Federal Student Aid Services This customer experience profile is from 2020. To view this year’s profile, click here. User Interactions Customer Feedback Social Media Presence Customer Experience Indicators Executive Summary With college costs continuing to rise, students rely on financial aid programs offered by the Office of Federal Student Aid at the Department of Education. In 2019, this organization continued a multi-year effort to transform the customer experience for people accessing and repaying student aid across a variety of service delivery channels. These efforts helped ensure that millions of students had access to post-secondary opportunities. The coronavirus pandemic and the associated economic downturn brought new challenges in 2020, as FSA helped students navigate school closures and shifts to online learning, and assisted borrowers who were struggling financially to access more loan repayment options. Before the pandemic, people had positive experiences applying for federal student aid online, citing easy navigation through the application process and a user-friendly mobile experience, according to FSA’s customer research. To further improve the experience, people want a more unified loan process throughout the student aid lifecycle, particularly when it comes time to repay loans, when customers often must keep track of multiple loan-servicing providers and websites. FSA is making progress on these issues through a far-reaching program they call Next Gen Federal Student Aid (Next Gen FSA). In 2019, one accomplishment of this program was a pilot that allowed some customers to make payments directly on StudentAid.gov, rather than having to visit a separate loan servicing site. FSA also launched a virtual assistant called AidanSM, currently available to a limited set of customers, that uses artificial intelligence to answer common questions using natural language, and helps customers get information about their federal aid, such as checking a loan balance. Data at a Glance Customer satisfaction score for applying for student aid online in 2019 Customer satisfaction score for applying for student aid on a mobile phone in 2019 *Measured by the American Customer Satisfaction Index More Profiles Airport Security Screening and Passenger Support Services Citizenship and Immigration Applicant Services Customs Airport Security and Screening Services Farm Loan and Conservation Service Federal Student Aid Individual Taxpayer Services Medicare Customer Support Services Outdoor Recreation Reservations for Federal Lands Passport Services Veterans Education and Training Benefits Veterans Outpatient Health Care Services Service Overview In 2019, more than 10.4 million students who attended post-secondary institutions received grants, loans or work-study funds from FSA. This represented a decrease of 2.3 million students compared to 2018, a decline agency officials attribute to a lower unemployment rate and stronger economy in 2019. Primary Customers Students and their families who need financial assistance for higher education, and borrowers who are repaying student loans. Key services related to applying for, receiving and repaying loans (data for fiscal 2019 unless otherwise noted) Acceptance and processing of applications for federal student aid. 18 million applications for student aid processed. (18.6 million applications for student aid processed in fiscal 2018.) Information and answers to questions about aid programs and the application process. Borrower tools for assistance in managing and repaying student loans—for example, estimating payments, helping borrowers understand repayment options and processes, assisting borrowers struggling to repay loans— including a virtual assistant that provides 24-hour customer service. 45 million borrowers in fiscal 2019. (43 million borrowers in fiscal 2018) Access to personalized student aid account information, loan balances and repayment history. Disbursement of student aid payments to colleges, universities and career and technical schools. Outreach and training for students, families, schools and communities about federal student aid programs, products and services. Assistance for resolving disputes about federal student aid with the help of a neutral ombudsperson group. People Interact With FSA By (All data for fiscal year 2019) VISITING ONLINE 183.7 million visits to StudentAid.gov. (45.5 million visits in fiscal 2018.1) CALLING THE CONTACT CENTER >30 million calls (More than 30 million calls in fiscal 2018.) Average wait time not provided by FSA. Customer Experience Insights Click tabs to expand Customers have positive experiences when applying online for federal student aid, with satisfaction ticking up slightly in 2019. On both the website and the mobile application, users see progress bars that show how much of the application they have completed. This gives them context and a sense of accomplishment as they work through the questions. In addition, users can start an application on one device, save the information and complete the application on a different device. Customer satisfaction score for applying for student aid online 80 out of 1003 2018 score: 78 Customer satisfaction score for applying for student aid on a mobile phone 88 out of 1004 How does this compare with other services? 