Tackling FAFSA Delays: Insights for Enrollment Management Professionals with Emily Coleman
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April 8, 2024

Tackling FAFSA Delays: Insights for Enrollment Management Professionals with Emily Coleman

Tackling FAFSA Delays with Emily Coleman
FYI - Podcast
Student Success
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This episode delves into the implications of the recent FAFSA delays announced by the Department of Education for enrollment management professionals. Host Gil Rogers and guest Emily Coleman discuss proactive strategies institutions can employ to navigate the challenges posed by these delays.

Who is Emily Coleman?

Emily Coleman is an expert from HAI Analytics with extensive experience in enrollment management and higher education strategy.

In this Episode…

Gil Rogers and Emily Coleman explore the significant impact of FAFSA delays on enrollment management professionals. They discuss the delayed availability of FAFSA information and its implications for awarding aid packages, emphasizing the need for proactive communication with families and internal stakeholders. Emily highlights strategies institutions can adopt, such as updating net price calculators, adjusting merit award distribution, and leveraging geodemographic data to navigate the uncertainty effectively. The conversation underscores the importance of transparency and support for prospective families during this challenging time in the college admissions process.

Tune in to hear the rest of the discussion, and don’t forget to subscribe!

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Tackling FAFSA Delays: Insights for Enrollment Management Professionals with Emily Coleman 

Publishing Date: Feb 8, 2024

[00:00:00] Gil: All right. Welcome back to FYI, the For Your Institution Podcast, presented by Mongoose. I’m your host Gil Rogers. And we’re just going to hop right in today because I think we’re having a very important conversation that most enrollment management professionals are probably having around their desks or Zoom meetings were both around the latest news that the Department of Education announced, that there’ll be further delays in receiving of FAFSA information to be in awarding aid packages, which is, of course, a huge milestone in the annual college admissions process. And so, the minute I saw this article cross my desk, of course, I reached out to Emily Coleman from HAI Analytics.

Emily, thanks for joining.

[00:00:48] Emily: Sure.

[00:00:49] Gil: So, if you all recall, Emily joined the podcast a number of weeks ago, and we had a conversation mostly around artificial intelligence and the impact that it may or may not have in the short and long term of enrollment strategy. But for today, we want to, kind of, dive deep practically in what the news of the FAFSA delays—the further FAFSA delays—means to enrollment professionals.

So, for those who may not be fully up to snuff on the reality of the situation, Emily, can you, kind of, share the quick highlights that people should know before we dive into the conversation?

[00:01:24] Emily: Sure, yeah. I mean, I think the big things are that the FAFSA was delayed both on the family side, it was supposed to be available earlier and didn’t become available until January, and even then was glitchy. And then, the Feds announced a couple of days ago that schools will not be receiving their FAFSA ISIR data until mid-March, which is obviously very late. It gets very close to that May 1 deadline. So, schools need to, kind of, be thinking about that and think about what changes they need to make based on the change in the situation.

[00:02:00] Gil: Yeah, and it’s interesting because they know that, for years, many have said that May 1st is not really the landmark that it used to be. It’s more of a mile marker of a marathon race. So, it’s not a finish line. It’s just a good checkpoint in the sight bulb. And so, for many institutions, maybe we have to think about where the reality of the situation and be proactive in how we’re communicating with families about what deadlines are really meant for our own mental health in many respects. And making those types of changes has ramifications when it comes to our predictive analytics, our strategy, our budgeting, right? And there’s a whole wealth of issues.

So, you recently have written an article, and it dropped the day before the Department of Education’s announcement. So, you’re either really, really forward-thinking or really, really lucky with the timing of this post, one of the two… probably a little bit of both. Or, unlucky, I guess, if we think of where we are in the industry. But there’s different scenarios that can potentially play out that I think are now compounded by this recent news. And I’d love to hear from you a little bit about what those different scenarios might be and, also, what we might need to think about, depending on what happens, because, for many of us, this is very much unchartered water when it comes to what we need to be doing. And we’ve been reliant on traditional models and traditional approaches, which were already going to be thrown for a loop with the different data that we will be reviewing and receiving. So, I’ll kick it to you. What are the different scenarios that we’re thinking about? And what should enrollment leaders be doing for each?

