Lindsay Curtis

by Lindsay Curtis

First-generation college student Hannah R. was ecstatic when she received her acceptance letter from Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania — her first choice for college. But that joy began to fade when Hannah sat down at the kitchen table with her older sister, Michelle, to look at how she would pay for her education. Michelle had obtained her BScN a decade earlier and felt confident she could easily help her sister navigate the world of higher education financial aid.

She was wrong. Everything had changed since Michelle graduated, and the sisters’ enthusiasm quickly waned when they realized not only how much work would need to go into applying for aid, but how much debt Hannah would have after graduation — even with the help of scholarships and grants. 

Staggering debt

Hannah’s story isn’t unique. Student loan debt in the United States has ballooned to $1.52 trillion in 2019 — more than double what it was in 2009. 

Over the last decade, the world of financial aid in higher education has undergone vast changes. Tuition has skyrocketed, outpacing inflation, while state aid for students has declined. Student loans — once seen as a “leg up” to higher earning potential — are now seen as a crippling source of debt that a person can be saddled with decades after they’ve obtained their degree.

Colleges and universities have had to face these changes head-on, and it’s altered the landscape of higher education significantly. Sending an offer of admission with information about needs and merit-based scholarships is no longer enough. In today’s world, students need full-spectrum assistance throughout their educational journeys. 

There are things administrators and institutions can do to help students navigate the sometimes confusing, often overwhelming world of financial aid. 

Record levels of student debt

Source: Bloomberg

Improve financial aid literacy

Many students are surprised to discover their financial aid tends to decrease over time, while their costs often go up. It’s important that students and families understand that a freshman-year financial aid package does not equate to a four-year promise. Your institution should provide opportunities for students to improve their financial aid literacy. 

“It’s important to talk to incoming students about how they are going to pay for their first year of school, but it’s also equally important — if not more important — to talk about how they are going to pay for the duration of their degree program,” explains Donna Holubik, financial aid director at Eastern Michigan University (EMU). 

EMU assigns students a financial aid officer and provides them with the officer’s contact information so they know who to contact for help and guidance. “This designated point of contact allows for more meaningful conversations about financial aid literacy and how to set up a financial plan,” Holubik adds.

But a contact at the financial aid office often isn’t enough. Consider holding information sessions for prospective and current students around financial aid throughout the year. Keep your staff and faculty — even the ones who are not working in the financial aid office — “in the know” about financial aid trends and legalities, so that your students are provided with consistent, accurate information no matter who they talk to at your institution. 

At EMU, financial aid advisors are spending more time in the classrooms providing financial literacy workshops and presentations to students. “The more time we can spend talking about financial aid literacy, the more prepared our students are,” says Holubik.

Scholarships and Grants

Merit-based and needs-based scholarships and grant programs make all the difference for many students who may not be able to attend school or complete their degrees without them. Your advancement team should speak to donors about the importance of financial aid for students. 

“Our donors are keenly aware of the financial challenges facing today’s college students, and we are seeing consistent annual growth in scholarship giving,” says John Baas, vice president, advancement at Dordt University. “Donors love knowing they are helping our students and, in many cases, prefer giving to fund scholarships than to brick and mortar projects. Over the last five years, annual gifts to donor-funded scholarships have more than doubled, and the number of named, donor scholarships has grown by approximately 40%, and we expect to see that number continue to grow.” 

While you want to encourage students to apply for both internal and external scholarships and grants, be sure they’re aware of how to maximize the impact of any funding awarded. Students are often shocked to find that if they accept an external scholarship, it can sometimes cancel out a scholarship that was offered to them by their college. 

The College Affordability and Transparency Center requires institutions to be transparent about their cost structure and their use of outside financial aid. If this is something your institution does, make it abundantly clear to your students that they may not receive both scholarships. This way they can weigh the benefits or risk in accepting outside scholarships.

FAFSA has changed: make sure students know how

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) can help students apply for federal loans each year. “The FAFSA is now available on October 1st rather than January 1st. This change allows students to apply for FAFSA much sooner and gives students and families more time to plan for college costs and expenses,” says Paula Witherell, director of institutional communications at Daemen College. 

Make your students aware that even if they do not receive as much FAFSA aid as they were expecting, they can appeal for more aid by submitting supplements or new addendums. This is particularly helpful if a student’s finances have been affected by a recent event in the family such as job loss or sickness in the family. 

Federal vs. private loans

Most students do not receive enough funding in the form of scholarships and grants to cover the entire cost of their education. This is where loans come in. 

Generally speaking, it’s best to encourage those who qualify to apply for federal loans before they do so for private ones. Federal loans offer protections, like forgiveness programs and income-based repayment plans, whereas private loans often don’t. Private loans often come with heftier interest rates, too. 

Pay attention to your institution’s loan default rate

“Administrators should pay attention to loan default rates — the percentage of former students who are unable to make minimum student loan payments — and this can be a key indicator of whether students are getting a return on their college investment,” advises Brandon Huisman, VP of enrollment and marketing at Dordt College. 

If your institution’s default rate is higher than the national average, which is currently 10.1% according to the U.S. Department of Education, you may want to boost the support and programs available from your financial aid and advancement offices. 

Encourage employability

Students attend higher education institutions not just to learn, but to secure future employment. Employability should be top of mind at the onset of their educational journey, not just in senior year.  

As an administrator, you can encourage students to seek out career development support as soon as they arrive on campus during their freshman year. Encourage your students to look for internship opportunities, participate in career fairs, and participate in mock interviews for post-college success. 


The world of financial aid is ever-changing and often confusing, but it shouldn’t prevent anyone from pursuing their higher education. 

Work with students to maximize their scholarship and grant opportunities, and encourage them to take a step back and look at the “big picture” of their plans. While there is often a significant cost to pursuing an education, higher degrees set students up for long-term success. 

As an administrator, you can keep yourself “in the know” and stay up-to-date on the trends and changes in financial aid, even if it is not a particularly large part of your role. As a resource, The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators airs the informative “Off the Cuff” podcast that provides listeners with an unscripted view of hot financial aid and higher education-related topics.

About the author:

Lindsay Curtis is a freelance writer based in Toronto, Canada, where she also works as a Communications Officer for the University of Toronto. She writes about higher education, healthcare, research, parenting, and LGBTQ issues. She spends her spare time tending to her indoor plants, cycling, and volunteering for hospice. Learn more about Lindsay at or follow her on Twitter: @LindsayWrites_

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