68.1 out of 100: the aggregated score across federal services, as measured by the American Customer Satisfaction Index5 FSA’s loan simulator helps customers understand their loan options and find the best repayment strategy. The office launched an upgraded digital tool in February 2020 to help borrowers choose a repayment plan that best suits their repayment goals. The loan simulator tool provides a single recommendation for a repayment plan based on the borrower’s goal, rather than a menu of options as was found in the previous version. Borrowers can also enter complex loan scenarios and easily adjust their preferences while comparing repayment plans side-by-side. Our independent analysis of this tool found it helpful and easy to use. By the end of July 2020, more than 1.9 million users accessed the improved loan simulator tool since its launch. “Specifically, the feature [loan simulator] guides students down different pathways based on their responses to a question about their goals for repayment—a big improvement over its predecessor that suggested repayment schedules solely based on student data.”6 Betsy Mayotte, The Institute of Student Loan Advisors (TISLA) President Customers can use social media as a quick, convenient avenue to get answers. The social media team responds to questions within a couple of days, answering general questions about topics such as eligibility requirements for federal student aid. FSA does not answer specific questions about an individual’s student aid account on public sites given privacy concerns. Instead, it follows a protocol for referring these questions to the contact center. These approaches may have helped the office drive more customers to its channels and communicate important information to the public. Total subscribers across FSA social media channels7 Fiscal 2015: 454,066 Fiscal 2016: 525,251 Fiscal 2017: 584,241 Fiscal 2018: 607,241 Fiscal 2019: 634,556 The online content on the student aid site is easy to understand and navigate. Student aid webpages that provide information on estimating eligibility for aid and understanding repayment plans received a B in our analysis. Click to see full results of our website experience analysis Website Experience: How easy is it to navigate and understand online information? Reviewers looked at selected webpages from the perspective of people trying to answer two questions: What are the options and repayment plans available to me when paying my student loans? https://studentaid.gov/loan-simulator/ https://studentaid.gov/manage-loans/repayment https://studentaid.gov/manage-loans/repayment/plans How much student aid am I eligible to receive? https://studentaid.gov/understand-aid/estimate FSA Grade B Strengths Webpages do a good job of using personal pronouns, defining jargon and keeping content concise. Pages have clear headers and links to those headers, making them easy to navigate. Opportunities to improve Content is divided into sections, and the amount of white space throughout the pages makes it hard to read as well as difficult to see how the content is connected. The style of the page layouts is consistent, but the fonts and the styles used for links are less uniform, perhaps because the agency is still in the process of updating some pages. Standout feature: loan simulator The loan simulator is clearly structured around the needs of the users and personalized to their unique situations. It is easy to complete a simulated loan and the tool displays a progress bar for questions answered. However, the results page is a bit busy, making it difficult to quickly spot key information. This page could be improved by using style elements that direct the user’s attention to the most important information. With clear headers and links, pages are easy to navigate (https://StudentAid.gov/) Busy results page on the loan simulator makes it hard to identify key information (https://studentaid.gov/loan-simulator/repayment/results/) Customers are frustrated by the fragmented nature of the student aid system, according to FSA’s customer research. The system requires users to interact with multiple loan repayment contractors and websites, making it harder to track and manage their loans. Through an initiative called Next Gen Federal Student Aid, the office seeks to modernize the experience for students, parents and other borrowers by consolidating more services into one place: StudentAid.gov. In February 2020, the office launched the Make a Payment pilot that enables customers who are assigned to two loan servicers to make payments directly on StudentAid.gov. Currently, roughly seven million borrowers can take advantage of the pilot, and the office plans to make this feature available for more customers in the future. FSA is trying to improve the process for applying for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. There are strict requirements for borrowers to qualify for loan forgiveness under this program, which has resulted in customer confusion. For example, many borrowers submit applications for loan forgiveness before they meet requirements such as having 10 years of qualified payments on their loan. To address this issue, FSA launched an online loan forgiveness tool to help borrowers understand if they are meeting each of the requirements of the program before submitting an application. This tool has attracted over one million visitors in the first half of 2020. In June of this year, FSA also added an employer database, which enables a borrower to enter an employer’s Employer Identification Number and determine their potential eligibility. Key Improvement from last year Ongoing challenge Connecting on Social Media As of September 2020, the office’s social media presence included: Twitter (@FAFSA) For questions about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid Joined: September 2010 Followers: 161,100 Total tweets: 49,400 Facebook (@FederalStudentAid) Joined: October 2011 Followers: 456,400 Total likes: 456,200 YouTube (@FederalStudentAid) Joined: January 2007 