offices or state higher education commissions or councils.
Additionally, state agencies and organizations have access to potential funding sources and are able to pool resources and funds under a central organization. Combining these resources across the state raises the amount of dollars available and, in the end, can make a meaningful difference for students.
“States should coordinate college access and financial aid awareness efforts and provide resources to ensure families are aware of financial aid and resources available to help them apply,” said Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student and Financial Aid Administrators. “Basically, it is about delivering as much information in as many different ways as possible to raise awareness about financial aid resources. And then providing resources and assistance for students who struggle applying for financial aid.”
Connecticut Community Colleges
Marc Herzog, chancellor of the Connecticut Community Colleges system, said institutions should take a serious look at their financial aid offices and determine how to better assist students. Herzog’s system is one of several institutions credited in the report for adopting programs successful with addressing the many different challenges of a diverse population.
The system has streamlined its approach to handling financial aid concerns for students across its 12 campuses. For one, it created, integrated and centralized financial aid services under one system office to handle the administrative and technological functions of financial aid management across the state. The report notes that his system office has three functional staff members and three technical support staff members responsible for coordinating the financial aid policies and regulations for each campus.
A major function of this office is to offer a common technological infrastructure and internal database for the dozen colleges, so each campus’ financial aid office has access to one data system that handles day-to-day processes such as management of student records, application filing and financial aid distribution.
Initially, individual colleges were reluctant to cede institutional authority to manage financial aid.
"There was a lot of resistance,” he conceded, with some colleges wondering, “Are you going to leave me holding the bag?” Yet there was an “incredible” amount of consultation, with financial aid officers making financial aid decisions, so the initiative gained credibility among the institutions.
“It was a collective vision, and people came together very quickly and realized that this was going to be an asset and a benefit,” Herzog said.
The result: since the formation of the centralized office in 2001, the Connecticut system has witnessed the number of students applying for and garnering aid more than double, during a period when enrollment has grown by 25 percent. In AY 2008-09, 63 percent of students in the Connecticut system applied for aid, compared with 42.5 percent of community college students nationwide.
The chancellor points out that in the 2000-01 academic year, 20,000 students applied for and 12,000 received financial aid in his system. That number has close to tripled, with 56,000 applying and 31,000 receiving aid last year.
“Those kinds of increases have been accommodated by the system,” he said, even though financial constraints limit the ability of his and many other community colleges to hire more staff. Further, Herzog estimates that the new centralized office has saved the system nearly $2 million in salaries alone, in addition to other administrative expenses.
What Colleges Must Do
In the long term, colleges must actively promote and financially support student access programs. This begins with college leaders establishing an ongoing commitment by directing funds and staff to financial aid administration and access programs at their institutions.
Additionally, they should survey potential students to learn where they garner information about the college and financial aid before enrolling, participate in transition programs with area high schools, establish mentoring opportunities for high school students, and potentially consolidate resources with area community colleges across the state to develop a common system for financial aid administration.
The report describes successful institutions. The “I Can Afford College” effort in California targets low-income high school students to address financial aid issues early on. The “At Home in College” program boosts collaboration between New York City’s public high schools and the City University of New York’s community colleges.
The “College Goal Sunday” volunteer program established by the Indiana Student Financial Aid Association provides free information and assistance to students and families, bringing together professionals from community colleges and universities and other community volunteers to help individuals complete the FAFSA.
And Kentucky Bluegrass Community and Technical College’s Department of Multiculturalism and Inclusion serves the needs of the Hispanic student population with mentoring on recruitment, financial advising and academic counseling.
Kentucky’s Hispanic population grew by 250 percent since the mid-1990s, and educational institutions at all levels have had to adjust services and programs to meet the new needs. As a result, Bluegrass made a long-term consistent effort to reach out to students and interact with them in their communities.
Not every student population is the same, and the needs will shift by region. So the report stressed that institutions should determine which recommendations work best for them.
“We’re not going to see an immediate shift to provide more resources to student services such as financial aid,” said the AACC’s Boggs. “It takes a while to raise awareness. We need to let potential students and their families know that this is a resource that is available to them, but it takes a while to get the word out and build that kind of a program.”
Added the College Board’s Williams: “We believe community colleges are going to be tremendously important – and they already are – in reshaping both the American work force and society in general. We are going to have to do something fairly dramatic with respect to our thinking and our actions. We have to figure out a way to make these opportunities available. We need to look at the things we’ve done and completely redesign them.”