The federal government administers critical financial aid programs for Americans and, with college costs skyrocketing, financial assistance is vital for many students. In the fall of 2018, more than 12 million students who headed off to college received grants, loans or work-study funds from the Office of Federal Student Aid.
A good customer experience with FSA can ensure students are able to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, get the financial aid they need, understand their repayment obligations and repay their loans. The office was one of the first federal government organizations to create a chief customer experience officer position, making customer experience a top strategic priority.
FSA does not publish much of the customer feedback it receives, possibly due to restrictions from the Paperwork Reduction Act. But officials report high customer satisfaction with the financial aid application process based on customer surveys. FSA streamlined the process over the past 10 years, making it easier for people to complete the financial aid form and retrieve the tax data they need to do so. In addition, web pages related to applying for student aid offer clear, easily understandable information, according to our analysis.
Yet challenges remain. FSA surveys and other customer research indicate the complex and fragmented nature of the student aid system can confound people seeking assistance for themselves or others. They often must interact with multiple loan-servicing providers and websites in their attempts to apply for, access or repay student aid. FSA is addressing this issue through its Next Generation Financial Services Environment initiative, a single online platform for customers aimed at simplifying the process of applying for and managing student loans.
Key Services for Federal Student Aid
- Acceptance and processing of applications for federal student aid.
- Information and answers to questions about aid programs and the application process.
- Borrower assistance for managing and repaying student loans (e.g., estimating payments, understanding repayment options and processes, assisting borrowers struggling to repay loans).
- Disbursement of student aid payments to colleges, universities, and career and technical schools.
- Outreach and training students, families, schools and communities about federal student aid programs, products and services.
- Assistance through a neutral, informal and confidential ombudsman group for resolving disputes about federal student aid.
DID YOU KNOW
Nearly 60% of high school seniors apply for a federal student loan.
Students and their families who need financial assistance for higher education, and borrowers who are repaying student loans.
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calls typically received at FSA contact centers annually
not provided by FSA
visits to StudentAid.gov
FSA does not have field offices
APPLICATIONS FOR STUDENT AID PROCESSED
TOTAL BORROWERS WITH FEDERAL STUDENT LOANS OUTSTANDING
Social Media Presence
Twitter and Facebook accounts help FSA find and fix student aid issues quickly, before they become larger problems, with the help of a social media team that troubleshoots challenges that arise. “Our team is often the canary in the coal mine. We are able to hear about issues on social media before they even hit our call centers,” said Ed Pacchetti, director of customer analytics at FSA. “This enables us to flag any issues that come in and send them to our website developers, so we can fix anything right away.”
The team also responds to questions, points customers in the right direction for information and periodically holds Twitter chats to answer questions about the financial aid process. Along with using Twitter and Facebook to distribute content and answer questions, FSA also engages with customers through a YouTube channel.
As of September 2019, the agency’s social media presence includes:
Federal Student Aid publishes an overall customer satisfaction score for the entire student aid life cycle, which includes the perspectives of customers from three points in that cycle: applying for aid, currently attending school and repaying loans. FSA does not publish more detailed feedback possibly due to restrictions imposed by the Paperwork Reduction Act.
Customer satisfaction score across the student aid life cycle (fiscal 2018)2
70.6 out of 100
This score is slightly higher than the office’s 2017 score of 69.9 as well as the federal government’s 2018 average score on the American Customer Satisfaction Index of 68.9.
Additional customer feedback information and insights were garnered through interviews with agency officials.
Customer Experience Highlights
- FSA has made strides over the past 10 years to make it quicker and easier for customers to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. They have done so by streamlining the form and enabling users to automatically import key information.
- Customers give FSA positive feedback on the financial data retrieval tool that is a part of the application for federal student aid. The tool was created out of a partnership with the Internal Revenue Service and enables applicants to automatically import their verified tax data into the application.
Our scan of approximately 13,000 social media comments about federal student aid services found examples of posts that can help understand the customer experience, such as people expressing confusion with eligibility criteria for aid, highlighting technical errors or login issues when submitting information through FAFSA.gov, and conveying gratitude after receiving student aid. Here, we provide one example of a post that reinforces a theme in customer feedback identified in this profile. Along with other topics, our scan found many instances of customers citing confusion with the FAFSA.
“You would think after doing it for four years of undergrad, I would understand all this loan application and FAFSA nonsense and wouldn’t stress cry constantly? But you would be wrong.”
Opportunities to Improve the Customer Experience
- Customers remain frustrated by the fragmented nature of the student aid system, FSA officials said. The system requires users to interact with multiple loan repayment contractors and websites over the life of a student loan. In November 2017, the office launched NextGen, a multiyear initiative to consolidate and simplify this end-to-end process using leading human-centered design methods and tools.
- Despite a high score for FSA’s website in our analysis below, and its efforts to streamline the FAFSA application, some customers still complain about jargon and difficult terms in the application. “We are working to find clearer ways to ask certain questions but, in many cases, we are legally required to word certain questions certain ways,” Pacchetti said.
SIMPLIFYING A FRAGMENTED, COMPLEX PROCESS
Through its NextGen initiative, FSA is responding to customer complaints about the complex and fragmented system they must navigate over the life of their student loans. The initiative seeks to create a single online platform through which customers can apply and manage their loans until they are paid off.
