The rising cost of attending college creates a financial challenge for most students, many of whom must take out student loans to pursue their education goals. Whether they earn a degree or not, these students will leave school with the burden of managing student debt. How well they manage this complex process may shape their personal finances for decades to come.
The perceptions of college financial aid administrators as they engage with students tackling the debt dilemma are at the heart of the latest report from Trellis Company (formerly TG). Based on a national survey of 916 student aid professionals, the new report – Engaging Student Borrowers: Results of a Survey of Financial Aid Professionals – also examines how schools deliver the required counseling that accompanies federal student loans. Trellis collaborated with the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) and the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (Board of Governors) on the first in-depth survey of financial aid administrators’ experience with student loan counseling.
“Student loans can be confusing, especially for first-generation college-going students. The professionals who work with students daily have an indispensable perspective on loan counseling,” explains Jeff Webster, Director of Research for Trellis Company. “The stakes are high when borrowing for college. We need loan counseling that is as robust as the dangers are serious.”
Borrowers who fail to repay their loans become subject to added collection costs, wage garnishment, income tax refund confiscation, and damaged credit scores that may impede qualifying for a home mortgage, a car loan, or even an apartment rental. For borrowers who avoid default but still struggle to pay down their principal, student loans become more expensive to repay and can even grow larger as interest compounds.
Schools in Trellis’ survey expressed concern that students lack the skills to manage the money they borrow and must later repay. Schools participating in the Federal Direct Student Loan Program are required to provide loan counseling only when students first borrow and again when students stop attending school.
The research revealed that an overwhelming majority of schools rely on the Department of Education’s (ED) free online counseling tools to fulfill this obligation and that most schools choose the tool because it satisfies compliance requirements. The online tools cover the 28 topics required by the Higher Education Act (HEA) in sessions designed to last 30 minutes, rushing through a great deal of important information at times when students tend to be distracted by other pressing, critical tasks.
“This study documents the ways in which schools go above and beyond their legal obligation to inform students, but also identifies some of the challenges financial aid administrators face in providing lasting counseling,” adds Renard Johnson, Interim President and Chief Executive Officer for Trellis Company.
Financial aid administrators reported exceeding what is required by law – and believing it was still not enough.
“A strong federal commitment to getting student loan borrowers the information they need to make smart borrowing decisions begins by giving schools additional flexibility to offer and require loan counseling at the times students need it the most,” said NASFAA President Justin Draeger.
Engaging Student Borrowers follows a series of five related reports conducted by Trellis since 2013.
Without the regulatory authority to require that borrowers receive additional training as needed, financial aid administrators report that they struggle to get students to attend information sessions or take advantage of other debt management resources. This leaves students inadequately informed but responsible for complicated loans that carry harsh consequences for non-payment.
While the returns on investments in higher education are, on average, positive and substantial, taking on debt can increase financial risks for students. Financial aid counseling is an important part of ensuring that students and their families successfully navigate the complicated and confusing financial aid process and make choices that are best for them. In 2016, the Federal Reserve Board released a report based on focus groups it conducted with financial aid administrators who described their counseling methods and the challenges they face. Engaging Student Borrowers advances the Board’s 2016 research and supports its findings.
To review Engaging Student Borrowers: Results of a Survey of Financial Aid Professionals, visit https://www.trelliscompany.org/research/trellis-company-research-and-reports/.
Trellis Company, formerly TG, is a nonprofit corporation that provides outsourcing services that help organizations deliver a higher level of support and education to their customers. We do this in a variety of ways, such as customer service, financial education and coaching, and account collections. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, we’re committed to investing in the greater good. We fund programs designed to help more people attend college and attain their degrees or certificates with less student loan debt.