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Navigating FAFSA Delays: Proactive Strategies for Enrollment Teams

Enrollment teams and families are plagued by issues related to the new FAFSA﹘most recently, the announcement of yet another delay that will keep financial aid packages from heading out to students and families until mid-March or later.

The delay will fix a mistake that could have kept almost $2B from reaching low-income families but now leaves admissions and financial aid teams with a short window to finalize packages and collect deposits. And the Department of Education’s new $50M concierge service, while noble, is likely far from enough. When admissions teams can’t control the problem itself – how should they keep students informed and get ready for the wave of work that’s coming?

Focus on 1:1 communications

As tempting as a marketing push or a mass email can be, situations like these require a one-to-one approach. Financial aid is already a delicate subject, and the needs and concerns of each family are likely very different. Proactively reaching out to each student on your list shows that you see how the delays impact them specifically and that you aren’t just looking to check a box. Now is not the time to try anything new or groundbreaking. Students need guidance and assurance from their admissions counselors that they’re ready to act when the time comes.

Each family needs to hear from you, in whatever form you can. Use all forms of personal communication available: email, text, and phone calls. If you have the budget, send a postcard. The goal is to be proactive﹘don’t wait until a student reaches out with questions to explain how the institution is tackling the problem. Come prepared with talking points that are most relevant to each student, and show them that you’ve done the work to be ready.

Educate your team

Do your admissions counselors know what Student Aid Index (SAI) is and how it’s calculated? If not, now’s the time to teach them. Set up meetings with your financial aid and admissions teams to share knowledge about those frequently asked questions. Counselors should understand scholarship and grant qualifications, how packages are put together, and why a student’s SAI could be higher than they expect. Consider trainings that include roleplay scenarios, so your counselors are prepared.

While this should be a mainstay of your current training, providing a deeper level of understanding to the front-line counselors could help mitigate any bottlenecks with the financial aid team, especially once aid is distributed and they’re actively building and sending packages. Don’t skip the nuance﹘the ability to answer deeper questions once packages are available creates a faster path to deposit.

Consider expanding hours and pushing deposit deadlines

With the latest round of delays, institutions like the University of California are pushing deposit deadlines to give families extra time to consider their options once packages are available. With aid coming starting in mid-March, students will likely receive packages throughout the rest of March and well into April. The institutions that take the pressure off will almost certainly get extra consideration when students make their final decisions. Several institutions have already made this decision, while others are reticent. Getting ahead of the curve will help not only families but internal staff as well.

It’s also worth considering expanding the hours of the admissions office for the weeks after packages go out. Proactively set up 20-minute review sessions with each family, walking them through the package in detail and answering initial questions. Expanding hours within admissions allows the financial aid team to focus on awards, while still providing families that extra layer of support that is necessary.

Grab new market share

The teams that hustle the most and are the most proactive during this time will see better results than those that don’t. If you’re not communicative and proactive, you can almost certainly expect to lose students who you wouldn’t have lost otherwise. Don’t assume that families have any information. It’s up to you to provide it and to provide it at the level of detail that they would expect to make such an important decision. Students react more positively to institutions that are proactive versus those that aren’t, especially when they’re already stressed about the delays themselves. If you’re out ahead of your competitors, you’ll see a difference in your results.

The next few months will undoubtedly be stressful for admissions and financial aid teams as they navigate the challenges the new FAFSA and its delays present. This is the time when families will need your expertise most, and by staying on top of the current challenges and proactively communicating with families, you’ll be in the best possible position for yield.

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Scott is a data-driven enrollment professional with two decades of experience directing the marketing and enrollment efforts of major universities. In his role as Senior Strategist, Scott serves as a knowledgeable consultant to our clients, providing them with expert guidance in the areas of on-site and remote enrollment, student searches, CRMs and higher education marketing.