Rethinking Financial Aid’s Role in Student Retention

September 21, 2013 | Blog

The administration of federal student aid is a highly complex and bureaucratic job thanks to a great deal of program complexity and regulation. Financial aid offices are often overwhelmed with the tasks involved in that administrative process, with staff finding that little time for anything else remains at the end of the day.

Unfortunately, simply following the rules and norms associated with financial aid administration is demonstrably insufficient when it comes to meeting the needs of today’s students.  With a far greater number of students entering higher education without the support of college-educated parents, and facing more significant financial constraints (and higher college costs), an effective financial aid office must do more than distribute financial aid and apply rules and regulations.  To ensure that the aid dollars are spent in a cost-effective manner, aid offices must also be part of a cross-campus effort focused on student retention.

Everyone who works on the campuses of colleges and universities today has a shared responsibility for supporting undergraduate retention. This responsibility is essential if they want to help higher education become an engine of equality and social mobility, rather than the engine of inequality that it currently is.  Many of the nation’s financial aid officers are committed to this goal and eager to achieve it.

In today’s context, a traditional aid office focused on regulation and personal responsibility is contributing to a crisis.  Across the country, students who have overcome enormous challenges to college access find their way onto campus but struggle to retain their financial aid due to rules surrounding the ‘satisfactory academic progress’ (SAP) standards.   SAP usually means that students must maintain a C average or risk losing their aid. When students fail to do this, there are significant institutional consequences (a loss of Pell dollars, lower graduation rates) and thus the school has failed as well.

Given the stakes, it is reasonable to ask: what role should financial aid offices play in ensuring students make SAP and keep their aid so that they have the financial support necessary to stay in school and reach graduation?

Recent conversations with aid officers suggest that the typical answer goes something like this:
“We want all students to succeed. We tell them that they must make SAP and what will happen if they don’t. When they get in trouble, we let them know, and tell them to get help.  We have lots of students to support, and some do their job, and others don’t.”

I’m sympathetic to that answer, but research suggests it is woefully inadequate.  Here are three critical facts about first-generation college students to illustrate the problem:

1.  They do not know what actions to take to increase their grades.   Research across the educational spectrum shows that holding students responsible for outcomes they do not know how to achieve is ineffective and counterproductive.  Example #1: a student tries to improve her GPA decides to take fewer classes, which results in her becoming part-time, and losing her grants that require full-time enrollment.  Example #2: a student tries to improve her GPA by taking more courses, because she does not know how GPA is computed and she thinks more is better.

2. They are ill-equipped to sort out good advice from bad advice.   When they follow instructions and go seek advice from advisers, they do not know how to handle conflicting advice or determine when that advice is under-informed.  I have encountered academic advisers who do not know that student #1 above will lose some financial aid, or do not tell student #2 that taking more classes could put her at risk.

3. They have little external support, experience more family crises, work longer hours, and are often more averse to taking on loans.  While they might want to seek out help from others, that help is often offered only during daytime hours when their schedules are packed.  In addition, when told they they should take on loans, they feel alienated and misunderstood. 

The growing presence of such students in higher education and the consequences of failing to support them to make SAP as they work their way through college requires financial aid offices to rethink their role in student retention. The financial aid officer is often the first to know the student is in trouble.  This should trigger an early warning system.  In 2013, the implementation of an early warning system ought to be required at every Title IV institution.  The result of an early warning trigger should be proactive efforts (coordinated by multiple offices as needed) to reach the student for comprehensive advising that integrates academic, financial, and family support.  Proactive efforts must reach the student where they are– email is notoriously ineffective for this purpose. Until the office is connected to the student and progress is occurring, contact should be by phone or in person.

Effective advising is be supportive, non-judgmental, and aligned with the realities of students’ lives.  First generation students are more than willing to take responsibility for their academic performance and they are, at the same time, right to expect their colleges and universities to be responsible in return for serving them.    In this day and age, responsibility in financial aid office goes beyond using the same old practices for every student, irrespective of need. We will never increase equity in graduation rates or do our jobs in a cost-effective manner without this fundamental transformation.

The nation’s colleges and universities are littered with dropouts who began college with support from financial aid, only to lose it because of an insufficiently supportive environment.  That is a tragedy we cannot afford.   It’s time to act.

Data Note:

Some schools are open and honest about the extent of their SAP challenges.  It would be great if more schools published reports like this one from El Camino.

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