Enrollment Blog

Will you be a financial aid hero or troll?

by James H Day

No one’s sure exactly how the recent FAFSA timing revisions will ultimately impact the nation’s colleges and universities. But there are a few implications we can speculate about with some certainty. One of them concerns disconnects between the federal aid calendar and your own aid packaging schedule.

A financial aid timing conundrum

The relevant news here is the FAFSA will be available to students in October—instead of January—of their senior year in high school. The problem is there’s a good chance that Pell awards (and related patches for aid packaging software) won’t be ready when need analyses start rolling in. In other words, it’s likely that students and families will be looking for a finalized aid package from you before you have all of the information you’ll need to produce accurate numbers.

This presents a conundrum.

You could go ahead and release your aid packages, knowing that they’re built on a lot of uncertainty. Or you could delay your packaging until you have all of the data you need—in which case you’ll have to explain to students why you’re making them wait (and, potentially, why your competitors aren’t).

Plan to award early

My belief is that colleges should plan on awarding in October, in accordance with likely demand from students and families. Or, if colleges are not willing to move their admissions process forward, they should at least get themselves in a position to produce “bankable” estimates by the fall. The stakes of not doing so, in terms of losing the initiative to early packaging schools, are just too high not to.

The problem is how to hedge for uncertainty regarding the state aid piece of the equation.

Set yourself up to save the day

Think of it in terms of two possible responses: You can either assume the highest likely level of government aid, or the lowest. I recommend that you assume the highest, and here’s why.

Let’s say you assume the lowest likely level and set your institutional aid accordingly. Then imagine that the government aid comes in at a higher level than what you assumed. You are stuck having committed more of your own aid dollars than necessary and can't recoup them without “clawing back” some of your promised aid from the student. Not a great way to make friends.

Now let’s say you’ve assumed the highest likely government contribution. If the state ends up coming in lower than your assumption, your school’s contribution will suddenly be insufficient to meet the student’s demonstrated need. At this point, you can step in and make up the difference by boosting your institutional aid – an action certain to win goodwill from students (Crucially, when taking this tack you budget from the outset to make up shortfalls in government aid, exactly in the way just described).

Keep in mind as well that the issue I've run through here is just one of many that schools are likely to face in the coming months. Think of it as a first installment against the larger set of operational challenges that will surely emerge from the new FAFSA guidelines.

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