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Understanding FAFSA's millions of Edge Cases

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the form you need to fill out to get any financial aid from the federal government to help pay for college. The FAFSA is the gateway for most sources of student financial aid. Even for aid that is not need-based. Most states and nonprofit student financial aid organizations require applicants to fill out the FAFSA to be eligible for aid.

The FAFSA asks for financial information about the applicant’s who are under 25, and the applicant’s family’s finances, including tax returns, so applicants under twenty-five need their parents’ cooperation to complete it.
Every year over 10 million students will complete the FAFSA.

For this project we’re interested in understanding those students for whom filling out the FAFSA is overly burdensome, and for whom a successful completion of the FAFSA is what stands between the student and completing her degree. The students we are interested in exist on the ‘Edge of FAFSA.’ Students who are homeless, are first generation college students, are the sons and daughters of undocumented workers, have little to no access to college counseling. Those students who must navigate the college financial process alone. These are students who exist on the edge, to the left of FAFSA. These are also the students who most qualify for federal aid. The purpose of our research was to uncover opportunities for the office of Federal Student Aid to make financial aid more accessible to this population.

RESEARCH: What we did, where we went, and who we spoke to

Save TIme and Money A Human-Centered approach saves time and money

Interview FAFSA Ecosystem Stakeholders

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Observe Customers Filling out FAFSA

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Synthesize Academic Research

Over 87 Students, college access advisors, parents, guidance counselors, and teachers interviewed in 7 states

Over 135 in-person and online FAFSA forms filled out by students and parents in 5 states.

Over 26 academic studies synthesized.

where we went

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Understanding government customers using mindsets

Customers can come from an incredibly diverse background, but there are four distinct mindsets that help us identify differences in customer needs and experiences.

These four mindsets are defined by customer levels of drive and accessibility.
Drive relates to how customers seek out information or approach to their education while balancing real-world commitments and factors that impact their ability to prioritize reaching their desired education outcome.

Mindsets—or implicit theories—are the beliefs people have about the nature of the world in which they inhabit. Unlike personas (characteristics of your customers), Mindsets reveal what your customer's believe about themselves, and about what motivates them to act.


Mindsets of Student Borrowers

These four mindsets are defined by customer levels of drive and accessibility.
Drive relates to how customers seek out information or approach to their education while balancing real-world commitments and factors that impact their ability to prioritize reaching their desired education outcome.

Accessibility is not just about finances and income levels, but also includes access to information, effective and connected technology, as well as a personal support network.


Help Me Find the Balance

Surrendered mindset customers need proactive outreach combined with accessible resources to help them make informed decisions at critical moments in their loan process, understand responsibilities of repayment, and avoid preventable stressors that impact their ability to live their life freely after schooling ends.

Customers may experience situational outcomes that cause them to feel regretful or defeated about decisions they have made along their education journey. Customers experience low drive toward factors that enable them to pursue education or repaying student loans.

Customers within the surrendered mindset also have low access to resources they need to make important decisions. Their drive to achieve higher income or create career opportunities are impacted by factors such as lack of access to finances for school or inflexibility of class schedules.

Low Drive / Low Accessibility
Opportunity exists to move surrendered customers into another mindset by addressing the factors and decision points that led them into more at risk situations with their loans and education.


I Don’t Know, What I Don’t Know

Unconcerned mindset customers could benefit from guidance on how to evaluate whether their decision is still the best one for them based on any changes to their situation. When customers are resigned toward education decisions, struggling with their loans, or consistently making payments, they have low drive to seek change and can find themselves in an autonomous state.

Moving Through the Process
Customers are detached from their student loan or education experience and are situationally low-touch. Customers have low drive toward finding different options to impact their repayment progress, either more quickly or more efficiently, this mindset is not negatively impacted by their access to resources.

They have high access to resources such as emotional support, consistent finances, and information to help them make informed decisions. This mindset is not concerned with reassessing a current position or improving an outcome.

Low Drive / High Accessibility
Opportunity exists to move unconcerned customers into another mindset by addressing the factors and decision points that prevent them from potentially reaching better outcomes with their loans and education.


Help Me Understand

Resourceful mindset customers could benefit from understanding what borrowing aid means and the implications if financial aid is the only means to pursue education. Applying for financial aid could be the first experience customers have with loans, and customers within this mindset are reliant on these resources to advance their opportunities.

