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Outreach Is Central to Carnegie Mellon's Approach to FAFSA Changes

Media Inquiries
Peter Kerwin
University Communications & Marketing

Changes intended to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid(opens in new window) (FAFSA) in 2024 have led to delays and confusion(opens in new window) for students and their families across the country.

The staff in Carnegie Mellon University’s Office of the Vice Provost for Enrollment Management and Dean of Admission(opens in new window) use of data-informed, individual outreach has been crucial for returning and prospective CMU students seeking to surmount this year’s shifting FAFSA situation(opens in new window).

“Financial aid offers are often the tipping point when students and families, especially those with multiple admission offers, are deciding where to attend college. In response to the FAFSA-related delays and changes — many of which impact these critical decisions — our admission, financial aid, data and systems teams have worked together to carefully and proactively navigate the impacts of these adjustments, as well as to maintain transparent communication with those impacted,” said Kristina Wong Davis(opens in new window), vice provost for enrollment management and dean of admission. “At CMU, we are committed to delivering financial aid offers to students and families as quickly as possible so they can make timely and informed decisions. However, at the end of the day, we have to wait to receive the full FAFSA file from the Department of Education until we can provide students with official offers of financial aid so they can make these important decisions for their future."

As one of 265 universities that uses the College Board’s CSS Profile(opens in new window) as well as FAFSA, Carnegie Mellon is well-positioned to actively engage with students and their families, according to Brian Hill(opens in new window), associate vice provost for student financials and enrollment systems. When an applicant’s CSS Profile or admission application shows indications of potential financial need, Carnegie Mellon reaches out. 

“We're truly taking every bit of information we have and trying to make it meaningful,” Hill said. “We’ve done our best to simplify the processes for families, and simplify the information we're sharing with them to make it more digestible.”

In a normal year, the Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid opens the FAFSA on Oct. 1, and CMU begins to receive application data within a few days. A review process begins immediately to calculate a family's need and craft a financial aid package to meet that need. Typically, official financial aid offers arrive in conjunction with admission decisions from the university.

"If you call the admissions office, you get a person, not a switchboard." — Gregory Edleman

This year, changes enacted by the FAFSA Simplification Act(opens in new window) shortened the application from 108 questions to 46; some applicants will now be able to complete the application in as few as 18 questions. The rollout, which had a soft launch on Dec. 30, and was only fully live after Jan. 9, has caused some universities to extend their decision deadlines(opens in new window) this year. Carnegie Mellon has only started to receive FAFSA data, and is more than five months behind its regular process. 

Despite those delays, the team at CMU has been able to provide estimates of a family’s financial obligation as context for their college decision-making process. 

“If you're a 17-year-old without access to the right resources and you’re reading about the FAFSA debacle, where do you even start?” asked Gregory Edleman, associate dean/director of admission. “Miguel Alvarez and his team are out there, saying, ‘Hey, we're here, let's talk! Even if you haven't applied, but you have questions, what can we do?’ They’re really working together to help not only applicants complete the package, but help demystify the process.”

Alvarez, director of access and opportunity/Tartan Scholars(opens in new window) recruitment and enrollment manager, said that personalizing the admission/financial aid process is key to CMU’s outreach efforts.

“Virtual counseling and support is so accessible to students now. It’s common to hop on Zoom. Texting has also helped — another big area of focus. That's where students have been more responsive as of late,” Alvarez said. 

Additionally, while students make their admission decisions, a number dedicated just for admitted students rings directly to a counselor's office. 

“If you call the admissions office, you get a person, not a switchboard,” Edleman said.

One-on-one counseling isn’t just for students in the decision-making process. Alumni post-graduation can get help navigating the federal student loan repayment process. Carnegie Mellon also provides education on financial aid to high school counselors and community-based organizations.

“Counselors run into inequities in this process that they see on their side. And we take that information and learn and adapt. We turn it into a dialogue about how to best support their students,” Alvarez said.

According to Hill, Carnegie Mellon has intentionally focused on reducing student indebtedness over time, especially over the past eight years, and is committed to meeting the full demonstrated financial need of undergraduate students applying for aid. The average federal student loan debt for a CMU undergraduate in the Class of 2023 was under $19,000(opens in new window), nearly 20% less than the national average for private colleges. The average starting salary for Carnegie Mellon’s Class of 2022 was $114,704, varying by department and degree. 

“For that amount, to have a Carnegie Mellon education — I think that’s a sound investment. Our students do remarkably well after graduation,” Hill said.

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