Seven Steps Toward More Effective Financial Aid Websites

With the value of college in relation to its cost more of a hot topic than ever, prospective students and their families are not only worrying about how they’ll pay for college, but also demanding that higher education institutions “show them the money” earlier in their college search process. As a result, institutions’ financial aid websites have become a key touchpoint during the recruiting process. We examined some best practices among them.

Something remarkable happened this past winter. During the span of a month, a congressperson convinced 111 different higher education institutions to tweak the language on their financial aid websites.

At the beginning of February, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md, the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, sent U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan a letter pointing out that 111 colleges and universities were “failing to make clear that only the FAFSA is required to be considered for federal student aid.” All of the colleges he identified require submission of the CSS PROFILE to qualify for institutional aid. Then in early March, he sent a follow-up letter to Duncan stating, “[I]t appears all 111 of the institutions identified in my investigation have made changes to their websites to clarify their requirements for student aid applications.”

Transparency has become the name of the game in college affordability as far as the government is concerned, with the Department of Education recently launching the College Affordability and Transparency Center, its website for comparing colleges’ net costs, graduation rates, median borrowing, and loan default rates. The department is also working toward industry-wide voluntary adoption of a standardized Financial Aid Shopping Sheet for notifying students about their financial aid package, which includes how the institution stacks up against the national average on some of the aforementioned measures.

Investigative journalism is another instigator nudging colleges toward greater financial aid transparency. For example, the Pulitzer Prize-winning independent news organization ProPublica has been requesting details from colleges and universities about how they allocate their institutional aid—to no avail. So its team is investigating whether a current regulation can be enforced that requires colleges participating in federal student aid programs to disclose to current and prospective students “the criteria for selecting recipients [of financial aid] from the group of eligible applicants,” as well as “the criteria for determining the amount of a student’s award.”

And of course, college-bound students and their families are themselves clamoring for cost transparency. If you’re the parent of a high school senior and your frame of reference is your own college-going experience 30-odd years ago, your shock is understandable at discovering the average tuition price at private colleges of around $5,000 that you recall in 1983 dollars has soared to about $30,000 this academic year (or that the average at public universities has gone from about $1,150 to $9,000). If you started college 25 years ago and took out student loans to pay for it, you would have owed about $10,000 upon your graduation. Last year’s new graduates with student loans (and that would be about 70% of all graduates) had an average debt load of more like $30,000.

So it’s no wonder families want clear answers about how they’ll be able to afford college. And with the rise in online “stealth shopping” during the college selection process, a higher education institution’s website has become more important than ever in providing such answers.

During the course of our work at The Lawlor Group [Brendan is a digital strategist; Amy is a content strategist], we view untold numbers of college websites and observe what works and doesn’t work on them in the eyes of college-bound students and their families. From their viewpoint, we’ve identified seven best practices in transparency on colleges’ financial aid websites. And while we’ve yet to come across a college that does all of these things, here we cite examples from colleges that do some of them well.

1. Demystify the Financial Aid Process

This spring, National Public Radio produced a “Paying for College” special series, and one of the stories, “Maze of College Costs and Aid Programs Traps Some Families,” illuminated just how daunting the process of securing financial aid can be. Many colleges acknowledge that visitors to their financial aid websites may be feeling overwhelmed. To counter that, they post messages reassuring families that college representatives are available to make things easier for them. But short of personally contacting someone, seeing is believing.

That’s why posting video is a best practice for showing students and families how they will make it through the financial aid process and afford college.

On the financial aid landing page of Brown University (Rhode Island) at www.brown.edu/about/administration/financial-aid, a prominent video appears above the headline, “Brown students are defined by talent and promise … not by financial resources.” The video opens with the voices of students who did not think they would be able to afford Brown. They share personal stories of their circumstances and how they came to discover that Brown’s price tag would not be a barrier to attending the university.

Similarly, the George Fox University (Oregon) financial aid landing page at www.georgefox.edu/college-admissions/scholarships features a video in which several (presumably) staff members briefly mention the benefits of attending the university and say, “But you might be wondering, ‘How am I going to pay for all this?’ ” They then proceed to explain the importance of filing the FAFSA, and they distinguish the various types of financial aid before ending with an invitation to contact them.

