Office of Federal Student Aid, Department of Education
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.
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
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
*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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.