[00:03:37] Emily: Yeah. So, I think, you know, the possibilities are, sort of, filing rates will be up, filing rates will be down, or there’ll be even. And I think there are different things to think about in each of those scenarios. Those scenarios are not unique to this year. Every year, we talked to clients who say the FAFSA filing rate is down. It’s a huge indicator of interest in an institution. So, there’s always concern around that. And thought given to, why are they down, what has changed in the pool? If they’re up, there’s defensive pessimism that might not last. So, none of that is new, but obviously, it’s just exacerbated this year. And everybody’s dealing with it. And it’s just a much more tenuous situation.

So, I think the first thing I would want to say is that, regardless, I mean, right now, nobody knows if they’re going to be up or down in FAFSA filing, but they can do some things proactively to help families. So, I happen to be seeing this situation from two sides this year for the first time. Obviously, as a higher ed professional, I’m talking with clients about what this means for their admission cycle and their pool. I also have a high school senior who has just applied to college. We submitted a FAFSA. And so, I see it from that point of view as well. And I can, sort of, put myself in the place of, what if I didn’t do this for a living? What if I didn’t know anything about this?

And I think that there needs to be more communication happening with families. So, that, that question on the application, do you intend to apply for financial aid? I think, right now, schools need to be looking at anyone who said yes on that and sending them information about, “This is the timeline. Here’s when you will know things.” I think that schools need to be seriously considering at this point pushing out their deposit deadline. I think that May 1st is going to be pretty unrealistic for most institutions, gives families such a very short window to consider their offers and make a decision. So, there’s that whole aspect.

I think the other thing that institutions can do is update their net price calculators. And if they can update them with the new SAI formula and steer students toward that price calculators with the messages of, it’s not 100% accurate but it will at least give them some idea of what they can expect in terms of need-based aid, which I think would be really helpful to families.

A lot of schools wait on sending their merit awards out until the need-based aid is ready. I think that’s something that schools should let go of this year so that students at least have some information. Some schools, kind of, send it in batches. So, we sent one batch of merit awards in December, one in February. I think those should just be going out as the admissions decisions are coming into the system.

So, then, going back to the scenarios of what can happen. If the school finds itself down in FAFSA filing rates, the first thing is, we, of course, will not know if a change in FAFSA filing rates at a particular institution is because of the new FAFSA or the FAFSA delays or not, because all sorts of things change in every year. But this is obviously a big one for this year.

I think it’s really important for them to understand where the decreases have occurred and taking into account interest factors. So, some students who don’t need aid apply for aid, and they do that for lots of reasons, to be eligible for federal loans. So, what if, due to all of the disruption, some of those families decide, “We’re not going to apply for financial aid, it’s too much of a hassle?” Then, you want to be able to see that in the data. So, you want to see, are we still having the same campus visitor rate? Are we still having people call us for information or attend virtual sessions?

And then, I think it’s important to know that one of the things that can be done is that schools can leverage third-party geodemographic data. So, there are data sources, like the Experian database–there are lots of them–where you can tie to a student’s address the likely wealth or the likely income of the family. It, obviously, isn’t perfect. It’s far from perfect. It isn’t anything you would want to use to award aid. But it would at least give schools an idea of, does the pool look like last year’s pool in terms of these geodemographic factors? And if it does, then, that’s some assurance to just keep pressing forward. And if it doesn’t, then, obviously, there’s lots of different things that can… that would need to be done, depending on where the differences are.

One of the things that we do a lot of is predictive modeling. And so, yield models this year that we’re not able to make any projections on inflows yet because we don’t have that FAFSA piece. And that’s such a huge piece in terms of, you know, a student’s likelihood to enroll at an institution. So, what we’re encouraging and what we’re doing is just tracking data very carefully, looking by every group, just to see, are there any changes that we can see? And is there something that we should, perhaps, do about them if we do see a change?

That will also be important to think about next year. So, even if everything returns to normal, it will be important to remember that this year’s pool was affected by this late release. And so, the date the FAFSA is filed, the fact that it is filed may mean different things next year. So, that’s going to, sort of, complicate things. So, not to give people more to [crosstalk 00:09:35].

[00:09:36] Gil: Just to pause here for a moment, to think about it, you know, and not to equate FAFSA delays by the federal government with the global pandemic, but in many ways, we have to think about this year’s pool as an outlier when it comes to future cycles, just like the COVID years are outliers when it comes to yield projections and persistence projections. There’s an important element there. So, could take a left turn here a little bit in the conversation. I think that’s an important thing to think about, is, and for many of us, we, kind of, just got past the COVID year data and moving through that in our projections. For the, kind of, the weary professionals in the space who are now dealing with this day to day, what are the things they can depend on when it comes to the data? They have to be addressing concerns from the president. They have to be talking to board of trustees. They have to be sharing goals and priorities with their staff. What are some things they can focus on while they’re in a hurry-up-and-wait mode when it comes to the FAFSA data?

