Federal Student Aid Services Back to Customer Experience Profiles Office of Federal Student Aid, Department of Education Executive Summary Data Highlights Customer Experience Insights Delivering Services Equitably Leading Customer Experience Practices The past two years brought unprecedented changes to the federal student aid system, with pandemic-related policies impacting the needs customers had when interacting with Federal Student Aid. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, in March 2020, Congress paused student aid payment requirements, a pause that was then extended multiple times, with a final deadline now set for Jan. 31, 2022. During this complicated time, it was vital for Federal Student Aid to ensure that customers were aware of these changing requirements so they could make decisions about how to manage their loans. To do so, FSA used targeted and personalized communications to inform different segments of its customer base about the policies and how they could be affected. As a result, in 2020 borrowers remained relatively satisfied with the experiences of applying for, receiving and repaying federal student aid, with ratings for those experiences exceeding federal averages. To further improve the experience, customers would like a more unified loan process throughout the student aid life cycle, particularly when it comes to loan repayment. Customers often must keep track of multiple loan-servicing providers and websites, which can be confusing. In response to this feedback, FSA is working with loan-serving providers to more clearly identify these websites as part of the federal student aid system. Service Overview In 2020, more than 10.8 million students who attended post-secondary institutions received grants, loans or work-study funds from FSA. Primary customers Students and their families who need financial assistance for higher education, and borrowers who are repaying their student loans. Key services related to applying for, receiving and repaying loans (all data for fiscal year 2020) Acceptance and processing of applications for federal student aid. 17.8 million applications for student aid processed. Information and answers to questions about aid programs and the application process. Tools to assist with managing and repaying student loans—for example, estimating payments, helping borrowers understand repayment options and processes, and assisting borrowers struggling to repay loans— including a virtual assistant that provides 24-hour customer service. 45 million borrowers in fiscal year 2020. 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 with resolving disputes about federal student aid with the help of a neutral ombudsperson group. Service Snapshot (all data for fiscal year 2020) 217 million visits to StudentAid.gov. More than 540,000 users of Aidan, a virtual assistant on StudentAid.gov. 2.4 million calls to the Federal Student Aid Information Center. Data Highlights Satisfaction score for the full student aid life cycle. Satisfaction score for applying for student aid online. Satisfaction score for applying for student aid on a mobile phone. ACSI federal services average for 2020: 65.11 *All scores out of 100 Customer Experience Insights Improvement from last year Room for improvement Customer satisfaction with the student aid life cycle continues to increase. From learning about and applying for student aid to repaying loans, FSA has continued to improve the experience borrowers have with student aid, with customers giving a particularly high rating to the online Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Customer satisfaction with the student aid life cycle*2 Fiscal 201769.9 Fiscal 201870.6 Fiscal 201970.0 Fiscal 202073.5 *All scores out of 100 Satisfaction with the student aid application process in 2020*3 Applying for student aid online: 81 Applying for student aid on a mobile phone: 89 *All scores out of 100 A key factor behind this increase in customer satisfaction has been FSA’s enhanced capability to conduct user research, and design and manage products, such as online tools, according to FSA officials. To ensure that customer needs are central to the creation of all new products, FSA has been expanding its use of human-centered design principles and commitment to conducting ongoing customer research. In 2020, FSA leadership established a new Product Management, Design and Delivery Directorate to expand the agency’s capability to design, test and manage new products for customers. FSA hired new employees for the directorate, recognizing the agency needed staff members who had deep expertise in the field of product design and user research and who could be dedicated to the work full time. The new directorate has also formalized the processes and design standards FSA uses to build and launch new products, creating better brand consistency and cohesion across the many products its customers use. FSA officials noted that these new processes ensure products are created with customer needs in mind from the beginning, and that improvements to address issues can be rolled out more quickly. Personalized and targeted communications helped customers navigate the changes to student aid brought about by the pandemic. The past few years brought big changes to the federal student aid landscape, requiring FSA to use a targeted and personalized approach to communicating with and keeping customers informed. The March 2020 CARES Act allowed borrowers to pause their student aid payments without penalty. Recognizing that all customers do not want to be communicated with in the same way, FSA strived to get the right messages to the right people at the right times, using their preferred communications channel. For example, borrowers who were behind on payments before the pause received email messages that focused on highlighting repayment plans based on income. Borrowers who were on track with their loans received messaging that focused on topics such as how to restart automatic payments or tips for paying off loans as quickly as possible. The agency also tests messages with different audiences before sending them, making sure the messages are easy to understand and likely to get recipients to take desired actions, such as taking action to keep their loans out of default. In addition to these messages, the agency also uses social media to provide customers with timely information, such as when student aid payment requirements will resume. FSA is expanding its intelligent virtual assistant, Aidan, which helps people