18 min read

Episode 22—Leveraging Financial Aid to Provide College Access (Pt 2)


Enrollment leaders have choices and decisions to make that will impact not only their college or university, but also the future lives of students. Today, on the Enrollment Edge, I dig into the topic of financial aid and college access with Megan Hartless, Coordinator of Financial Aid and Scholarships at Blue Ridge Community College. Megan is a veteran of building unique and effective financial aid policies that target providing access to higher education. As the landscape of college enrollment changes in the coming years, it is estimated that access to financial resources for first generation and high-need students will increase. College financial aid and enrollment leaders will have to be intentional about providing the limited available financial resources if they hope to enroll and graduate those students. Bottom line? Many colleges will have to shift their aid model from providing what students want, to providing what they need.

Episode Transcript

[00:00:00] Jay Fedje:  Welcome to the Enrollment Edge Podcast for college enrollment and marketing leaders. I'm your host Jay Fedje, Enrollment Edge is sponsored by enrollmentFUEL, a trusted full-service student search and marketing partner to colleges and universities across the country. If you'd like to learn more about enrollment tool services, or you have questions about today's episode, we've included a link to our website in the show notes. You can also email us at edge@enrollmentfuel.com. We'd love to hear what you think. If you can, help us by subscribing to our podcast, sharing it with your friends and leaving a five-star review on Apple podcasts. Welcome to part two of my conversation with Megan Hartless Coordinator of Aid and Scholarships at Blue Ridge Community College. In our two-part Edge series, we've spent time talking through college access, student debt and the value of community college transfers. So let's jump right back into my conversation with Megan. I was talking with a colleague from a four-year college this last week, and that college is a school that obviously is almost entirely four-year bachelor's degrees, and they have master's degrees. But they've seen their Pell numbers move from in the teens, the mid-teens to upwards of 50%, now and so they're moving into areas where suddenly for them and shouldn't be suddenly because you can watch that need move, but Pell recipients show a great deal of need for a community of students that they have to have to respond to, and things you're talking about, are exactly what those schools are going to need to respond to. So whether it's a two-year, four-year public, four-year private doesn't matter. The number of students that are showing need are growing across the board and so these mediation techniques and early interventions have to be a part of the conversation strategies for schools.

[00:02:09] Megan Hartless: I think most community colleges that I'm aware of, have been doing this intentionally for some time. But I do see that the four-years, four-years are asking the two-years now, what do you guys do with this? And it's good to start to be a more collective conversation. You know, I started in the four-year world, and I don't think I really understood what a community college was until I'd worked at one for a year. I don't think that you can get a full sense of what it is that a community college does, until you've been inside it. But I think it's very easy to identify who we're serving and recognize that you guys are serving them now too in the four-years and certainly as transfer students who you should all be taking, investing in.

[00:03:09] Jay Fedje: Amen. I got a big sign on me that says choir, you're preaching to the choir. So it's we're talking with Megan Hartless, Coordinator of Financial Aid and Scholarships at Blue Ridge Community College, and we're talking about financial aid, we're talking all across the board on the topic of financial aid, discounting and access in need, and so forth and student debt. I'm gonna shift gears here a little bit, because a lot of what we've talked about, has to do with those students that are showing need, they have the need for financial assistance and there’s a system provided to them, that gives them that financial assistance for access, access is the key to this because I think that's part of our educational system and whether that's at a two-year or four-year it doesn't matter access to education is something that we value. It's something that as a culture, and a society we value, but I'm going to shift gears a little bit here and talk about those that don't need it. That want it. So you've had experience in the four and you've had experience in the two and I would imagine there are a number of students maybe different percentages of student populations that come in and want to be rewarded. They want to be shown the financial aid, scholarship love and you got to kind of say here's your reward for the academics or the athletics or what have you, and they don't necessarily need it and so, really, this kind of leads to the basis of that question and that is discounting. Okay, I know it's the buzz term, you can't see Megan's face, but she's smiled, like uh oh, were going there. So the first thing that comes to mind is, from the financial aid perspective, discounting higher education, are we chasing the wind? Or is it a sound business model that can actually work?