Subscribers: 29,900 Total views: 8,800,000 Social media practices Posts almost daily?Yes Responds to customers? Yes – regularly Includes multimedia content?Yes For background information on these metrics and our full methodology click here. How FSA adapted services during the coronavirus FSA used social media to help borrowers understand loan repayment options during the coronavirus. In the spring of 2020, FSA had to field a flood of questions from students and borrowers as colleges and universities closed or shifted to online classes during the coronavirus outbreak. The office launched an online FAQ page to answer questions about how to maintain eligibility for federal student aid when a college closed before the end of the school year or moved online; how to submit a student aid application for the next year if a school closed; and which states extended the deadline for applying for aid. The COVID-19 announcement web page was visited over 3.6 million times in the first three months of the coronavirus outbreak. The office also focused on helping borrowers who might have trouble paying their loans. Congress took action through the CARES Act to set interest rates for all loans being serviced by the Department of Education at 0%—allowing borrowers to pause payments without penalty through the end of 2020. FSA used its online forums, contact centers and social media channels to answer specific questions and help borrowers understand their options to modify loan repayments. With the economy reeling and students potentially needing increased financial aid, FSA posted online guidance suggesting that students should discuss the issue with the financial aid office at their school. However, a report noted that as of June, college officials wanted more guidance about increasing student aid packages, especially since doing so might trigger an audit.2 FSA provided this guidance to college officials in July 2020, giving them flexibility to increase student aid packages as appropriate without the risk of an audit. Indicators that the Customer Experience is a High Priority Click buttons to expand. Commitment to Customer Experience The office: Includes high-quality customer experience in its strategic goals. Yes Specifies customer feedback as a key measure of the organization’s performance. Yes Overall satisfaction throughout the student aid life cycle is a key performance measure. Has a senior executive with the responsibility and authority to lead efforts to improve customer experience across the organization. Yes Shares meaningful customer feedback data with the public. Partially FSA shares high-level customer survey results for the student aid life cycle as part of annual reporting, and plans to publish additional survey results beginning fiscal 2021. Customer Service Basics For the most common services provided, customers can: Complete frequently used transactions online. Yes Customers can apply for student aid online, estimate repayment costs and get updates on the status of their loans and payments. Easily find information to call an appropriate FSA representative. Partially Customers need to call different phone numbers and contact centers to address different topics, which are described on FSA’s website. The office is working on launching a single 1-800 number that eventually will connect customers to all of FSA’s contact centers. Schedule in-person appointments. N/A Federal Student Aid does not have field offices. Obtain status updates. Yes Customers can check online for the status of their student aid applications. Find standardized and consistent information and guidance across channels. Yes For example, FSA does this through its virtual assistant AidanSM and the Help Center on Studentaid.gov, which both retrieve their FAQ answers from the same knowledgebase that customer service agents use. Customer Feedback The agency collects and analyzes data and information on customer perceptions: Of specific interactions, including website visits, phone calls and in-person appointments. Yes Of a customer journey through a series of interactions or multistage processes that build toward a specific goal. Yes Of the overall service the organization provides. Yes Through qualitative research, such as customer interviews, focus groups, analysis of social media comments or direct observation. Yes Through a structured analysis of comments about the service left on social media channels. Yes More details about our methodology Footnotes and Methodology Footnotes 1 FSA consolidated other websites into StudentAid.gov, resulting in a large increase in traffic to the site. 2 ACSI Benchmarks for US Federal Government 2019 3 Ibid. 4 Ibid. 5 National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, “Upgraded Federal Student Aid Website Includes Loan Simulator, Repayment Pilot.” February 25, 2020. Retrieved from: https://bit.ly/32CvEKg 6 FSA Annual Report FY19 7 NPR. “Education Dept. Is Making It Harder For Colleges To Boost Student Aid During Crisis.” June 19 2020. Retrived from: https://n.pr/2QEpvHY Social media review methodology To assess how agencies use social media to interact with customers, we examined three social media best practices identified through conversations with experts: posting frequently, delivering engaging content and responding to questions. We analyzed the most active Facebook or Twitter account by selecting specific months to examine trends throughout the year, including changes to social media activity during the coronavirus. The team defined posting almost daily as meaning the agency posted for at least 25 out of 30 days on average in September 2019, December 2019, March 2020 and May 2020. Include