Combat Declines in FAFSA Submissions

by Alice Anne Bailey | May 27, 2020
Combat Declines in FAFSA Submissions

Combat Declines in FAFSA Submissions During COVID-19

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Tuition at higher ed institutions is at an all-time high. As a result, most students rely on grants and loans to fund their education. In fact, students from low- and middle-income homes often report that financial aid is a “make or break” solution. Without it, they would not be able to attend or complete education after high school.

Yet, starting in mid-March, when high schools and colleges began sending students home for remote learning, FAFSA completion rates suddenly and sharply declined. This was particularly the case among Pell-eligible students, those who attend a Title I high school, and students in rural areas—students who rely on financial aid the most. Experts fear that these students are leaving behind their college dreams because they lack the information and support needed to apply for aid programs. This places increased pressure on those in higher ed and college access to combat declines in FAFSA submissions.

Recently, the Gates Foundation conducted a national survey. The Foundation found that about half of all parents report their children’s postsecondary plans have changed as a result of the pandemic, particularly for black and LatinX households, of whom 59% and 61% have changed plans, respectively. Some students are opting for more affordable in-state public institutions. Meanwhile, others are not happy with online instruction. They may be waiting for the pandemic to subside so they can return to campus. But a large number of students do not plan to enroll at all. Instead, they are taking time off to work because they, a parent, and/or a guardian have lost a job.

The impact on low-income students

Research shows that low-income students who take time off are the least likely to return. Further, they become less likely to return with each semester missed. There is a difference in quality between a meaningful gap year spent interning, typically pursued by high-income students, versus the time off that low-income students may take to work minimum-wage jobs. For these students, a gap year can lead to forgoing college altogether. Often, first-gen students do not know they need to request formal approval from their institution to take a gap year.

Many of these students would have qualified for federal Pell grants and low-interest loans that could have helped them attend college. However, they either didn’t know about these options or were unable to complete the FAFSA without help. Counselors and college advisers lost easy access to students when campuses and school buildings closed this spring. More than ever before, colleges, universities, and college access programs must step up to fill the advising gap.

Financial aid

Oddly, the students who would benefit most from financial aid are often the ones least likely to apply for it. Students from the lowest-income families, independent students, and first-gen students are the least likely to complete the FAFSA each year. Also, they are more likely to file later in the year or miss deadlines completely. This lowers the amount of institutional and state aid they can receive.

Why students don't apply for financial aid

Many related and complicated barriers prevent students from applying for financial aid each year. Some of these are...

  1. Misinformation and lack of information. Many first-gen students, particularly students of color, have never heard of financial aid. They do not understand that it leads to tuition assistance and do not know how to apply.
  2. Fear of debt. About one-third of students who do not complete the FAFSA report that they do not want to take out loans. Students may not know that aid consists of grants that do not have to be paid back. Students of color and students from rural areas are the most likely to have a negative view of debt.
  3. Complexity of the form and the process. Low-income students are more likely to live with caregivers who work non-traditional hours and who are not familiar with the financial aid process. In turn, this limits the support they can provide. As a result, almost all first-gen students complete the form themselves without any help from an adult. Yet, the FAFSA form is long, time-consuming, and complicated. Plus, it contains a lot of tax-related jargon that students have never heard before.
  4. Social stigma and failure to seek help. Research shows that low-income and first-gen students are the least likely to ask for college planning and academic help when they need it. For one, low-income students are often raised in environments where they have less control. In turn, they may have fewer opportunities to take action to change their situation. And, for many first-gen students and students of color, asking for help means publicly admitting that they don’t know about college-related terms or personal finance topics. They might be afraid of confirming negative stereotypes that people “like them” are uninformed or “don't belong” in college.

Types of support

Clearly, students who would be the first in their family to attend college need significant support. They need help to apply for financial aid and cross the final transition hurdles to reach college, especially now. Students need:

  1. Informational support to understand what financial aid is; various aid options; eligibility requirements; people/programs that can help them; and how to apply, including deadlines, needed documentation, etc.
  2. Technical assistance to answer their questions and help them complete the required paperwork, such as the FAFSA.
  3. Motivational support to help students stay focused on the task at hand, remind them they have the skills to succeed, and encourage them to keep going despite bumps in the road.

Text messaging

Text messaging is a proven, cost-effective way to get all of these supports to students in an easily accessible format. Gen Z students, who grew up using texts and direct messages to communicate, don’t check email often. Unread messages quickly become overwhelming to sort through. Research shows that 98% of all text messages are read, as compared to just 20% of all emails. While an email is typically responded to 90 minutes after being opened, texts are responded to within 90 seconds. Furthermore, low-income youth, those who live in rural areas, and students of color are much more likely to lack access to a computer, tablet, or high-speed Internet at home. Yet 97% of Gen Z students and 96% of adults ages 18-29 own a smartphone; nearly 100% own a cellphone.

The impact of text messaging on college access and success

Texting high school and college students increases their likelihood of filing a FAFSA and required state/institutional aid forms. This can help combat declines in FAFSA submissions, especially in light of COVID-19. Further, it helps them complete these items on time. Also, text message programs have been shown to increase postsecondary enrollment and persistence rates among the most at-risk students.