[00:05:22] Megan Hartless: Ah, okay, I have feelings. I do want to say we don't discount at Blue Ridge, the only exceptions are like veterans waivers and senior citizen waivers we do some just absolute tuition waivers. But our scholarships all represent donor dollars and in the four-year sector, there's a wide variety of difference in whether they are representing donor dollars, or an unfunded scholarship that represents only a discount or some combination and I think you see a combination, probably more than anything else. When I was at a four-year private, I worked with this scholarship matrix, and I won't betray any trade secrets or anything, but essentially, it was if you come in, and you have this GPA, and this test score, and maybe this elective interest or whatever, you get x number of dollars and it was a neat recruiting tool. It made me realize that that's how I got my own scholarship when I went to a four-year private and I went home, and I really thought I had some special level of achievement when I went there, but no, probably everybody else who came out of high school and had done reasonably well, I think, very similar to what I had and it was very predictable and I think there's something to be said, for the predictability of it. I think it started off as a good idea. I think whoever came up with it first, and said, let's do like the retail stores do let's write our price and we'll inflate our price and then discount it, and it'll look like you're getting value and when it was a handful of places doing that, it was kind of neat and then people caught on and they went, Oh, well, we're all going to do this now and so you see these schools that over 10 years have gone up 2 or 300% in price, but the bottom line is very similar. It's very frustrating. It's a very frustrating model to look at, especially when I was working in the four-year private, having a parent sit down and go, I don't understand why you cost X number of dollars and then we'll say okay, yeah but you also have this, and when you file your FAFSA, there will be some need based component to it and you know, you could, honestly, some people could negotiate a better deal and it really, to me is the part that gives me heartburn, the part that I really struggle with is the moderate to low achieving student who meets the minimum admissions requirements and so you take a student who's a C student in high school, they're going to be a C student in college, they're going to graduate, they're going to do fine. But we're going to give the A student 20 or $25,000, and we're going to give the C student 6 or 8 or $10,000. That means that they have to come up with or borrow a huge gap and we would find, now I'm sure it's wildly different now, but students who had a zero EFC so we're getting full Pell full need based everything, but the lowest scholarship amount and that combination is pretty common. It's an unfortunate truth that poverty and low achieving are correlated. I wish that was not the case and it is certainly not every student but poverty and low achieving, they recur a lot. We would see that those students even after borrowing, this was back when we had Perkins, even after borrowing all of their sub and their unsub and their Perkins, still have to have a parent take a Parent PLUS loan, then if the parent was denied the Parent PLUS loan, and they got the extra unsub, they still had a gap and that kept me up at night, when I think about a student who's likely to finish, they're not going to do great, they're not going to be top of their class, it's not the valedictorian student, but it's a student who cares, and they want to be there, and they want to do a good job and they're achieving at the level that they're capable of achieving and they start out by borrowing, $12,000, in their first year through sub, unsub, extra unsub, and Perkins, and still have a gap. I have a hard time with that. It reminds me a lot of just general inflation. I think of it a lot like the value of the dollar, the more we overuse this process, the less valuable it becomes, I would love to see us just go, let's shake up the etch a sketch, and go back to an honest cost metric. Let's go back and say, okay, if we take the average of revenue that we get per student, that's what it costs. So let's say now, this is what it actually cost to go to school here, and then let donor dollars pay for the high achieving students, but of course, that will not likely happen.