[00:10:43] Emily: Yeah. I mean, I think that one of the toughest things for enrollment management leaders is going to be setting expectations with leadership on campus. There’s always a lot of anxiety around that, and things are going to be uncertain for longer this year. So, just relaying that message and doing it over and over again, as painful as it is, that is going to be important.

But I think you made a good point about COVID. Enrollment managers are used to having to, sort of, ride the wave of different changes that come about. So, COVID was one of them. There was students who moved to the common app from just having an internal application. That tears off yield projections. The year that we no longer were able to see the order that students listed institutions on the FAFSA, that was huge in predicting.

So, you know, VPs of enrollment management are, obviously used to dealing with all of these things. And I’ve seen some posts on social media talking about, don’t panic. We’re not talking to anybody who’s panicking. I mean, all of our colleagues, they’re not panicking, but they know that this is a very important thing that they need to pay attention to. I think the biggest concern is on the student side. How will the students find out if they can afford an institution? And wanting the students to make informed decisions rather than deciding before you see a financial aid package. So, I think that those are the things that they are thinking about and they need to keep thinking about and just keep that steady pace that they’re really good at doing, riding that wave of constant change.

[00:12:22] Gil: They’re really good at navigating through uncertainty.

[00:12:25] Emily: Yeah.

[00:12:25] Gil: And for better or for worse, they have to be.

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[00:13:19] Gil: So, we’ve talked about communicating to internal constituents, especially leadership at the institution. What about communicating with families right now? I see a lot of message. I have a niece that’s going through the college process. I’ve got, obviously, my LinkedIn algorithm has all marketing people and tech companies talking about how their solution is going to be the reason why you’re able to stem this tide, etc. That’s questionable, but that’s a whole separate podcast. But what do families need to hear from the admissions department about this process? Because for many first-time students, we’re not even talking about returning students right now, first-time students that have never been through this process before, this is going to be their first interaction with the institution post-admit, right? And, and there’s a lot, a lot riding on this from a yield perspective around getting the communications right.

[00:14:10] Emily: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I think communication is the key and educating families, just so that they are aware of what is happening when they can expect to find information out. Not to pick on the schools that my daughter applied to, but we haven’t received any communication saying the FAFSA was late; if you apply for financial aid, it’s going to come later. So, that, I think, is something that institutions need to, sort of, be more proactive about right now. They are communicating with their students. They’re doing different yield communications. So, I think putting that in there in thoughtful ways is something that everybody should be doing right now to help families and encourage them. Can they call and get advice or information from someone on campus? Or, are there virtual sessions that you could hold that will talk the parents through the changes this year?

Because you’re right, if this is your first time doing this, you don’t know that, necessarily know that anything has changed. And you may be talking to your friends who are saying, “Oh, my daughter found out about her financial aid on February 1st. And they’re not telling you. They haven’t told you yet. So, you’re obviously not getting any.” So, I think there could just be a lot of misperceptions out there in the public, just based on a lack of information. And so, schools just need to get that information out there so families are educated.

[00:15:32] Gil: And I think this is what the COVID times taught us. And the technology is now even so much more better than it got during that time. You can spin up a financial aid information session for parents in a day if you wanted to, right? And you just… you can… and you’ve got the information that you’d be presenting to them on campus. You’ve got whatever information you have. You can say, “Hey, we’re going to be hosting this session to answer questions.” And this was stuff that forward-thinking people have been doing for years prior, like, virtual financial aid session for parents. [crosstalk 00:16:00] go to meeting. Institutions could have done this stuff 10 years ago, right?

And so, incorporating that in having open communication is a huge element here. And it’s not just sending the fluff piece of, why our English major is so great, and you should tour this building, right? Like, those types of things don’t matter right now, as much as the helping students to understand the value and also helping them to understand where the process is. They’re not… I mean, this is stressful enough for them, right?

[00:16:28] Emily: Yeah.

[00:16:28] Gil: And so, we want to make this as transparent as possible.

[00:16:32] Emily: Yeah. And, you know, it’s needy families who are most vulnerable in this situation.

[00:16:38] Gil: Right.