find information and complete tasks more quickly. Aidan is a virtual assistant on StudentAid.gov that uses advanced technology—artificial intelligence and natural language processing—to answer common questions people have about student aid and enable certain interactions. Aidan serves as an advanced search feature, helping direct people to the right information on the website, but it can do more than that. Aidan can help users who are logged into their accounts complete self-service tasks, for example, helping them make a payment or retrieve their account balance. This feature was initially available to only a small percentage of website visitors who were logged into their student aid accounts. In 2021, FSA made the feature available to all visitors to StudentAid.gov. Aidan was also added to the agency’s myStudentAid mobile app in 2021, enabling customers to use Aidan within the app in a similar way to how they can use it on StudentAid.gov. Customers continue to be frustrated by the fragmented nature of the student aid system, though FSA is making progress by consolidating services in one place. The student aid lifecycle—from applying for aid to repaying loans—requires users to interact with many websites and systems, some managed by FSA and others by loan servicing contractors, making it harder for people to track and manage their loans. To make things easier, FSA is bringing more student loan processes to the StudentAid.gov site. Rather than sending applicants to different websites to get the FSA ID needed to apply for aid, review tips for applying for aid, and complete the aid application, the office is making these services and information available in one place. Beyond integrating the sites managed by FSA, the next step is to better integrate the different contractor processes and websites involved in student loan repayments, according to FSA officials. FSA is working with contractors to make these websites more consistent with the rest of the student aid system—for example, adding consistent banners and designs across contractor repayment sites to clearly brand them as an official part of the federal student aid system. FSA is working to improve the process for applying for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. This program provides loan forgiveness for borrowers who work for federal, state, local and tribal governments or non-profit organizations. To qualify for loan forgiveness under this program, borrowers must meet several requirements, such as having 120 qualifying payments on their loan and working for a qualified employer. These program requirements are often not well understood, leading to customer confusion about eligibility. FSA launched an online loan forgiveness tool to help borrowers understand if they meet program requirements before they submit an application. The agency also added an employer database so borrowers can check if the employer they work for is one that may qualify them for forgiveness. Beyond improving customers’ ability to determine their own eligibility, FSA is also exploring ways to proactively enroll certain qualified borrowers into the program. For example, federal employees and many military service members meet the eligibility requirements of the program, and FSA is working to determine how they can use data already collected to reach out to these customers about their eligibility for the PSLF program. In October 2021, the agency also announced a limited waiver for the PSLF program to allow additional types of loan payments to count toward qualifying for the program. In addition, the agency plans to review the applications of borrowers previously rejected by the program to look for errors and provide an opportunity for another review under an interim reconsideration process. FSA estimates that these policy changes will bring more than 550,000 borrowers closer to loan forgiveness under the PSLF program, with 22,000 becoming immediately eligible.4 Delivering Federal Student Aid Services Equitably Access to higher education is strongly linked to social mobility and quality of life. This means that federal student aid can change lives, opening opportunities that may not be possible otherwise. Yet, analysts have found that students from majority Black and Latino neighborhoods have been systematically targeted for additional verification of information on their aid applications, which makes this process more complicated for these groups of customers. Some of the most prominent equity-related efforts by FSA are reflected in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) Simplification Act, which passed in December 2020, and will enact important changes to the FAFSA process. The act expands Pell grant accessibility to more students, including incarcerated students, and links eligibility to family size and federal poverty level. Under the new FAFSA process, the agency will start collecting racial data, which it plans to use to improve its outreach initiatives and make the application process more equitable. Importantly, it is now possible to complete the aid application on a mobile device. This is a critical service improvement that makes federal financial aid more easily accessible to all who qualify, as a significant percentage of people with lower incomes only use smartphones. Leading Customer Experience Practices The Partnership and Accenture developed the following list of practices 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. Organizational Commitment Organizational Commitment A strong commitment and plan from agency leaders to prioritize customer experience is essential for sustained progress. The agency: 1. Includes high-quality customer experience in its strategic goals. Yes The agency’s strategic plan includes a goal to “Provide World-Class Customer Experience to the Students, Parents and Borrowers We Serve.” 2. 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. 3. Has a senior executive with the responsibility and authority to lead efforts to improve the customer experience across the organization. Yes FSA has a chief customer experience officer who reports to the deputy head of the agency. Ease of Customer Interactions Ease of Customer Interactions Interactions with the federal government should be easy, transparent and designed around user needs. For the most common services provided, customers can: 1. Complete common transactions using the service delivery channel of their choice. Yes Customers get status updates and complete other common transactions online, over the phone or through web chat. FSA does not have field offices. 