FAFSA Changes: How Higher Ed Will Need to Adapt to the New Application Date



Rick (Principal and Founder): Hi, I’m Rick .

Sam (Executive Vice President and Creative Director): I’m Sam.

Rick: This is one of an occasional conversation that Sam and I often have here in the office. We like to jabber about things that are going on in higher ed to keep abreast of what’s happening, but also, to think on behalf of our clients about how they can best respond to the multitude of changes that are occurring in American higher ed.

One of the big ones this year that’s going to affect enrollment, marketing and financial aid is the adjustment that FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] has made in being able to submit earlier on prior-prior year data, which means that families are going to be able to deliver information that’s accurate, that’s actually happened (as opposed to more recently—from tax forms in February or March); and that’s going to change the way financial aid will be viewed and calculated. In some ways, that’s going to be a great thing, but it’s going to be disruptive to the way we do business. It’s going to be important that folks on a college campus know about this change in FAFSA so we can adapt.

Sam: I think it’s important that our teams know—not only from a procedural or processing standpoint… how to speak with families; but also [know] that marketers are adjusting the way they’re planning to speak with prospective students and their families regarding financial aid. For a very long time, we’ve been able to postpone that conversation into as deep as March or April of the senior year—certainly after we’ve determined that that student is admissible. I think that’s going to call for some significant change in the way we structure, sequence and guide students on their college search.

Rick: Right. Financial aid is already a very complex topic, and families are highly confused by the information they get at a time when they’re not really ready to talk about it. This prior-prior year status is going to force that conversation much earlier for families. Institutions are going to have to lead the charge by making sure that information is out much earlier than it has been in the past, so that families who are going to take advantage of that and submit a FAFSA early will be informed, so that they can make appropriate choices. One of the things I think is going to evolve here is that: Families will be making choices about affordability before they even know about admissibility. I think that’s going to change the conversation pretty substantially.

Sam: I think one indicator—if I were in an enrollment office or on a marketing team—one thing that I’d like to measure over the next couple of years is: If we get a FAFSA application in October, maybe even pre-application for admission, how does that engagement level, how are those yields different? And what types of information are we getting—in different ways, at different times—and how is that influencing our conversion rates in the funnel?

Rick: Absolutely. We’re already struggling with the consequences of stealth or self-managed applicants. I think this is going to add a deeper layer of students who are strongly committed to an institution before we even know whether or not they can thrive there.

Sam: To say nothing of what people believe about the costs of higher education. We see it in private higher ed all the time. They perceive that an option is more expensive than it may be. In the cases where it’s not, we’ll have some unfortunate consequence there.

Rick: All of that change is going to necessitate some good strategy on behalf of our clients. If you’re facing this new change on your campus—and of course you are—we’d recommend: A, you make sure everybody on campus knows about this change and the influence it will have for your campus. B, we encourage you to adapt your communication flow to make sure that you’re informing, announcing, educating and inviting earlier in the process than you have in the past, and you’ll adjust your recruitment communication flow around that.

And then, especially be alerted to the fact that a FAFSA may precede an application for admission. So you’re going to have to make some management and process changes to know how best to recruit a student who’s re-sequenced the way they engage with your institution.

We wish you the best in this change. If we can help, you know how to find us. Thanks.

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Sam Waterson

Sam is President at RHB.