[00:16:38] Emily: So, I think, also, I would encourage institutions to be talking to guidance counselors at high schools or working with them to figure out, you know, if it’s a huge high school and every counselor has 500 kids that they’re advising, that school doesn’t necessarily have the one-on-one communication about what’s different this year, what to expect. So, I think that’s another important audience for institutions to be in regular communication with and just seeing what they can do to support the schools in getting that information to samples.

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[00:18:03] Gil: Now, let’s go back to one tactical item around this that I think needs to be said out loud. And that is, for many institutions, they have their legacy models that they’ve been using forever. And it’s a standard cookie cutter approach that’s used by most institutions or many institutions. And it’s hard to turn on a dime, right, and say, “Oh, well, EFC is going to be replaced by the SAI.” We’ve got the timetable is thrown out. Now you’re saying, “Hey, we need to push back our deposit deadline.” These are all variables that were standardized [inaudible 00:18:39] plan. And that’s going to change everything, right? And so, to, kind of, round it back to the beginning, what are some things that you are recommending to your clients? Because I know that HAI is a little bit more nimble when it comes to the approach to packaging and the approach to optimization of financial aid. What are some of the things that you’re advising your partners to think about doing, now that this news has taken effect?

[00:19:05] Emily: Yeah. One of the things that we’re talking to people about a lot, so, in every cycle, you set the financial aid plan, and then we always encourage clients to be nimble. We watch their data throughout the cycle. And there are situations where we’ll see that the poll has changed, and we might need to tweak the aid strategy. And that might mean sending out some more aid to different groups of students. Often, that’s based on need. We aren’t really going to have the time to do that in this cycle, once the FAFSA information is finally to the schools. So, we are talking to institutions about, “Let’s look at your population and who’s most at risk,” because of, you know, this new situation with the FAFSA. And is there anything that we should do proactively? Could we send out a boost to merit that will be taken out of need once… I mean, it won’t actually increase the students’ aid, but it’s, A, they can go to them early in lieu of waiting until there’s need-based aid.

So, I mean, that’s complicated and it has to be done carefully, but that is something that schools can do. I think they really need to be, kind of, slicing and dicing their pool to find the pockets where that sort of thing needs to be done. They need to be really surgical about it.

And then, just the tracking of the data. As I said, there are so many indicators of the interest of a given admitted student pool. And all of those things can be tracked so that we can see, okay, maybe this pool, there’s more out-of-state students than usual. And out-of-state students yield lower. And those are all the things that we’re looking at, the really minute details of the pool, to see if we anticipate changes and what we can do about those in lieu of having that FAFSA information.

[00:20:54] Gil: Yeah. I think about, this as a number of years ago, I was working with a school that was one of those institutions that accidentally sent the admit letter to the non-admitted students. It wasn’t denied students. It was students who had in-process applications, whatnot. But happens every year. Somebody does it. They push the wrong button, whatever it is. And I remember the VP of enrollment in hindsight saying, “You know what? To turn lemonade from lemons, it forced our team to be more proactive and reach out to these students and help them to complete their applications. Most of the students were actually admittable, anyway. So, they, kind of, got lucky. But it forced our admissions team to actually be proactive and recruit these students in open communication.”

And so, the lemonade out of lemons situation here is, in absence of these kinds of tried-and-true numbers that are put into the formula, you’ve got to be creative with and you’ve got to dive in deeper into the data that you do have and leverage it and be more proactive with families. And I think that the institutions that understand that and get it right are going to be the ones that come out ahead in this scenario.

[00:21:59] Emily: I absolutely agree with that. Yeah, I think you’re 100% right.

[00:22:02] Gil: Awesome. I’m going to take that snippet with my wife later and say, “Look, I’m right, I’m right, sometimes,” usually, about higher end stuff. It’s not about anything else.

So, Emily, I appreciate you hopping on in short order and sharing your, your thoughts and your perspectives. I think this is obviously somewhat crazy time, but like you said, most people are not panicking. It’s more of a not so much a wait-and-see but just look-at-things-differently type of a scenario. So, for folks that are, kind of, at a spot, maybe they aren’t panicking, or maybe they’re on the cusp of panicking, what’s the best way for them to get in touch with you so they can get your help?

[00:22:40] Emily: Yeah. And people can reach out to me. I’m happy to hear from folks. My email is ecoleman@haianalytics.com. Our website is haianalytics.com. And, you know, folks can find contact information there as well.

[00:22:54] Gil: Awesome. Well, thank you so much again for hopping on. And to our listening audience, we’ll put all these resources in the episode notes. Thank you, again, for listening. And we will see you next time on FYI.

[00:23:07] Emily: Thank you.