[00:11:36] Jay Fedje: No, it feels like though there's a market course, correction in place. Yeah, because we're talking about gapping and for a number of students gapping, the result of gapping the message is we can't afford you, we would like to afford you, maybe, but we can't, we can't afford your need your high need, unless you jump in with a significant amount of loan commitment. But then there's a course correction happening in place and I really believe strongly that a number of colleges are wrestling with tuition resets, in order to look out ahead at what's happening. Now 5 or 7 years, 10 years ago, those few schools that did a tuition reset that basically reversed the discounting model, and they said, okay, we're not going to discount, we're going to lower the tuition by 10 or $15,000 so the net tuition revenue is going to still maintain, we're not going to give as much away. So academic scholarships, the unfunded money went away the Pells and the funded money outside of the of the school still remained. But then suddenly, you have a much smaller gap for that high needs student. Now there's a there's a local college, and I'm going to call them out because they've made it work, Concordia University in St. Paul has made it work because of their population, because of their student demographics because of being able to provide that affordability and value proposition, that message to their community. They have made that tuition reset work for a great number of years, and they are doing well. But there's a lot of schools that that haven't figured that out, they reset, but then they're suddenly back up to gapping and high discount rates and so forth. But it feels like there's so many colleges right now, they're discounting so high that they are getting very little tuition revenue on the back end, but they're afraid then to reverse course, pump the brakes on this and see what they can do with the tuition. But I think like what you're talking about, I think that tuition reset is an answer, or at least a theoretical answer to a lot of what you're talking about.

[00:14:09] Megan Hartless: Students could start at a community college I'm just saying, I might be a little biased. I think the idea of a reset is really if it became trendy, that would be cool. I don't think it's gonna, I'd love to see it. I'd love to see that happen, working in that environment where the weight of one deposit is so heavy on the admissions counselor and a financial aid counselor, I just remember that drive to get, we've got to hit this number of deposits to make our budget and if we're two people below, we might have to lay somebody off, it's terrifying and that never actually happened there never came a point where there was somebody has to go bye, you didn't get enough deposits, that's it. But I think that is there is a real sense of, if we don't deposit enough students, we're not going to make it and that is scary as a staff member at those kinds of schools and I think what's really funny is that the students have no idea that that's going on behind the scenes, you know, they're coming in, and boy, do they get good customer service, you come into a four-year college who's discounting and you're a high achiever, they are going to personally walk you into every door on campus on your tour, and you're going to shake hands with the President, because they want your revenue and they want your number in the retention rate and they want those high achievers to come in and retain, but not the best high achievers because their discounts are too high. We want that next tier down that are like.

[00:16:04] Jay Fedje: Slightly above average.

[00:16:05] Megan Hartless: 20th percentile in high school, not those top 10 percenters, they're too expensive.

[00:16:12] Jay Fedje: Well, the business model of rewarding and then you can fill in any number of characteristics, athletic ability, and music ability and theater ability and academic ability, all of those characteristics that we want to reward for, because we want that as a part of our profile and the school says we value that and we are allowed to value that and so we want to give students more of that. So we have more of that in our in our school. That's one thing that I think for many schools, they are having to come to a very hard decision as the environment changes, as the college going population changes, they're going to need to make a decision on the want money or the earned money versus the need money and so if there's need aid that they can give, in other words, the gap they're providing for a high need student is going to be smaller and more reasonable and more manageable and less debt. Versus this idea of giving a lot of reward money financially to both the high achievers or the high achiever, whatever they're in that wording, that message I think is going to have to be wrestled with a lot of colleges, they're going to have to because of the upcoming and the demographic cliff, and what that looks like what communities are looking like that are going to college, you're going to have to figure that out, right?

[00:17:54] Megan Hartless: Yeah and I think something that's really interesting about this is that if the US Department of Education and the state's Departments of Education, would take a little bit more realistic of an approach as far as how to spend their tuition dollars, we might be better off, we know that a lot of loans just don't get paid. Even with a good faith effort, after 25 years, the difference goes away. If you've been paying under an income-based repayment for 25 years, the rest of it goes away. You've got to pay taxes on it, but you could still not have a lot. But we also know that the default rate nationwide is very high and they're spending money on collecting and they're spending money on postage and outreach and all these kinds of things. What if they said, you know what, let's give more grants and get these people through? Yes, there are going to be people who abuse it. They're always will, but they do with loans too and they don't pay it back and it costs you and I, Joe Taxpayer money for the resources to go and attempt to collect those funds. Why not just help the needy people who are trying to go to college? We have some really cool programs in Virginia. There's a new grant program this year, It's called G3 it stands for get skilled, get a job, oh my gosh, all my Virginia people are going to.

