The “shot clock” college students rely on when filling out financial aid forms
It’s the time of the year for two of the most important college-related decisions students and families make: which school should I attend and how should I pay for it?
Picking, and paying for, college is shaped by very personal circumstances, and despite everyone’s wishes, there’s usually no right answer. That people hate losses more than they love gains means the fear of making the wrong choice makes an already murky college-buying process even more frustrating for millions of prospective students and families.
Unlike the coffee you probably bought at Starbucks this morning, education isn’t something you can consume and instantly decide if it was worth what you spent on it. In reality, you can’t know if it was worth the money until years into your post-college career, which coincidentally makes it hard to decide to do something different the next time around.
That puts a lot of pressure on students and families. It also takes a toll on their patience. Paying for college is a forms-heavy process that can take weeks of back-and-forth to sort but can also leave room to weigh options, particularly if a student was accepted to more than one institution.
The impact that timing and form processing can have on enrollment decisions is a surprisingly under-discussed factor behind persistence and completion. A customer left waiting weeks to find out if an aid form has been processed can’t help but feel more like a number and less like a person as processing times increase or communications decrease.
Throw in the fact that students go through the process every year they’re enrolled, and you can see how a frustrating experience could drive students to value the way they are treated as customers just as highly as they value the education they want to purchase.
How patient are college students waiting for aid forms to be processed?
Understanding the extent to which processing frustration shapes students’ willingness to stay committed to one college has implications for both access and affordability policy. Yet it also impacts institutions’ strategic enrollment management activities as well.
To help add some data to this discussion, we went out and surveyed more than 1,300 current and former college students in January 2022. We asked them a series of questions around how long they would be willing to wait for a college to process financial aid forms before considering other schools.
The findings from that survey suggest it’s not very long. Almost 55 percent said they would not wait more than a month and 80 percent said they would not wait more than two months before “thinking about” going someplace else. If that feels long, remember that it currently takes more than 8 weeks for most students selected for verification to get that process completed.
This level of patience, or maybe impatience, is pretty stable when the question is posed under similar circumstances and in similar ways. Ask students how long before they’d “actually decide” to enroll someplace else, and the numbers slip only slightly: 48 percent would not wait more than a month and 77 percent up to two months. Ask how long they’d wait before considering other options in the case of applying to have their aid adjusted because of a life event, like losing a job or a family member falling ill? Sixty percent would only wait up to one month and 82 percent no more than two months.
Like most data findings, high-level numbers often mask underlying patterns. In this case, for example, we found that Black students were more likely to only consider waiting up to two weeks before thinking of going someplace else, as compared to white students (19 percent versus 14 percent). They were also more likely to wait no more than a month (58 percent versus 52 percent).
Why buying college needs to get simpler
Results like these confirm what experts know, and what the public is increasingly coming to terms with. The complicated and convoluted way we make people pay for college poses as much a barrier to persistence and completion as perceptions about it being unaffordable.
Imagine a scenario where buying a car required waiting a month to cobble together all the different rebates so you know what the real financing price is. Imagine having to wait a month for a dealership to verify your income.
For generations, both policymakers and institutional leaders have demonstrated that keeping college affordable is exceptionally difficult to deliver. Figuring out how to make buying college simpler — be it by reducing steps or speeding up communications — is an engineering problem, which means it is solvable.
The act of recognizing that the challenge of paying for college is more about buying friction than affordability gives higher education leaders a rare opportunity to reframe a generational problem. More importantly, it opens the door for schools and states and even the federal government to design stackable solutions that can help students financing a college education make better choices about where they enroll and how much they want to borrow. That can lead to the kinds of persistence, retention and completion rates everyone is looking to achieve.