College Board Forum 2023

Navigating the Financial Aid Process for Low-Income Students

An audience of over 100 people filled the Mercury Ballroom at the New York Hilton Midtown for the College Board Forum 2023 day two session: Navigating the Financial Aid Process for Low-Income Students. In this session speakers from Amherst College, Evanston Scholars, and College Board discussed issues of access, equity, and affordability that remain in higher education especially for low-income students and how FAFSA® simplification has affected the financial aid application process and transparency of who will receive Federal Pell Grants. The panelists also discussed family situations that make the financial aid process more cumbersome and steps that they have taken to address these situations.

In this blog article, we will delve into the key takeaways from this insightful session and explore what we can all do to remove barriers and improve access to help all students achieve their dreams of a college education.

Student Barriers to Financial Aid

Demisha Lee, chief program officer, Evanston Scholars, opened the session by speaking with passion about the barriers facing students when it comes to the financial aid process such as application costs, a confusing application process, the digital divide, and family dynamics.

Traniece Bruce, associate chief equity and inclusion officer at Amherst College, then talked about the importance of expanding access and why we should care. She spoke about the NASFAA (National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators) code of ethics and the importance of being committed to removing financial barriers for those who wish to pursue postsecondary education, and how important it is to be aware of the challenges to access that may be impacting students. 

Challenges to access may include socioeconomic disadvantaged background, gender and sexuality, racial/ethnic, geographic location, first-generation status, and physical or mental disabilities. 

Defining Equity, Equality, and Justice

Leveraging a visual depiction of Shel Silverstein’s famous Giving Tree, Traniece highlighted the crucial differences between equity, equality, and justice in the context of higher education. Equity involves not only distributing resources fairly and equally but also accounting for the differences among students, such as race and socioeconomic status, which may require varying levels of support. The goal is to ensure that every student has an equal opportunity for success. Equality, on the other hand, involves distributing resources equally without considering differences in need or ability, often leading to unequal outcomes. Justice takes equity one step further by fixing systems to create long-term, sustainable, equitable access for future generations.

Traniece explained that the route to achieving equity will not be accomplished through treating everyone equally. It will be achieved by treating everyone equitably, or justly according to their circumstances. Make sure you have policies and procedures that leave room for you and your staff to adjust them to ensure you’re meeting the needs of all students. 

Some questions to consider: How are you creating tools and opportunities that invite everyone to the table? What does access look like in practice? Remember, access isn’t one size fits all. 

Expand Access and Support Equity

Below are some examples of ways institutions can expand access and support equity:

  • Ensure CSS Profile® fees are waived for qualifying students.
  • Leverage a text messaging service for notifications to students so you can meet them where they are, on their phone.
  • Schedule informal student meetings. Make the meeting less intimidating by dressing down and going to them. Try to anticipate their questions so they don’t feel the pressure to drive the conversation.
  • Create mobile-friendly documents. First-gen students may not have access to a computer and those in rural areas may not have a strong internet connection, so they will rely on their phone to access information.
  • Use inclusive language.
  • Ensure applicable students are aware of medical grants and emergency funds.

Waiting For the New FAFSA

The topic of the session then transitioned to a discussion of the new 2024–25 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, expected to release later than normal with a vague proposed release date of sometime this December. 

Jessica Bernier, senior director, Financial Aid Methodology at College Board, discussed the changes to the FAFSA form for the 2024–25 aid year, which include expanded eligibility for federal student aid and a more streamlined application process. In addition, there will be updated terms and definitions, and need analysis formula changes and adjustments to Pell Grant eligibility.

Traniece got a laugh from the room when she called out the oh-so-common challenge of students forgetting their FAFSA password, and she highly recommended that everyone have their students set up their account now or ensure they can access it as soon as possible. 

CSS Profile and FAFSA

The panelists then transitioned to show a side-by-side view of the College Board CSS Profile versus FAFSA.

While FAFSA provides aid from the government, CSS Profile is used to determine a student’s eligibility for institutional aid. Through CCS Profile students are provided an average of over $45K in need-based award versus up to $7K with a Pell Grant, plus loans.

The CSS Profile allows for institutions to fill the gap that remains after federal aid. States, including Colorado and Nevada, are now using CSS Profile to award state grants.

Preparation Is Key

Jessica stressed how important it is to leverage the available financial aid training resources for professionals that were just released at the end of October on the Federal Student Aid training website. These resources will help ensure informed conversations and a better experience for students and families as they navigate the financial aid process.

Access to higher education is a fundamental right that should be within reach for all, regardless of their socioeconomic background, race, gender, or personal circumstances. The upcoming changes to the FAFSA application aim to simplify the process and make it more equitable, ensuring that low-income students have a fair shot at realizing their academic dreams. By embracing the principles of equity, equality, and justice, institutions can expand access and create a brighter future for the next generation of leaders and scholars. It's crucial for counselors, students, and parents to stay informed and prepare for these changes, ensuring that financial aid becomes more accessible and transparent for all.