Survey shows opportunity to increase students’ engagement with financial aid experts

New survey results offer a window into students’ understanding and perceptions of the financial aid process and related resources, showing that many seek advice from family and friends rather than campus experts. The report, published by Inside Higher Ed, comes as a number of colleges and universities are expanding their financial literacy offerings and focusing on connecting students with needed support to ensure they stay enrolled.

Finding the process challenging but not seeking expert help

For the Student Voice survey, Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse partnered with Kaplan to ask 2,000 students about financial aid, including loans and available supports, between January 31 and February 7. Ninety-four percent of respondents said they had applied for financial aid at some point, and 40 percent found that process somewhat or very difficult.

Yet, the survey also indicated that a significant portion of students are not deeply engaged with the financial aid office. Nearly one-third of respondents had never had any personal interaction with their financial aid office. Just 18 percent of respondents said they had ever had a one-on-one meeting.

Rather, 42 percent of students said they had received advice from family and friends during the financial aid application process—a data point that “will give the financial aid community some heartburn,” Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, says. Other key supports students mentioned using were online government tools (40 percent of respondents) and college websites (38 percent).

When students seek their information from peers and family members, “you have to wonder about the accuracy of the information,” Amy Glynn, who was a financial aid administrator for a decade and is now a vice president at financial aid software company CampusLogic, tells Inside Higher Ed. “Financial literacy is so personalized. I worry that a student will get the wrong information because their friend Sally got told, ‘No, you are not eligible’ for work-study, a Pell Grant, or any of a number of other programs. Her situation may be very different.”

Exploring student perceptions of debt, financial crises

Even students’ tolerance for and understanding of student loan debt varies widely, notes Paul Goebel, director of the Student Money Management Center at the University of North Texas. Around three-quarters of respondents to the Student Voice survey said they will graduate with student loan debt, but half of those students were unaware of the total amount or their expected monthly payment. Thirty percent with student loan debt said they think it’s somewhat or very likely that some or all of that debt will be canceled.

The survey also asked students about financial support in times of crisis. Sixty-four percent said they were somewhat or very worried about needing to drop out if they were to encounter unexpected expenses like needing to pay for a car repair. More than 90 percent of respondents, meanwhile, said they agree at least somewhat that colleges bear some responsibility for helping students during a financial crisis.

Asked about their desire for certain financial wellness supports, 58 percent of students said they’d welcome more assistance with their personal finances, and 57 percent said they’d like more emergency aid funds.

Connecting students with expertise, supports

Colleges and universities, meanwhile, are stepping up their programming. “There’s been a push about being more hands-on as it relates to conversations about financial aid,” says Phil Schuman, executive director of financial wellness and education at Indiana University at Bloomington. Schuman says that his department, having “see[n] the impact that finances have on a person,” hired a well-being consultant with training spanning educational psychology, counseling, criminal justice, and student affairs. Sometimes students “want that cathartic moment to release stress about their financial lives,” he says.

Some financial aid offices are working to expand their reach beyond transactions and build relationships with students through financial literacy programming and ties to other student-facing departments such as student affairs, housing, career services, and faculty. “Financial wellness and financial literacy has a bit of a home in every department,” Glynn notes, adding that “It’s impossible for us to expect students to be at their best academically when they’re undergoing financial stress.”

Topics in this story

Next Up

Common App updates language on gender questions, fee waiver eligibility

Common App has announced changes to its application for the 2022-23 and 2023-24 admissions cycles—updates that clarify fee waiver eligibility and add options for nonbinary and transgender applicants.