Becky Graves is the financial aid director for Wallace State Community College – Hanceville (WSCC), a Borrower Connect customer. WSCC has an enrollment of more than 7,000 students, making it one of the largest colleges in the Alabama Community College System. Students at WSCC have a choice of more than 50 majors as they pursue degree, certificate and transfer opportunities. Recently, we had the opportunity to talk with Becky about her and her staff’s experience using Borrower Connect to reach out to former WSCC students and support their success in repaying student loans.
Becky leads a department of five, which processes about $25 million in financial aid each year, including various loans and scholarship programs. With nearly 20 years of experience working in community college financial aid positions, she has spent her career on the frontlines of the effort to help students tackle the many financial challenges that can threaten student success. As she puts it, “We keep trying to find a better way to serve our students, take care of our schools and stay compliant all at the same time.”
It is this commitment that led her to explore a partnership with nonprofit Student Connections. As is the case with many colleges and universities, WSCC does not have the staff and resources to support a specialized focus on borrower outreach and default prevention. The institution began experiencing increasing cohort default rates (CDRs), and in 2015, it opted to increase its borrower outreach services.
“Student Connections can contact our students in a much more efficient way than we ever could,” says Becky. “They can contact them at night, which we don’t have staff to do that.”
Student Connections counselors reach out to former students on behalf of WSCC to help them determine the best repayment options for their circumstances. This includes emails, letters and phone calls, which are part of an integrated communications plan that itself is part of the data-driven default prevention strategy powered by Borrower Connect.
“It’s given us adjunct people, basically,” Becky says. “Our students tell us they received a call from Wallace State, and that’s what we want.”
Becky says that the typical student at WSCC is 18-25 years old. With a high percentage of first-generation, rural, and working-class students, WSCC enrollees may not be prepared for college, especially when it comes to the financial literacy needed to make sound decisions about budgeting during college. 70 percent of WSCC students are on financial aid.
“It’s one of those situations where they don’t know what they don’t know,” says Becky. “We do all we can on the front end, with financial aid, required freshman orientation, and other student services.”
However, communicating the urgency of long-term issues to students is a challenge at campuses everywhere. As financial aid professionals often experience, students can miss the big picture when it comes to repaying a loan and interest. “Loans are easy to get up front, hard to repay after school, and this is a nationwide problem,” notes Becky.
That’s why she and her staff complement their use of Borrower Connect with proactive efforts to reach current students before they enter repayment. She personally visits each orientation class to explain the advantages of smart borrowing. WSCC students enjoy a cost per credit hour that is well below national average, and Becky reminds them, “Just because you’re offered loan funds, doesn’t mean you need to use it all of the money if you don’t really need it.”
WSCC also holds informational lunches to give students an opportunity to interact with financial aid staff in an informal environment. In addition, her staff coordinates with faculty, who engage students who have not contacted the financial aid office but who may need help.
WSCC advisors also play a critical role at proactively addressing default risks. They are cross-trained so that when a student comes in to their offices to drop classes, they can immediately benefit from an understanding of how that will affect the repayment terms of their loans.
However, since not all students contact the administration before leaving school, the outreach provided by Borrower Connect and Student Connections’ counselors remains critical. “Now we have an extra layer of people who are pursuing these students,” Becky says. “Students have someone they can always call and be there on their timetable, and that makes us successful because that is how they want to be contacted.”
As for Becky and her staff, they have 24/7 access to Borrower Connect’s dashboard, which offers real-time reporting that includes cohort analysis, default rate predictions and outreach activities and effectiveness. “You can see all of the numbers the minute you log in, and you don’t have to be a financial planner to understand what’s going on,” says Becky.
Since it began using Borrower Connect in 2015, WSCC has seen a downward trend in its cohort default rate (CDR), which had reached 19.6 for the 2014 cohort. “We think next year’s CDR is going to come out at 16 or lower,” says Becky. With 70 percent of the three-year reporting period concluded, Student Connections projects a continued decrease for the 2016 cohort.
“We could not have our rate going down if we were still on our own,” Becky says. “Other institutions have called me, and they are struggling to keep their head above water in meeting compliance. There are some things that outside sources can do better, and we recognize that.”