Another College-Access Issue: Financial-Aid Jargon

Holley Nichols

Eric Johnson of Chapel Hill's student-aid office: "Language is an access issue. We know this intellectually in academia, but struggle to put it into practice."
November 11, 2014

From his office window, Eric Johnson can see the groundskeeping staff clearing off the sidewalk with leaf blowers. Colleges like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he works, pull out all the stops to make their campuses inviting. But rarely, he says, do they work as diligently to create a welcoming presence online, even though that’s where today’s prospective students encounter them first.

In a way, Mr. Johnson’s job is to be the online equivalent of those groundskeepers, clearing debris from a corner of the university’s website that can be particularly inhospitable: the section explaining financial aid. One of his tasks, as the fairly new assistant director of communications in the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid, is to translate web pages and application forms from financial-aid jargon into plain English.

There’s no shortage of jargon to tackle., a student-information website, includes a glossary with hundreds of acronyms and terms, most of them about financial aid, says Mark Kantrowitz, its senior vice president and publisher.

"You can’t understand how much the college is going to cost, in the end," he says, "without learning all this lingo." Financial aid, Mr. Kantrowitz says, is "like an entire language."

In addition to being full of jargon, that language has a lawyerly precision and an institutional tone. The result, Mr. Johnson argues, is "a clear message to certain groups of people that this is not for you."

Some observers question the need to decode financial-aid speak. Someone who’s smart enough to be applying to college, they argue, should be able to figure it out. But prospective students aren’t the only ones who need to understand the material, Mr. Johnson points out. It also has to make sense to their parents, who come from a whole host of backgrounds.

That’s not an abstract concept to Mr. Johnson. While his parents did well enough professionally that he didn’t need financial aid to attend Carolina, Mr. Johnson was a first-generation student. He remembers having "no idea" how the admissions process worked.

"Language is an access issue," Mr. Johnson says. "We know this intellectually in academia, but struggle to put it into practice."

Pushback From Colleagues

Financial aid is complex, and messages about it are crafted with compliance in mind. Precision matters. So when Mr. Johnson began his work, "at first there was a little resistance in the office," says Shirley A. Ort, associate provost and director of the Chapel Hill office. Even now, Mr. Johnson gets pushback from colleagues on some of his proposed changes, he says. But he sees that as a good thing. Their input can lead to wording that is more accurate or better conveys nuance.

Bringing Mr. Johnson in was Ms. Ort’s idea. Years ago, when she needed help promoting the university’s access program, the Carolina Covenant, a professor recommended Mr. Johnson, a 2008 graduate who had been a reporter at the student newspaper. Mr. Johnson did some projects for the office as a contractor while working full time in other jobs before joining the staff last year.

Other campus offices, like development and admissions, often have a staff member dedicated to communications, Ms. Ort says. But having one in a financial-aid office appears to be uncommon.

The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor has had a position like that for more than a decade, says Pamela Fowler, the university's executive director of financial aid. It has paid off: Ms. Fowler fields many requests from people who want to borrow content from Michigan’s website, she says, a sign that it’s unusually understandable.

Creating good written materials for an aid office is a full-time job, Ms. Fowler says, and she encourages her counterparts at other colleges to hire accordingly. "They all want to do it," she says, "but they just can’t seem to get their administrations to give them the funds to do it."

A survey conducted by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators several years ago found that when aid-office budgets are under pressure, one of the first things to be cut is "counseling and communication services to students," says Justin Draeger, the group's president.

It would probably be ideal, he says, for colleges to have a dedicated person for communications, especially if they bring on someone whose background is not in financial aid, as both Carolina and Michigan have done. Yes, those are both big universities with unusually large financial-aid staffs, Mr. Draeger says, "but someone has to lead the way."

Others are already looking to follow. The College of Western Idaho plans to add a communications position that would focus on financial aid but also support other aspects of enrollment and student services, says Kevin Jensen, the dean overseeing that office. One part of the job would be making the description of aid on the website "simple and accessible," he says.

After all, if increasing access and completion are national goals, explaining financial aid is a necessity. "It’s our obligation," Mr. Johnson says, "to make sure this is approachable to the people we say we want to recruit."

Gained in Translation

How can a college make financial-aid materials more accessible? Here are some examples of changes Mr. Johnson made at North Carolina.


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Correction (11/11/2014, 7:40 a.m.): The original photo caption on this article incorrectly attributed a statement made by Mark Kantrowitz to Eric Johnson. The text has been corrected.