Virtual Financial Office Manages Aid for All Connecticut

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Community college financial aid offices are struggling to find the resources to deal with a surge in the number of applicants and an overall increase in student need. Constraints on funding limit schools’ ability to expand their aid offices; additional manpower is needed, however, to work with applicants, many of whom are first-generation, low-income college students who may need guidance throughout the process.

“It’s a really big problem, because there has been such a surge in applications over the last few years and the infrastructure of the offices has not increased commensurately at all or close to it,” said David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and research at the American Association of Community Colleges.

One state, however, seems to have found a solution. For students enrolled in Connecticut community colleges, their state’s unique financial aid application process is nothing new. Developed a decade ago, the community college virtual aid tracking system allows students to submit and monitor their FAFSA applications online through a single server.

While the virtual system may be old news in Connecticut, it is attracting increased national attention. The system was profiled at the first White House Summit on Community Colleges in early October. Cecilia Rouse, a member of the Council of Economic Advisors, said the system’s strength was its increased accessibility to students, who are able to track their applications’ progress “from soup to nuts.”

By giving students the means to monitor their application status, financial aid offices are relieved of some of the pressure of working with increasing numbers of applicants. At schools without a virtual system, students meet with financial aid officers to fill out the FAFSA and collect additional documents needed to apply for aid. Officers then file the completed paperwork for the students, monitor their  status, and notify students of the amount received when the process is completed.

The virtual system removes the aid officer as the “middle man.” Connecticut colleges maintain a small number of officers who work directly with students and their family members to file the paperwork. The materials are then submitted to a centralized state database, where system managers input the data into a single server that sends the students’ applications to the federal government. Students are able to track the application online – freeing aid officers to assist a greater number of students. No additional manpower is required.

“A simpler process reduces the amount of assistance that is needed. Once the forms are filed, the remainder of the process, including sending notification of the award to the student and the college, is done electronically via the online system,” said Mary Anne Cox, assistant chancellor for the Connecticut Community College System.

Grant aid, particularly Pell Grants, constitutes the majority (over 90 percent) of financial assistance to students at the Connecticut schools, according to Cox, so the virtual system usually notifies the students of their entire financial aid awards. Students who apply for loans or scholarships to supplement the federal awards do so outside of the virtual tracking system.

Technological successes

Over the past 10 years, the system has been hugely successful. Financial aid applications at the colleges have increased by 169 percent, while total financial aid awards have more then doubled, increasing by 250 percent, according to Cox. The number of Pell Grant recipients has increased by 176 percent; total Pell Grant aid awarded to Connecticut students has more than quadrupled (402 percent).

With more students awarded federal aid, the community college system has also seen an increase in overall enrollment and in the number of those choosing to attend school full time. This fall, Connecticut community colleges are serving 58,000 students – a 43 percent increase since 2000, said Cox. Full-time enrollment has grown by 100 percent.

This “technological solution,” as Cox calls it, could be the key to restructuring offices where funding and personal resources have been stretched. In California, community colleges received additional funding from the state legislature for the 2003-04 school year, which provided them with the means to expand operations temporarily. The additional money was directed toward office staffing and high school outreach, according to Patricia Hurley, associate dean of financial aid at Glendale Community College. But when state money dried up, the aid office found itself struggling to work through the “almost astronomical increase” in the number of applications – an increase of more than 8,000 in seven years, Hurley said. She now has one outreach adviser and limited means to support other staff.

In Connecticut, this problem has been averted. Aid officers continue to handle certain tasks, such as reviewing tax records that accompany the FASFA, which must be done manually, but the offices have not had to expand. Students have immediate and automatic access to their application and yet still receive individual attention.

Though many private institutions use electronic systems to notify students of their aid awards, Cox said she was unaware of similar tracking systems that have been developed to serve community college students in other states – yet.