Students don't speak "financial aid"

Communicate jargon-free to improve low-income access

While empowering social mobility and ensuring access for a broad cross-section of the public is central to higher education's mission, there are two additional reasons why universities must use financial aid to enroll more low-income students:

1. Outsized population growth: Low-income students are the fastest-growing market for higher education—exceeding the growth of upper- and middle-class families by at least 25 percentage points in recent years.

2. Key to campus diversity: Attracting low-income students is critical to increasing campus diversity. African-American and Hispanics families, for example, are disproportionately represented among the low-income band.

Aid communications: Lost in translation

Low-income students disproportionately come from families without college backgrounds, leaving them without the cultural capital needed to navigate the ins and outs of the college admissions process. Being first-generation leads students to drastically overestimate college cost and assume four-year schools are out of reach, despite substantial available aid.

Even low-income students who navigate the college admission process face obstacles—they are prone to financial aid anxiety and aid-induced melt. As a result, institutions face:

  • Reduced low-income access. According to the National Center for Education Statistics' Education Longitudinal Survey, over 16 percent of low-income first-time, full-time freshmen enrollments in 2012 failed to enroll due to confusion or anxiety over financial aid.

  • Reduced tuition revenues. Our research identified significant lost sums in 2014 due to missing financial aid paperwork or aid-related melt by low-income students—over $500K at one public research university.

“Language is an access issue...It's our obligation to make sure [financial aid] is approachable to the people we say we want to recruit.”

Eric Johnson
UNC, Chapel Hill

One simple step institutions can take to add clarity to the financial aid process is to cut jargon from their financial aid communications.

Pinpoint confusing language with a jargon-reduction audit

In 2014, Eric Johnson was hired by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to increase low-income access by reducing financial aid confusion. But his biggest barriers were internal—financial aid staff resisted changing long-standing language.

Learn to build pathways for low-income students 

Resistance faced by UNC's financial aid communications director

Resistance faced by UNC's financial aid communications director

For those of us who "speak financial aid," it is easy to overlook confusing terms or phrases. To safeguard against this, financial aid shops can implement a jargon-reduction audit using a free language complexity estimator, the Gunning Fog Index. This tool can guide editing judgment and gain stakeholder buy-in for implementing change.

Below is a "before" and "after" example of how the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill rephrased its financial aid application deadline. Initially, the Gunning Fog Index scored it at a 17th-grade reading level. After changes, it scored at a more reasonable 5th-grade level.

Simplified financial aid language increases consumability

Simplified financial aid language increases consumability

Win-win: Jargon reduction benefits students and institutions

Reducing confusing language means that not only will students have better odds of navigating the enrollment pathway, from admissions decisions to matriculation, but also that enrollment staff will spend less time interpreting obscure language for students and more time helping students with special cases. In the end, both students and institutions win—growing access, decreasing melt, and increasing campus diversity.

Get more insight on this topic

Learn more about how to increase financial aid transparency with our on-demand webconference, "Promoting Cost Transparency and Simplifying Financial Aid Communications." View the presentation.

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