One of the key roles financial aid professionals play is to ensure students and their parents understand their options for federal, state and institutional aid. To that end, finding ways to scale these efforts to reach the broadest possible base of students expands the impact. As institutions return to on-campus and in-person modalities of learning and engagement, it might be helpful to reassess and refresh the typical playbook for developing and providing high-impact outreach programming to students. Colleges should account for the new expectations of leveraging technology to engage diverse students via different modalities for support.
As most financial aid professionals are aware, college outreach programs plays a crucial role in guiding students through the complex world of financial aid and financial wellness. Many students—particularly those from underserved communities and first-generation backgrounds—often lack access or prior knowledge of information and resources needed to make informed decisions about their finances during their college journey. To that end, this article provides insights and suggestions for creating successful college outreach programs focused on financial aid and financial wellness that involve both in-person and online options.
Suggestion #1: Be intentional and start planning events in advance.
One of the best tips to run a successful college outreach program is to start early. Reviewing the data from prior years and determining which events were successful and which were not provides a helpful starting point when developing your outreach strategy. Additionally, having a plan in place for the months ahead ensures that your office will have the necessary capacity for coverage to ensure that programing is not canceled due to scheduling conflicts or other issues.
When working through this planning period, ask yourself the following questions:
1) Were the topics offered to students relevant to their current needs?
2) How were students informed of each event?
3) Were the topics related to a seasonal theme or college activity?
4) What issues did students experience that may have challenged their attendance to our events (e.g., location, event times, alternative programing conflicts, familial or parental responsibilities)?
5) Were students offered an incentive to participate? (e.g., food, prizes, micro-scholarships, etc.)
6) Were students provided the opportunity to give feedback on the topics and type of programing offered?
7) Was a healthy mix of programing offered that engaged different student interests? (e.g., was the programing educational, entertaining, inspirational and/or promotional?)
Similarly, being aware of your operational calendar and tying your outreach programing to meet theneeds of the office helps to ensure the relevance of the topics covered. For example, if your institution has a specific deadline to apply for continuing scholarships, or a deadline for students to complete their SAP appeals, or if your state has a priority deadline to file the FAFSA, these operational events can provide a preliminary roadmap for the type of programing your office should provide so that students are informed and prepared well in advance to meet these deadlines effectively.
Suggestion #2: Assess costs and determine an appropriate budget for each event.
One of the main reasons offices cut back on outreach programing is usually tied to the assumption that these events require significant or substantial monetary investments to be successful. Research data shows that this does not necessarily need to be the case. For example, outreach programing usually involves catering food to entice students to attend. If students are not provided with timely reminders about upcoming outreach, the catering expense could be wasted and might be an ineffective way to leverage one’s limited available resources.
A key strategy that I have personally implemented when conducting outreach programing is to entice students by conducting a raffle for those in attendance. These raffles (which can be as cost-efficient as university-branded objects or micro-scholarships) ensure an equal opportunity for attendees to earn an award, while enticing students to engage in a way that keeps the overall costs down and minimizes potential waste.
Suggestion #3: Partner with other offices to support joint outreach efforts.
After evaluating data and feedback from students, one of the data points that was surprising to me regarding our outreach programing efforts was that sometimes students did not attend a specific presentation because they did not feel convinced that our office would present the information in a relatable, approachable or engaging way.
For a lot of students, dealing with the financial aid office feels akin to dealing with their dentist or medical doctor: although they can clearly recognize the importance of it, there is an inherent approach of avoidance that comes from the anxiety-provoking way many financial aid transactions occur. To that end, leveraging the good will and trusted relationships that other offices have with students might help ease some of that anxiety.
By working and partnering synergistically with other student-support offices on campus, we not only ensure that a targeted student population receives the necessary assistance, but it also allows us to develop relationships of trust and partnerships with other offices on campus. Breaking through the natural functional silos that exist between institutional offices ensures that efforts are not being duplicated needlessly, while also ensuring that the right expertise is involved when providing critical assistance and information to our students. Additionally, this type of collaboration allows us to reach specific populations of students right where they are, in a more proactive and intentional way.
Suggestion # 4: Tailor your outreach programing
Tied to suggestion number #3, it is crucial to tailor one’s outreach efforts to support the diverse needs of different student populations across our campuses. It is evident that different students have different needs and backgrounds. To that end, tailoring not only the content of your outreach efforts, but also the specific modality in which they are provided (e.g., in-person, online via recorded webinars, via social media, during typical work hours and after hours) can go a long way in helping your office meet the specific needs of your diverse student populations. Unfortunately, as institutional student compositions become more and more diverse, one-size-fits-all solutions or approaches are destined to have diminishing impact.
Suggestion #5: Leverage multiple communication channels.
Effective communication is essential in the success of outreach programming. As such, using a variety of communication channels to reach students, including social media, email, in-person workshops, flyers, QR codes, class visits and partnerships with other offices on-campus ensures that your events are properly communicated.
By leveraging technology, such as creating QR codes to go on physical and virtual flyers, creating Facebook events, and including RSVP links to email messages that automatically provide calendar reminders to students, you not only ensure that the information remains present-to-mind in students’ calendars, but you also receive critical data that will allow you to tailor programing based on the number of reservations received, or information regarding the number of emails opened for each outreach campaign. These moves will allow you to adjust and update your office’s approach in a data-driven way.
Suggestion #6: Foster peer support and student-led initiatives.
Peer mentoring and support programs can be highly effective in college outreach. Encouraging current college student leaders to share their experiences and provide guidance to incoming students allows other students to see themselves reflected in the programing that is being offered. This clearly shows that the programing being offered is both intentional and student-centered. By encouraging federal-work study students to serve as peer mentors, you can leverage their skills and talent to help demystify the college experience and offer insights into managing finances while in school. These experiences have also been proven to encourage these peer-mentors to consider careers in financial aid and student support/engagement in the future, which can go a long way in assisting us develop the future workforce of our profession.
Suggestion # 7: Remember to measure and evaluate.
Coming full circle to the first suggestion, it makes a difference to collect data and student input when conducting outreach activities on campus. By collecting student input, you can ensure the success of your college outreach program initiatives by maintaining a historical record of each initiative’s impact and lessons learned. By collecting feedback from participants, tracking reservation and participation rates, and measuring the effectiveness of the presenters, you provide yourself a treasure-trove of information that will allow you to adjust your approach based on the results and your specific student needs. Continuous improvement is key to long-term success, and this can only be possible based on the quality and consistency of the data you collect.
Overall, successful college outreach programming is an essential part of the success of a financial aid office. This requires a multi-faceted approach that begins early, adapts to students’ needs, and leverages various communication channels. It also helps to identify and develop the specific skills and talents of those in our departments. By providing targeted and relevant information, resources and support, you can empower students to make informed decisions about their education and financial futures, ultimately increasing their chances of retention and success in college and beyond. This, however, might feel overwhelming if your office is already stretched thin with other regulatory and processing responsibilities. If that is the case, feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for support and to learn about our interim staffing or consulting solutions. We can assist you in assessing, strategizing or executing your outreach programing strategy in a way that has the highest impact in support of your students, both in terms of content and implementation.