Since the initiative was launched in November 2017, among other projects, FSA has rolled out a new mobile application for customers to submit a FAFSA form, view their federal student loan history and compare information about schools, such as tuition costs and graduation rates, activities that previously required visits to multiple sites. The app has received positive feedback, and the agency continues to make improvements based on user feedback, according to FSA officials. As of August 2019, the mobile app had a rating of 4 out of 5 stars for Android users, and 3.1 out of 5 stars for Apple users.
Website Experience: How Easy Is It to Navigate and Understand Online Information?
In April 2019, the Partnership and Accenture partnered with the Center for Plain Language, a nonprofit organization that champions clear language, to conduct an analysis of how easy it would be for student aid applicants to understand and navigate selected FSA web pages. Reviewers looked at the sites from the perspective of a high school junior trying to learn about student aid options. We did not review content in the FAFSA application itself.
Note: In a separate study, the center examines a range of government websites annually and issues a Federal Plain Language Report Card. The average grade in calendar year 2018 was a “C.”
What the Analysis Found
The FAFSA site is a model of clarity, organization and brevity. It allows users to confidently find their way through an unfamiliar and potentially overwhelming process of estimating eligibility for aid, submitting an application and maintaining eligibility over time. The website is easy to navigate and well-designed, and uses plain language.
Figure 1: An engaging chart that guides users.
Figure 2: Jargon and difficult terms are defined clearly.
Indicators that the Customer Experience is a High Priority
The Partnership and Accenture developed the following list of indicators to understand how agencies are prioritizing 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 participate in the Partnership’s federal customer experience roundtable provided input.
Commitment to customer experience
Includes high-quality customer experience in its strategic goals.
Specifies customer feedback as a key measure of the organization’s performance.
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.
Has a process for standardizing across channels the information and guidance provided to customers.
Efforts are underway through the Next Generation Financial Services Environment initiative.
Shares meaningful customer feedback with the public.
FSA publishes only high-level customer survey results, possibly due to restrictions imposed by the Paperwork Reduction Act.
Customer Service Basics
For the most common services provided, customers can:
Complete frequently used transactions online.
Customers can apply for student aid online, estimate repayment costs, get updates on the status of their loans and payments, and apply for income
Easily find information to call an appropriate representative.
Due to the fragmented nature of federal student aid, customers must call different contact centers and phone numbers to address different topics. FSA’s website provides descriptions of which numbers to call to get help with specific issues.
Schedule in-person appointments.
Not applicable. Federal Student Aid does not have field offices.
Obtain status updates.
Customers can check the status of their student aid applications online.
The office 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 multistage processes that build toward a specific goal.
Of the overall service the organization provides.
Through qualitative research, such as customer interviews, focus groups, analysis of social media comments or direct observation.
Footnotes and Methodology
1 Data provided by FSA for fiscal year 2018.
2 The survey was conducted by the American Customer Satisfaction Index. FSA’s score is weighted based on the volume of borrowers (70% of the measure), applicants (25% of the measure) and students (5% of the measure) using FSA’s services.
Social Media Methodology
Accenture conducted the social media scan using a social media intelligence platform. Using keyword searches, the team identified comments posted from November 2018 through February 2019 about each federal service on popular social media sites such as Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, Yelp, Google and other online forums. The majority (61%) of the posts ultimately included in the analysis were from Twitter.
The team excluded posts primarily containing political commentary and grouped posts to identify themes in customer feedback for each federal service. The methodology allowed us to identify common trends in posts about each service and identify potential issues customers face but cannot be used to draw firm conclusions about the experience of the full range of its customers.
Web Experience Methodology
For each agency, we selected for review a set of web pages that provided information on how customers apply for or access one of the agency’s highest-volume services.
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. This process involved developing two profiles of typical users for each set of agency web pages. The user profiles helped focus reviews on typical tasks, for example, an individual applying for a green card for the first time.
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.
Detailed Methodology for Our Review of Indicators That Customer Experience Is a High Priority
We reviewed each agency and service against indicators that customer experience is a high priority using the following criteria.
Commitment to customer experience
The agency, subagency or bureau:
1. 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.
2. 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 on performance.gov that is based on feedback directly from customers.
3. Has a senior executive with the responsibility and authority to lead customer experience efforts.
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 their primary responsibility; 2) they report to the head of their organization, or a deputy; 3) their work spans all major service delivery channels (e.g., online services, contact centers, face-to-face services).
4. Has a process for standardizing across channels the information and guidance provided to customers.
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.
5. Shares meaningful customer feedback with the public.
Criteria: In alignment with the Office of Management and Budget’s guidance on CX measurement, the agency makes public 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:
1. Complete frequently used transactions online.
Criteria: Based on a review of the agency’s website, customers can complete all major services or
2. Easily find information to call an appropriate representative.
Criteria: The agency’s website provides a clear explanation of which number to call for specific issues or provides one number that customers can call to get routed to the appropriate person.
3. Schedule in-person appointments.
Criteria: Based on a review of the agency’s website, customers have the ability to schedule appointments for in-person services.
4. Obtain status updates.
Criteria: Customers can get real-time updates through an online or self-service channel.
The agency, subagency or bureau collects and analyzes data and information on customer perceptions:
1. Of specific interactions, including website visits, phone calls and in-person appointments.
2. Of the customer journey through a series of interactions or multistage processes that build toward a specific goal.
3. Of the overall service the organization provides.
4. Through qualitative research, such as customer interviews, focus groups, analyzing comments on social media, or direct observation.