Closing the Gap on Financial Aid

by Vince Boudreau, Dean, Colin Powell School

by Vince Boudreau, Dean, Colin Powell School

Over the past week, we received news that in 2016-17, the state of New York will fund CUNY to the tune of $1.6 billion dollars.  On the surface, that seemed like very good news, particularly given the threat of a $485 million dollar cut to the system that loomed over the annual budget talks. Nevertheless, the news is not all good.  We’re currently preparing for a budget cut next year that may reach as high as 2%, once one factors inflation into the equation, meaning that even when we’re supposed to be holding steady, we’re losing ground.

As CCNY becomes an increasingly tuition driven institution—with student payments approaching 70% of our operating budget this year—any plan to fix things needs to beginby eradicating barriers that continue to lie between students and their financial aid. As I’ve written in the past, diminutions in state support to places like CCNY are matched, virtually dollar for dollar, by increases in financial aid that go directly to students.  Helping students access that money is now essential both to their prospects of finishing school, and our own business model.

The problem is that virtually every crisis our students encounter has ramifications for financial aid. We know this because of information we gather in connection to the administration of our Viola Emergency Funds grant program, which assists students in crisis.  Apart from rendering that assistance, however, the Viola fund also offers a window on what happens to students who encounter some crisis.  What we’ve learned from this vantage point is that virtually every emergency a student suffers ultimately threatens their access to financial aid, and so their standing in school. A student who falls ill, finds herself homeless, or must take care of a sick family member typically cannot complete a semester.  They will have lost time, perhaps lost momentum towards their degree, and perhaps dug a hole for themselves academically. In such circumstances—even after an emergency loan has helped ease the main problem--they also incur the obligation to repay whatever financial aid they have received, as a condition of returning to school.  Hardship thus piles atop hardship, and many students never recover.

How can we set about making financial aid less mysterious, less confounding for students?

Once one begins examining the issues surrounding financial aid, several things become clear.  First, the reputation surrounding the entire financial aid process—that it is capricious, unbelievably complicated, and hopelessly bureaucratic—is largely unmerited.  In fact, on our campus and across the nation, large and small changes are making the process easier and more predictable.  The rules governing it are fairly inflexible, but clear enough that, with planning, students and those assisting them should be able to navigate around them. Second, the single biggest impediment to students getting every dollar to which they are entitled is clear information delivered in a timely fashion, so that students don’t miss crucial deadlines. Nationwide, program after program designed to assist students with their financial aid essentially coordinate information and communicate it out to students. Finally, misconceptions about the process so inhibit the spread of accurate information that students are leaving huge amounts of money on the table.  In fact, the federal department of education estimates that 2 million students each year never even apply for federal Pell grants to which they are entitled.

How hard is applying for financial aid?  There’s no escaping the fact that filling out forms like the FAFSA can be burdensome.  But several measures over the last few years have made it less so. For some time now, the availability of on-line filing has allowed the FAFSA forms to import tax records and harvest key information to fill out the forms from those records.  Early on, students needed to wait until they (or their parents) had filed tax forms in the spring in order to file their FAFSA.  That’s not the case anymore; FAFSA filers can now use their previous year’s tax forms, and so file as early as January 2nd.  This is crucial because there are limited funds for some types of financial aid nationally, and those who file late often find that no money remains to support their schooling.  Moreover, those choosing to file electronically have the advantage of a “skip form” that shades out irrelevant portions of the application based on previous answers (once again, a step towards an easier process).

At CCNY, a new appointment system, rolled out only last week, allows students to make specific financial aid appointments, and also nudges them towards the documents they’ll need to have with them in order for the meeting to be productive.  The system is called Ventus and is available by clicking the “Make an Appointment” tab at https://www.ccny.cuny.edu/financialaid.

All of which suggests that the system is at least minimally navigable, and perhaps moving toward greater ease of use. To the extent that frustration with the financial aid system inhibits students from engaging it, we should all begin to demystify it.

But we need also to stop assuming that the system-even an improving system-- is by any measure easy, or that our students will automatically act like fully formed adults as soon as they come to college. For some, the financial aid system represents one of the very first complex bureaucratic hurdles they need to navigate.  We should expect them to be daunted by the encounter. In truth, some students will default to avoidance.  When an office sends and email, even an important email about financial aid, some will ignore it.  They procrastinate.  They forget.  They’re confused.  And every program around the country that successfully helps students navigate the financial aid system understands these tendencies and assumes them in their models.  They nudge.  They nag.  They remind and follow up—seeking every way possible to get students to pay attention.

For us, that means a few things. Students, their families, and anyone seeking to help them should understand the basic rules of financial aid, or at least that decisions about majors, curricula , even apparently routine decisions likewhether to drop or add a class, often directly impacts students’ eligibility. Better still, we should all know something about the rules of financial aid—when students should apply, what forms of assistance are available to students. The mere fact that New York State’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) requires a separate (but simple) application from FAFSA slips by many students, who in consequence miss the single largest source of support for which they may qualify. Students, for instance may not realize that even if they forget to apply for TAP when they submit their FAFSA, the New York State Higher Education Services Corporation (HESC) allows them approximately 72 hours to file TAP applications. .

Most of all, anyone concerned with broader higher education these days should be willing to evoke in students a proactive orientation toward financial aid.  It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, as the tax deadline approaches and students prepare to figure out how they will pay for next year’s tuition, if they are reminded more than once—from as many people as possible—that the time to file their FAFSA is at hand, that they should apply as early as possible, that schedule changes could influence financial aid, and that work study slots are among the most under-utilized forms for support around. To be sure, we shouldn’t seek to replace the professionals positioned to guide students through this process.  But if outreach is the weak link in the chain, those in the greatest contact with students need to be able to nudge them in the right direction, as an additional support system.

At the Colin Powell School, we will soon be launching a program designed to work with the financial aid office to help students through the financial aid process—and to learn a bit more about why so many of them encounter trouble. The idea is to recruit cohorts of students to simultaneously file FAFSA, so that they are in synch in each subsequent stage of the financial aid process.  We’ll keep in touch with them as a group, prompting them when key deadlines approach, and analyzing their responses to those prompts.  As students in the cohort navigate the system, and gain more experience themselves, we will learn more systematically about what they need, and so what our student body at large needs.  The program is designed as a partnership with the financial aid office, marrying their expertise with our connections and communication lines to students.  It’s a first iteration of something we sorely need, and we’ll doubtless assess and revise the initiative as it develops. But the gaps in our students’ ability to access financial aid are so glaring that we must do something to help close them.