Since that year, our student population has quadrupled to nearly 35,000, with 19,000 of them receiving some form of financial aid. The majority of our students are Latino; many are the first in their families to go to college. Many take advantage of the California DREAM Act, which makes undocumented students eligible for in-state tuition and other state aid programs at schools like ours. Many are members of the “unbanked generation.” These students are uniquely challenged when it comes to financial literacy; in fact, a recent survey found that fewer than one-quarter of young adults demonstrated “a basic understanding of how to manage their money.”
Improving our financial-services platform
Fullerton’s rapid expansion, and the growing demand for financial aid, challenged the administration to think creatively, but has been especially trying for the financial aid office, which added no staff. For years, students in need of support through the financial-aid process dealt with endless forms, complicated logistics, and lines that could be as many as three hours long.
This challenge is hardly unique to Fullerton. California’s community college system is one of the most diverse in the union, serving more than two million students from an incredibly broad array of backgrounds. Fifty-nine percent of California’s high school class of 2016 filled out the FAFSA, and the number of community college students applying for financial aid has steadily increased. Californians agree that affordability is one of the greatest challenges facing the state higher education system, according to a recent survey.
Serving a new generation of students in a time of both economic uncertainty and radically different financial habits has certainly brought challenges. But working with these students has also led us to unique and unexpected opportunities. The unbanked generation may struggle with financial literacy, but they are geniuses with smartphones. So to help our students engage with the financial aid process, our team looked to the devices that many students already had in their pockets.
Now, Fullerton students receive text message alerts from financial aid advisors, informing them of key deadlines and responding to questions within minutes, rather than hours. Students and families no longer need to sift through paper to understand the terms of their financial aid awards. Thanks to easy-to-read, personalized digital-award letters, students can understand the cost of college more clearly and earlier in the process.
Visitors to Fullerton’s financial aid office may notice a few changes since 2009. The three-hour lines are gone; lately, lines have been closer to three minutes. Our turnaround time, which used to be eight weeks, dropped to two weeks in the first few months of operations. Now, we can turn materials and responses around to students in two or three days. Most important, technology has streamlined our operations enough that the financial aid staff can do their most important duty: providing students with timely, targeted support to help them stay on track throughout the financial-aid process.
Today, the unbanked generation trusts our team for support. We help them with everything from basic financial literacy to how to avoid defaulting on their loans beyond graduation. We are already seeing increases in persistence and retention rates, and new data and analytics tools help us define metrics, track progress, identify at-risk students, and make key decisions related to enrollment management. Ten years ago, the idea of a streamlined student financial-services platform seemed far out of reach. Now, our team wonders how we ever got by without it.
It’s easy to lament the effect that smartphones have had on our culture. But the popularity of mobile technology has also unlocked new opportunities for students throughout California and across the country. Our goal has always been to increase access and affordability, and to equip our students with the knowledge and skills to succeed in their careers. Technology can help us do just that.
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