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Reaching students least likely to apply for student aid

​A report from the new College Board Advocacy & Policy Center details how some community colleges are reaching out to help their low- and moderate-income students apply for federal financial aid to ensure they successfully continue with their education.
Low- and moderate-income community college students are the least likely to apply for federal student aid compared to peers at other types of higher education institutions. In the 2007-08 academic year, 58 percent of Pell Grant-eligible students who attended a public two-year college full time or part time applied for federal financial aid, compared to 77 percent of eligible students at public four-year colleges, according to the report.
“Something needs to be done,” George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), said at a press conference May 19 to announce the report, noting that student aid is closely aligned with student success.
The goal of increasing the success of community college students is paramount because it is also tied to national efforts to increase the number of Americans with postsecondary credentials, said Ronald Williams, vice president of the College Board. But serving many of those students won’t necessarily be easy because they often are first-generation college students, come from low-income families or are not ready for college-level academic work.
“It’s become more and more critical to involve community colleges,” said Williams, a former community college president and a member of the AACC board of directors.
An added effort
Many community college students don’t think that they are eligible for federal aid or don’t know how to apply. Not receiving aid often prompts students to work more hours to pay for college or to attend college only part time, both of which reduce their chances of earning a degree, according to the report, which is the center's first in a series of research-based studies that will focus on community colleges.  
Two-year colleges with high rates of students applying for federal aid reach out to students personally and make applying for student aid a part of the enrollment process, the report said. They don’t wait for students to make the first contact, it said.
The report acknowledged that many student aid offices are already stretched, making it difficult to add outreach or counseling services to all eligible students. But there are some steps colleges can take, such as looking out for students who file for student aid but don’t follow up with the documentation needed to get a grant or loan.
With an influx of enrollment among adult learners—who often have a more difficult time connecting with such services—colleges should consider expanding their student aid office hours or use technology to serve them better, the report said. Determining where adult learners find out about the college can also help because the college can provide student aid information to these organizations to begin educating prospective students about the aid application process before they enroll, it said. Such organizations can include high schools, workforce development initiatives, social services offices and rehabilitation programs.
The report noted that colleges with successful outreach efforts have statewide coordination that includes a P-16 education council or a workgroup comprising P-12, postsecondary education and businesses.
“These state-level organizations are able to see statewide priorities, determine capacity, combine and reallocate resources to needier programs and coordinate existing programs to avoid duplication,” the report said.
The College Foundation of North Carolina is one such organization that provides statewide training programs, financial aid process overview, financial literacy courses, career-planning tools and educational publications. Over the past year, the number of students in the state applying for federal student aid has increased more than 50 percent, the report said.
The College Board’s short-term recommendations for community colleges to broaden information about student aid include:
  • distribute bilingual services and materials.
  • offer evening and weekend office hours.
  • use multi-language media, online resources and local opinion leaders to drive awareness.
  • link financial aid application and related activities with college enrollment and registration.
  • incorporate evaluation metrics and data collection into office practices.
  • coordinate activities and meet with local high school counselors to provide grade-specific information to students.
Long-term recommendations include:
  • Survey potential students to determine where they get information about the college and what they know about financial aid prior to enrolling.
  • Participate in transition programs with area high schools.
  • Create mentoring opportunities for high school students.
  • Consider consolidating resources with area community colleges or across the state to establish a common system for financial aid administration.
  • Work with state agencies to coordinate priorities for financial aid administration across the state.
AACC, which along with the College Board requested the report of JBL Associates, said it will incorporate the findings and recommendations into its focus on student success and completion.
“The Financial Aid Challenge: Successful Practices that Address the Underutilization of Financial Aid in Community Colleges” is available here.