GOVERNMENT FOR THE PEOPLE: PROFILES ON THE CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE

Federal Student Aid Services

Office of Federal Student Aid, Department of Education


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

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

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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

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

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

Student aid webpages that provide information on estimating eligibility for aid and understanding repayment plans received a B in our 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:

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/)

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.

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 

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Commitment to Customer Experience

The office:

Includes high-quality customer experience in its strategic goals.


Specifies customer feedback as a key measure of the organization’s performance.


Has a senior executive with the responsibility and authority to lead efforts to improve customer experience across the organization.


Shares meaningful customer feedback data with the public.

Customer Service Basics 

For the most common services provided, customers can: 

Complete frequently used transactions online.


Easily find information to call an appropriate FSA representative.


Schedule in-person appointments.


Obtain status updates.


Find standardized and consistent information and guidance across channels.

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 a 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.


Through a structured analysis of comments about the service left on social media channels.

More details about our methodology

This customer experience profile was produced in collaboration with Accenture Federal Services.