[00:19:35] Jay Fedje: You lost the last G.

[00:19:36] Megan Hartless: Still get a job. It used to be give back but they changed it. Oh my goodness, can we just cut that, let's just say G3. So in Virginia, there's a new grant program called G3 and the G3 program is a last dollar scholarship program that will pay the difference for any student who is not already fully covered by the Pell Grant or other state grants, or any other type of aid or tuition payment that is specified to be toward tuition. So if they have chapter 33, benefits, that kind of thing, they can't get it. But they also have to be in a particular workforce driven program. So it's not available for our college transfer students. But it's available for our nursing students and our Medtronic students and our Vet Tech students. The folks who are coming in getting skilled and getting a job. Get ahead, that's what it is get skilled, get a job, get ahead. I knew I'd get there eventually. So one thing that we have found a lot of really positives and negatives about this program, the one thing that as a financial aid administrator is just abysmal is that we have to calculate each one by hand because it's a last dollar program. So I would personally like to thank the State of Virginia for putting that on us, I won't name any names, but you know who you are. We have not enjoyed that. But it has been really fun to see our students get the benefit of it and one thing that's been really cool about it, unlike Pell and other programs is that it can be given to students who already have a bachelor's degree and their switching gears. So a student can't get Pell who wants to come back and become a nurse, can get the G3 program to pay for that, if they qualify. Now they do they have to make less than 400% of the poverty level for the year in question. That's another thing I would like to personally not thank the State of Virginia for, because every other thing we do is EFC driven. We had to reprogram a lot of other benchmarks to figure out how to calculate that. But we did it, we did it, you know, we're doing it successfully and it's cool, because that's getting those just out of Pell range people and those are the people that keep me up at night, the ones who your family makes just enough not to get Pell and you may get a small state grant, and it might cover six credits, but it certainly doesn't cover 12 or 15. I love seeing the people in that income range, getting the help that they need, they also get a book stipend. But it has a there's a lot of drawbacks. It's great to be seeing these people who are going out in the workforce getting these funds, but our transfer students are getting left in the dust and I you know, I hate it and then of course, we have all this COVID money that we can't spend on them because they don't have a COVID related need right now and it's been really challenging to take this fantastic new aid program, and not give it to the people who I think might need it the most. So if somebody is coming in the people that I think the Department of Education needs to take a really hard to look at are our lowest EFC, not just 0, but you know, 0 to 1000. Those folks that Pell Grants wont get you very far. It may cover your tuition and your books, if you're at a community college it may cover your tuition and your books. But that's not where the need is right now. We need people to be able to not work 2 jobs and I think right now if you look at what's going on, people are realizing I'm not going to work 2 jobs. I'm not going to work 1 job in some cases, but we're seeing a worker shortage. I'd love to say that we're seeing that show up in our enrollment numbers. We're not, I don't think anybody is, I'm not sure exactly what the people are doing. Maybe they're just living leaner. But I would love to see Department of Education and state dollars, go to childcare expenses, if you're a single parent and you're going to college and you can prove it, here's a subsidy for childcare for while you go to class. I would personally just probably give them the money and be like I know you need it you're going to spend it on something, please be reasonable. Because we're doing that with loans. We're saying, here's all this loan money that you may or may not pay back. Be reasonable with it. Don't go get a new tattoo.

[00:24:56] Jay Fedje: Common sense of reasonability.

[00:24:58] Megan Hartless: But even if we had to determine where it was going in some way that this is for, maybe not that it has to be spent directly on childcare, but you have to prove that you need childcare, or maybe not that it has to be directly spent on housing, but you have to prove that you need housing or whatever. We're giving them the money in loans, why not just say, look, we're spending money to collect on loans, right? Let's just give them the money, just give it to them. We're gonna forgive all these loans anyway, let's just start over.