Macalester College (Minnesota) takes a more specific approach, posting a video on a Frequently Asked Questions page of their financial aid website under the heading “About Your Award” at www.macalester.edu/financialaid/faq/aboutyouraward. The financial aid director guides students through exactly what they will find in their award package and how to interpret each item.

2. Highlight the Return on Investment

The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), which has a mission that includes advocating for public policies and programs that increase student access to and success in postsecondary education, has a resources page for students, parents, and counselors on its website. They laud the federal government’s College Affordability and Transparency List of colleges with the highest and lowest published and net prices as “user-friendly and comprehensive,” but they also include a caveat: “The new center highlights cost, but it doesn’t necessarily provide consumers with any context to assess the value of an institution.”

The financial aid website is frequently considered only informational or transactional by colleges, whereas in reality it’s also an ideal place to highlight the college’s overall value proposition.

In the simplest terms, cost is what you pay, but value is what you get. For today’s families, the calculation of value typically involves an equation that factors in the level of quality and the caliber and quantity of success outcomes in relation to the price.

Among colleges that include content about their value proposition on their financial aid websites, most focus on markers of their quality—which usually take the form of features of the educational experience (such as personal attention and student-to-faculty ratio, experiential learning, and opportunities for involvement). An example is the financial aid landing page for Carroll College (Montana) at www.carroll.edu/finaid, which includes this language before and after listing a few such features (at the ellipsis): “At Carroll we believe that your dreams are what make the future so exciting. We also feel that your investment in your future is important. … At Carroll, we know that your investment will be the foundation of your dreams, and have a value far beyond anything you can put a price on.”

Gradually, however, more colleges are paying attention to the successful outcomes portion of the value equation—especially given that CIRP data show the top reason students cite for attending college is “to be able to get a better job”—and using hard numbers to do it. For example, Hartwick College (New York) posts this on its financial aid landing page at www.hartwick.edu/admissions/scholarships-and-financial-aid:

“With real-world experience in 31 academic majors, it’s not surprising that according to PayScale.com our graduates command an average starting salary of $42,600, placing Hartwick among the top 50 liberal arts colleges in the nation, and are admitted to schools of medicine and law at twice the national average.”

And, in fact, the government’s College Scorecard (still a work-in-progress) states under the heading “Employment” when calling up a college’s data, “The U.S. Department of Education is working to provide information about the average earnings of former undergraduate students at [College] who borrowed federal student loans. In the meantime, ask [College] to tell you about how many of its graduates get jobs, what kinds of jobs they get, and how much those graduates typically earn.”

3. Quantify Institutional Aid Meaningfully

Almost all colleges’ financial aid websites say something like, “We provide more than $XX million in scholarships and grants to our students each year.” But it’s vastly more helpful to families when colleges state the average amount of non-repayable aid awarded per student who receives it, along with the percentage of students who receive it.

More rare, yet even more helpful? A breakdown of average financial aid awards by family income level. Colleges displaying such information include Ripon College (Wisconsin) at www.ripon.edu/admission/costs, Kalamazoo College (Michigan) at www.kzoo.edu/admission/finaid, and Wartburg College (Iowa) at www.wartburg.edu/finaid.

4. Disclose the Full Cost of Attendance

It’s also surprisingly rare for colleges to go beyond listing their prices for tuition, fees, room, and board—especially since federal financial aid awards also consider the costs of books and supplies, personal expenses, and transportation. Westminster College (Pennsylvania) posts a variety of costs at www.westminster.edu/admissions/financial_aid/finaid_cost.cfm, specifying different room and board levels and even including deposits, add/drop charges, and transcript fees.

Texas Woman’s University goes so far as to offer a link to a “Tuition and Fees Estimator” at www.twu.edu/costs, where it also shows a chart with the sample budgets of off-campus, on-campus, and at-home undergraduates. Since the university appears to have variable pricing, the estimator takes into consideration whether students are in-state or not, whether they are taking lower- or upper-level courses, and whether they are majoring in certain areas.