Education At Any Cost
Customers are driven to seek out ways to help achieve their goals. They might be challenged by low access to resources including finances or sources of information, but this mindset is driven to finding what they can to make the best decisions possible. Customers in this mindset want to be empowered in the process, regardless of their support system or financial literacy, and will do what ever it takes to reach their goals.

High Drive / Low Accessibility
Opportunity exists to move resourceful customers into another mindset by addressing the factors and decision points that prevent them from potentially reaching better outcomes with their loans and education.


This was right for me

Determined mindset customers are empowered and consider knowledge as key. They have high access to resources to make informed decisions at critical moments along their journey. The determined mindset is motivated to prevent stressors that might impact their ability to complete their education, and be in control after schooling ends.

Getting It Done
Customers display a high drive to use all resources available to them and make informed and motivated decisions. They are knowledgeable about their education timeline, financing options, and repayment strategy. The determined mindset is engaged and driven to efficiently pursue goals through education.

High Drive / High Accessibility
Opportunity exists to continue empowering determined customers by providing information or updates that include critical considerations when making education and loan decisions.


Supplementing Research with a SOCIAL MEDIA SCRAPE

  • FINDINGS EXAMPLE: Understand Aid and Eligibility
    A short example of what we found in one area of our research as well as the mindsets of interest to the FSA FAFSA team.


    “That FAFSA is a gateway to other aid isn’t common knowledge. I don’t think a lot of guidance counselors know this.
    – College Access Advisor Interview

    Federal student aid encompasses grants, loans, and work study. Customers are not always aware of all three and often don’t understand the difference between them.

    The FAFSA form is a gateway to federal student aid. It is also a gateway to other forms of aid like merit scholarships, state aid, and institutional scholarships. This gateway provides aid to all income levels, however, many customers fail to apply because they do not know the breadth of aid the FAFSA opens up to them.

    How might we increase completion rates and raise awareness of the aid options that the FAFSA form makes available to those who fill out the FAFSA?


    • Increase FAFSA completion rates in Pell eligible customers, and customers who lack formal support networks
    • Increase FAFSA completion rates for students who think they do not qualify

    • Surrendered
    • Determined
    • Resourceful

    Most 17-19-year-old students who did not apply for aid did not have any contextual understanding of what aid is or their eligibility for it.  
    – National College Access Network, 2016


    • Districts, schools, and community-based organizations support students and families through events to learn about and complete the FAFSA form, without needing to conduct research and find the same information on their own
    • Digital and social media FAFSA completion marketing campaigns
    • High school guidance counselors tracking student completions to increase submissions
    • Scholarship organizations advertise the FAFSA completion to qualify for their scholarships (e.g. United Negro College Fund, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Millennial Scholars Initiative)

    Consolidation of multiple sites to make it easier for customers to find the information they need to make informed decisions and for guidance counselors to have a single source of truth and resources to provide customers with regarding college and financial aid

    • Create a program for parents and students, like Social Security, that through qualifying years and events (attending school, moving up through grades, etc.) you start earning and tracking money that can be used for college funding
    • Promote early education about money and the differences between loans, grants, and scholarships, so people of all backgrounds and income levels can understand the benefits of completing the FAFSA and what kind of aid applicants could be eligible to receive
    • Provide contextual and illustrative examples of the differences between loans, grants, and scholarships to help give customers a holistic understanding of their options 

    Among the almost quarter of college students who did not apply, nearly 40% said their reason was they didn’t think they would qualify, versus the second highest reason - missing the deadline, at 15%.
    – Sallie Mae Survey, 2018

Interventions discovered


Customer Journey maps exposed points for interventions

By understanding the journey of each customer mindset through the financial aid process, we were able to identify natural points of intervention for the government to make the most impact.









Lessons Learned

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Interview customers while they are filling out the FAFSA to understand context of errors.

Libraries, guidance counselors, college access counselors, community organizations make up the support foundation for edge communities and the rate of success in obtaining financial aid for college

Understanding the journeys of each mindset exposes key points where FSA can intervene and make the greatest impact.

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DoED Accenture Federal (FJORD) HCD Research Team
I have the world’s best team of HCD researchers and thinkers. Everyone contributed to this project and as a team, we killed it.

Megan Soule: Lead Base Scope
TJ ODonnell: Lead Core Scope
Sarah Robertson
Camille DeNardo
Hanh Hguyen
Chase York

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