[00:25:37] Jay Fedje: I was gonna ask that question. As you know, we're kind of winding down here on our time and I just want to thank you, Megan, for your time today. But I wanted to talk about a little bit what you're seeing in that loan conversation. I get emails every day from groups that are wanting to 0 out loans, and lobbyists that are putting a tremendous amount of effort into it, especially the pandemic kind of accelerated all of that. What do you see? Do you think that a year from now, we're talking about this again, and it's in the same state, or do you think that it's going to move?

[00:26:17] Megan Hartless: I don't have a crystal ball? That is a hard one. I pessimistically suspect a lot of this is election related. I think we are gearing up for midterms and I don't think anything will happen before the midterms. Because, thats when, in a month, right, less than a month. So I think it's a neat little campaign promise that we're trying to make, I hate to think that way. But it's probably pretty reasonable to think that way. I think it was made a promise and here we are, a while into this administration and nothing has really happened other than continued conversation. I will divulge some personal information, I had over $100,000 in student loans. When I finished with my masters, and a three year out of state masters, it was a mistake don't ever do that, it was an impulse buy. I value it and I got my masters at Virginia Commonwealth University, and it is a wonderful college, but I couldn't prove to them that I was going to stay in Virginia, which I did, so they charged me out of state tuition. In March of this year, I got public service loan forgiveness on all of my federal loans. So my master's was basically retroactively free. The amount of weight that takes off of your life, you can't there is not a word that describes that, within a month, it just was off my credit report, that it's just gone. My understanding is that like, only 500 or so people have been able to successfully do it. Because requirements are so particular, I was very fortunate to be working in financial aid when the program was introduced. So I followed it, I knew what I had, and I thought, oh, that's gonna be the thing for me. I got in with the right lender, and I got consolidated and I did the annual certification of my employment and all of those things. So I was with it every step of the way. I'm seeing 100's and 100's of people fail this process, because a tiny little, I feel so blessed that I actually made it all the way through the process because I don't know any other person personally who has. It is incredibly difficult to get any kind of loan forgiveness unless you are totally and permanently disabled. That is about the easiest way. I think we'll see some changes, and I think we'll see an overhaul of the existing system for public service loan forgiveness, I think they'll make it easier, again, not soon. I don't think they're gonna do it soon. But I would love to believe that they would at least forgive for borrowers who make under a certain amount. But I know a lot of people who are very frustrated by this idea who they say, that's not fair. I paid mine off and I think that can be a roadblock. It's a difficult and frustrating conversation because we all have a competitive spirit about things and we want to believe that if I'm not entitled to something, then you're not entitled to something and I don't I don't like that. I don't think like that. But I can kind of understand it, why is it fair, that this person who did not work in public service for 10 years and make payments, get all of their loans forgiven? Why is that fair, but you have to stop thinking about fair.

[00:30:29] Jay Fedje: Fair, isn't the goal. That's not the goal line, justified is the goal line, I can justify the policy. It doesn't necessarily have to be fair, because what's fair about someone getting a football scholarship or an academic award or anything like that somebody's not. I get it, it's a hard one to navigate and I think this has been just a really fascinating conversation with you, Megan, I appreciate your time and being on the EDGE, we've talked with so many different folks around enrollment management and around the processes we have, you are the first financial aid directed person that's agreed to be on the show. Because it's a hard one to talk about and so I really appreciate your insights and your transparency and looking out ahead and seeing what might be might be on the horizon. I appreciate your time Megan.

[00:30:44] Megan Hartless: Absolutely, my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

[00:30:44] Jay Fedje: You've been listening to the Enrollment Edge Podcast, Enrollment Edge is sponsored by enrollmentFUEL, a full-service student search and marketing partner to colleges and universities. If you're listening on Apple podcast, please give us a five-star rating and review, your feedback will help us remain relevant and on the edge. The Enrollment Edge is produced by Alison Walls, I'm your host Jay Fedje. Thanks for listening.