multimedia content is defined as whether the agency posted a range of multimedia content with interactive elements beyond just static images. Responds to customers is defined as whether or not agencies respond to questions through the direct message feature on Facebook or in the comment section of posts. To assess this, we examined September 2019, December 2019 and April 2020 (or another month when data was not available). “No” indicates the agency never or rarely responds to comments; “Yes – occasionally” indicates the agency responds sometimes, but there does not appear to be a consistent pattern over time; and “Yes – regularly” indicates the agency responds to comments on a frequent and consistent basis over time. The number of tweets, likes, posts and views reflect the total activity since the social media account was established. Website experience methodology For each agency, we selected for review a set of webpages that customers would theoretically visit to seek answers to frequently asked questions, vetted with each agency. We partnered with the Center for Plain Language to conduct this review. The center followed the same methodology it uses to assess plain language for its annual ClearMark awards for a range of organizations and its annual Federal Plain Language Report Card for the government. Two plain-language experts individually and independently reviewed and scored each set of pages, using five plain-language criteria to assess each site. They rated each criterion on a five-point scale: Information design and navigation. Pictures, graphics and charts. Style or voice. Structure and content. Understanding of audience. The reviewers then met to reach consensus on strengths and weaknesses of each site and to assign a letter grade based on their ratings. Customer experience indicators methodology The Partnership and Accenture developed the following list of indicators to understand how agencies prioritize the customer experience, and steps they can take to improve. The list is based on research about effective customer experience practices in both government and the private sector, and aligns with practices in a customer experience maturity self-assessment for agencies developed by the Office of Management and Budget. Leaders who participated in the Partnership’s federal customer experience roundtable provided input. Commitment to customer experience The agency: Includes high-quality customer experience in its strategic goals. Criteria: 1) customer experience with the agency’s services is listed in the strategic plan as one of the organization’s top priorities or a supporting goal of one of the priorities 2) the strategic plan provides specific actions the agency will take to improve customer experience. Specifies customer feedback as a key measure of the organization’s performance. Criteria: There is a performance measure included in the agency’s strategic plan, annual performance report or agency priority goals that is based on feedback directly from customers Has a senior executive with the responsibility and authority to lead efforts to improve customer experience across the organization. Criteria: Based on a review of the agency organizational chart and online descriptions of leadership positions, the agency has an executive who meets the following criteria: 1) customer experience is his or her primary responsibility 2) he or she reports to the head of the organization or a deputy 3) his or her work spans all major service delivery channels (e.g., online services, contact centers, face-to-face services). Shares meaningful customer feedback with the public.Criteria: In alignment with the Office of Management and Budget’s guidance on customer experience measurement, the agency publishes customer feedback that: 1) represents multiple service delivery channels 2) provides details into different aspects of the experience (e.g., beyond overall customer satisfaction) Customer Service Basics For the most common services provided, customers can: Complete online frequently used transactions.Criteria: Based on a review of the agency’s website, customers can complete major services or transactions online. Easily find information to call an appropriate representative.Criteria: Does the agency’s website provide a clear explanation of which number to call for specific issues or provide one number that customers can call to get routed to the appropriate person. Schedule in-person appointments. Criteria: Based on a review of the agency’s website, customers can schedule appointments for in-person services. Obtain status updates.Criteria: Customers can get current updates through an online or self-service channel that includes estimated timelines on items such as submitted applications or benefit disbursements. Find standardized and consistent information and guidance across channels. Criteria: At least two service delivery channels have integrated knowledge management systems so that when content for customers on one channel is updated, it is updated on the other channel. Customer Feedback The agency collects and analyzes data and information on customer perceptions: Of specific interactions, including website visits, phone calls, and in-person appointments. Of the customer journey through a series of interactions or multi-stage processes that build toward a specific goal. Of the service provided by the organization overall. Through qualitative research, such as customer interviews, focus groups or direct observation. Through a structured analysis of comments about the service left on social media channels. This customer experience profile was produced in collaboration with Accenture Federal Services.