Best practices: When and how texting works

Yet, recent large-scale efforts have failed to yield similar results. In two different 2019 studies, nationwide texting programs failed to increase financial aid applications, postsecondary enrollment, or academic success of U.S. high school students. These new studies have helped to better define when texting works, when it doesn’t, and why. Years of research on college access/success programs and social psychology principles call forth several practices that can make a text program more effective.


The best way to get a student to finish a task is to text them while they're working on it. If students are in school during the day, text them in the evenings. If you are texting through an entire senior year, text students with offers of support and information for the tasks they are completing at that exact stage. Several studies have found that student progress dies out as soon as texting stops. So, it’s best to keep texting students until they have finished exactly what they need to do.


One reason why national texting campaigns are not effective is that they are impersonal. If students know that every high school senior in the country is receiving the same information, they don’t expect it to be helpful. Students don’t want generic info that can be easily found via a YouTube or a Google search. Rather, they want info that is specific to their personal situation.

One-way texts from a national organization that direct students to take the effort to contact a local CBO or school counselor for support depend on the students’ level of confidence, comfort, and motivation. Texting is much more effective when it includes an option for two-way communication. At some point, especially during complex processes, students need to ask highly specific questions that require a personal answer. Students expect an instant answer, not a suggestion of where to go for support that may not even be helpful.

The most effective text message campaigns link with databases that contain data about each student. Knowing where each student is in their financial aid journey is crucial. From there, you can make it as easy as possible for them to take the next step. You can send links to the specific forms they need to complete. Also, you can send them contact information for staff of the institution they are applying to.

The messenger

Who sends the texts is important. Students don’t just need reminders and links to information. They also need encouragement and praise to keep them motivated as they progress. This will help keep them going in the face of setbacks they may come across.

  • A personal touch. Students do not like to feel as if they are just a number. They want to feel cared about on a personal level. They want to know that the person helping them is just as vested in their success as they are. If the person who texts them clearly changes from day-to-day or is a vague, unknown entity, students may not believe the texter is motivated to provide a high level of support or is working in their best interest. Even if several staff members text students, a similar tone can go a long way.
  • An authority. The texter should be a real person when the issue at hand is complex or warrants empathy. They must be perceived as a credible, trusted, and legitimate authority on the subject they are texting about. Research shows that students most trust people from the institution they plan to attend, a school counselor or college advisor that they know, a representative from their state’s education agency, or staff of the Office of Federal Student Aid.
  • Affinity. Students are more likely to take the steps needed to apply for aid if they personally like the texter who is helping them. Students respond best to someone of the same ethnicity, culture, or socioeconomic background. If the texter does not share a similar background, they must at least be able to engage in culturally responsive communication and show genuine care for the student. Gen Z students in particular highly value authenticity and like people who communicate as their true selves.

Why chatbots don't always work in this context

Many institutions are turning to online chatbots to be “the messenger.” However, this approach, especially when used by itself, can create more problems than solutions for students. In reality, chatbots are only really useful when students are online. When those students go offline, you’ve lost them. Plus, the students who often need the support a chatbot could provide often don’t engage with them when they are online. In turn, the chatbot only supports the small group of students who are already engaged. These are the proactive students who would have likely found the answers they needed anyway.

It’s those students who don’t actively reach out for support who really need it. In many cases, it's up to staff to be the proactive party. Yet, chatbots require students to actively reach out for support. This is why Signal Vine’s Virtual Advisor “chatbot” looks different from the average chatbot. It steps in to answer frequently asked questions for students who are already engaged. For those students who are not actively engaged, Blended Messaging® is effective. This approach works to capture those students who may not reach out for help. It gives them the help they may not even realize they need. This approach, which pairs automation with manual messaging, is an effective way to meet students exactly where they are.

The message

Finally, the content of the message itself can impact whether students take the next step to finish a task. 

  • Norming. Even though Gen Z students value authenticity, it is human nature to look to others like us first before we act. This is especially true when people are in a new and unsure situation. People like to fall into the “norm.” When texting students, frame the FAFSA as a form used to apply to college, and tell them that the majority of all college students complete it.
  • Consistency. People like to perceive themselves as being consistent over time. Let students know that the next financial aid task they need to accomplish is consistent with past statements they have made about wanting to go to college. Also let them know it is consistent with previous steps they have already taken to get to this point, such as applying to school or taking a college entrance exam.
  • Scarcity and loss. As humans, we value things that are scarce. Let students know well in advance of deadlines that state and institutional aid is scarce. Plus, those who apply the quickest are the most likely to receive it, while those who apply late may be left out. Further, people experience anxiety and stress when they lose something that they already own. It is powerful to tell eligible students they qualify for full Pell ($6,345) but will lose that amount of money if they don’t complete the FAFSA form. Similar messaging can be used to communicate potential state and institutional aid packages. The funding is yours for the taking, but you will lose it if you do not apply on time.


For a list of references with more information on how to combat declines in FAFSA submissions, click here.

* Special thanks to our guest author, Alice Anne Bailey, PhD, a Higher Education Consultant.

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