Overview

  • To improve financial aid communications, use clearer language that’s free of institutional jargon or advanced financial terminology.
  • Apply readability measures, such as the Flesch-Kincaid grade level, to your financial aid communications materials.
  • Use familiar language and images—school sayings, mascots, etc.—to create memorable and relatable messaging.
  • Utilize graphics and interactivity in your campaigns but keep accessibility in mind.

Students are well aware of the rising costs of college. That’s why they seek out financial aid opportunities like the FAFSA and institutional scholarships. However, the reality that students and their families face is not so straightforward.

Throughout the financial aid process, students and families often bounce from federal to institutional to state sources of aid multiple times. The common threads that often unite these different applications are complex jargon and financial terminology.

Communications from institutions about financial aid opportunities can either help or hinder the application process. Poor communication or unclear instruction can often lead to low FAFSA completion rates, a larger amount of unmet need, and potentially lower retention rates.

How to improve financial aid communications campaigns

Drawn from basic literacy principles, communications research, and accessibility best practices, the four strategies below can assist higher education practitioners with simplifying and consolidating their institutional financial aid communications.

Simplify the content

Financial aid communication often ranges from the 12th to 19th grade reading level. According to Clear Language Group, a national literacy consortium, the average U.S. resident reads at a 7th-grade reading level. This gap is where many students and families get lost on the way to earning the financial aid they need for their education.

When crafting communications campaigns around financial aid, it’s a best practice to assume the person reading the content will have an 8th-grade reading level. Testing written content against a readability formula, such as the Flesch-Kincaid grade level, can show how complex or easy-to-read it is.

Applying readability measures to financial aid communications can highlight areas that are jargon-heavy or syntactically complex—or indicate where content is at the right reading level. Additionally, reducing institutional terminology and department-specific acronyms can help to make content more understandable for a general student audience.

Use familiar language

In Georgia State University’s recent FAFSA communications overhaul, the school removed bland, institutional language and instead encouraged students to “pounce” on scholarship and grant opportunities in financial aid email subject lines. To students receiving the email, the school’s mascot—a panther named Pounce—may immediately come to mind.

Students often do not have a background in financial aid, so it’s important to write that way. Students do, however, have familiarity with common phrases and symbols of their institution. Finding ways to incorporate “insider” language and iconography is key for not only creating memorable communications, but for building a sense of community, as well.

Embed contact information

Students and their families will undoubtedly have questions about the financial aid process. In communications campaigns, it’s crucial to embed contact information to key functional areas. Include contact information for the financial aid office, the cashier, or even the admissions office.

If possible, make the contact methods as easy as possible. In digital communications, provide one-click communication options that allow students to click directly on the email address or phone number to contact the correct department. Combine this digital communication pipeline with great customer service to create a fast and reassuring experience for confused students and families.

Use graphics, but maintain ADA compliance

Students enrolling today have grown up immersed in (or are deeply familiar with) the digital landscape. Most of the emails, texts, ads, and other information they’ve received their entire lives have included graphics and interactive buttons. For institutions and practitioners, including these modern trappings and styles in financial aid communications is key to competing with the onslaught of information that students receive.

With graphics, colors, buttons, and other eye-catching elements in your communications, keep accessibility in mind. Just like a building is built with ramps for wheelchair accessibility, communications campaigns must be crafted with certain considerations for audio-visual accessibility. A few tips for accessibility include

  • ensuring colors have strong contrast for readability
  • using larger font sizes
  • including alt text on digital images for screen reading software

By maintaining digital accessibility in your communications, institutions can help put students with disabilities on a more-even playing field—and potentially attract more new students.

Simplicity is key

Using the best practices above, institutions can take real steps toward increasing the readability and accessibility of financial aid communications. While the complexity of student aid applications at the state and federal levels may be out of practitioners’ control, creating a solid foundation through support and communication can help students receive the aid they need to achieve their educational goals.

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