5. Be Specific About Scholarships

If possible, aim to do what St. Norbert College (Wisconsin) does at www.snc.edu/admission/tuitionandaid/scholarshipcalculator.html. It’s an instant Scholarship Calculator with no barriers to accessing it. Students simply enter their GPA and either their SAT or ACT score, hit “submit,” and then get an exact dollar figure estimate of their merit award from St. Norbert.

This stands in contrast to the norm on other colleges’ financial aid websites, where listings of available scholarships often include ranges that span thousands of dollars and/or do not specify the eligibility criteria (e.g., GPA, test scores, class rank). Many colleges also require the submission of identifying information (e.g., name, school, contact info) before providing a scholarship estimate. Colleges bucking these trends include Baldwin-Wallace University (Ohio) at www.bw.edu/admission/financialaid/scholarshipsandaid and Austin College (Texas) at www.austincollege.edu/admission/financial-aid/scholarships.

6. Make the Net Price Calculator User-Friendly

Each provider of net price calculators has a strong suit if you’re looking at it from the side of the student.

Most vendors, such as College Board, Hardwick-Day, Student Aid Services, etc., provide a product that offers help windows with more details and breaks down aid into grants and scholarships (including from the institution) to calculate non-repayable net price, then loans to get the out-of-pocket cost.

An additional advantage of the Noel-Levitz product is that students can get an estimate of institutional merit aid before having to fill in anything related to their family finances. See the Converse College (South Carolina) net price calculator at www.converse.edu/netcostcalculator as an example.

The federal template takes about 30 seconds to complete and doesn’t require having exact financial information at the ready. Sample it with the Hiram College (Ohio) net price calculator at hiram.edu/financial-aid/undergraduates/net-price-calculator.

Now, if only colleges could combine all of these best practices (from the user’s perspective) into one fast, helpful, and understandable net price calculator!

7. Include Clear Calls to Action

A final best practice is to ensure that prospective students and their families can easily see what they need to do next. Most financial aid websites contain vast amounts of information, and in the process of organizing it, the actions that students should take often get lost in the clutter.

One solution is to present the entire financial aid process as steps for students. Stetson University (Florida) essentially does that with its financial aid page for first-year students at www.stetson.edu/administration/financial-planning/first-year-students. In addition, the page includes helpful tools like a checklist.

Harvey Mudd College (California), which meets all demonstrated need of its students, uses expandable navigation on its financial aid website to highlight its process of applying need-based aid (see newwww.hmc.edu/admission/afford). The user simply chooses what type of admission they’re applying for, and then gets a list of clear instructions and deadlines.

A Simple Guiding Principle

When it comes right down to it, the best way for a college or university to improve its financial aid website is to look at it from the viewpoint of its key audience: prospective students and their families.

Too often, the organization of content (especially when it comes to determining what should be given prominence) is driven by whatever makes sense to the college administrators and staff based on their goals, rather than being based on how the end users are prioritizing their own needs. They primarily want to know, “Can I afford this college?” Yet as financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz has noted, college websites typically offer only “vague and superficial” information about how their institutional aid is awarded.

Several years ago as her eldest child entered the college search process, financial journalist Lynn O’Shaughnessy began to focus her writing almost exclusively on helping college-bound students and their families find a college that’s a financial fit for them. She is the author of The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price and also co-designed an online course that empowers consumers to find ways to make college more affordable.

O’Shaughnessy writes, “It’s actually not hard to measure the generosity of any school that interests you. Head to the College Board’s BigFuture website … Type the name of the school into the search box … Here are some of the statistics you’ll find:

  • Number of students who were judged to have need.
  • Number who were offered aid.
  • Number who had full need met. (The higher the number the better.)
  • Percentage of need met. (The higher the percentage the better.)
  • Average financial aid package.
  • Average need-based scholarship or grant. (The higher the better.)
  • Average non-need based aid. (This is merit aid for rich students.)
  • Average indebtedness at graduation. (Lower is better.)

You can also find these financial aid statistics at the website of COLLEGEdata… .”

The point is, the data is out there either way. Therefore, colleges and universities are the ones who can ill afford to pass up the opportunity to contextualize their data on their financial aid websites. Only then can they make sense of the data in a way that meets families’ information needs and presents the college in a favorable light.