2. Obtain status updates through online self-service. Yes Customers can check online for the status of their student aid applications. 3. Receive a response to feedback or answers to questions over social media. Yes FSA frequently responds to direct questions from customers on Facebook and Twitter. 4. Access online information and support in languages other than English. Partially Content on StudentAid.gov is available in English and Spanish, although the website’s online help center and webchat are available only in English. Listening to Customers and Acting on Feedback Listening to Customers and Acting on Feedback To understand and prioritize customer needs, agencies should collect, publish, analyze and act on feedback. The agency: 1. Collects meaningful customer experience data across interactions and service delivery channels and shares it with the public. Yes FSA collects and publicly shares customer experience data for online FAFSA services and the myStudentAid mobile app in line with OMB guidance. 2. Collects and analyzes first-hand customer feedback to understand customers’ experiences, based on their own words. Yes FSA collects unstructured feedback from call centers, Aidan, social media and other customer-facing channels, as well as through surveys across the student aid life cycle. 3. Aggregates and analyzes customer feedback across channels and programs, and shares feedback with relevant staff members so they can act on it. Yes Customer feedback data is compiled and analyzed monthly, and then shared with FSA staff and leadership so they can act on it. Back to Customer Experience Profiles Footnotes and Methodology Footnote American Customer Satisfaction Index, Benchmarks for U.S. Federal Government 2020. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3bgOw6q. Federal Student Aid Annual Report, FY 2020. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/31b5uBn. ASCI Benchmarks for U.S. Federal Government 2020. Washington Post, “Biden administration temporarily expands student loan forgiveness program for public servants,” October 6, 2021. Retrieved from https://wapo.st/3iDCvfd. Customer experience indicators methodology The Partnership and Accenture developed the following list of practices 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 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. Organizational Commitment A strong commitment and plan from agency leaders to prioritize customer experience is essential for sustained progress. The agency: Includes high-quality customer experience in its strategic goals. Criteria: a) 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 b) 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 the customer experience across the organization. Criteria: Based on a review of the agency’s organizational chart and online descriptions of leadership positions, the agency has an executive who meets the following criteria: a) customer experience is that executive’s primary responsibility b) the executive reports to the head of the organization or a deputy c) the executive’s work spans all major service delivery channels (e.g., online services, contact centers, face-to-face services). Ease of Customer Interactions Interactions with the federal government should be easy, transparent and designed around user needs. For the most common services provided, customers can: Complete common transactions using the service delivery channel of their choice. Criteria: Based on a review of the agency’s website, customers have multiple options to complete common transactions including going online, calling, using webchat and visiting field offices or other physical locations. Obtain status updates through online self-service. Criteria: customers can get real-time updates through an online self-service channel that provides estimated timelines. Receive a response to feedback or answers to questions over social media. Criteria: Does the agency respond to questions through the direct message feature on Facebook and Twitter, or in the comment section of posts? To assess this, we examined social media posts on the service’s primary account across a three-month period. “No” indicates the agency never or rarely responds to comments; “partially” indicates the agency responds sometimes, but not consistently; and “yes” indicates the agency responds to comments on a frequent and consistent basis. Access online information and support in languages other than English. Criteria: “No” indicates content is available only in English and translation features are not available on the website; “partially” indicates that some content or services are available in English and Spanish; “yes” indicates that content or services are available in English and Spanish and additional languages. Listening to Customers and Acting on Feedback To understand and prioritize customer needs, agencies should collect, publish, analyze and act on feedback. The agency: Collects meaningful customer experience data across interactions and service delivery channels and shares it with the public. Criteria: In alignment with the Office of Management and Budget’s guidance on customer experience measurement, the agency shares customer feedback with the public and that: a) represents multiple service delivery channels b) provides details into different aspects of the experience (i.e., beyond overall customer satisfaction) Collects and analyzes first-hand customer feedback to understand customers’ experiences, based on their own words. Criteria: In alignment with Office of Management and Budget’s guidance on customer experience measurement, in customer or user research such as interviews, focus groups, surveys and other feedback mechanisms, customers can describe their experiences in their own words, and the agency has automated analytic capabilities to identify and act on insights that emerge from customer feedback data. Aggregates and analyzes customer feedback across channels and programs, and shares feedback with relevant staff members so they can act on it. Criteria: Agency has an automated system to collect feedback across multiple channels and programs into a centralized location, analyze it for insights, and share those insights with relevant agency business owners or other appropriate colleagues responsible for taking action. The agency also tracks the impact of actions taken in response to customer feedback. This customer experience profile was produced in collaboration with Accenture Federal Services.