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Financial Aid: Difficult Conversations and the Appeal Process

February 21, 2023
Jennifer Sheppard
Client Success Manager

When I think of February, my mind doesn’t first go to Valentine’s Day or Presidents’ birthday holidays or that spring is maybe almost around the corner. I immediately think of difficult conversations and financial aid appeals. (Of course it is only natural for me to mentally make such an immediate association after 25 years working in admission and financial aid in schools.) For so many schools, February is crunch time for admission and financial aid. Often there may be a brief moment of relief when returning student contracts and those accompanying aid decisions are sent out only to then turn the focus on new student applications. It may be that at the same time, returning student families start calling to appeal their financial aid decision or request to meet to talk about their award or denial of an aid grant. Difficult conversations about financial aid are not easy at any time, and those conversations or appeal requests often percolate at the time when admission/financial aid professionals are the most stressed. Here are some tips for handling such situations:

#1. Designate one person to be the designated spokesperson for all financial aid appeals or difficult conversations.

Having one person who is the only person to address appeals is important to make sure families do not get different information depending on whom they speak with at the school and to provide consistency in the appeals process. This means that everyone in the office should have the knowledge of whom to defer to or how to handle such a call. This also means that others in the office should not engage in conversations with parents upset about financial aid as this can lead to confusion or unhelpful communications that actually escalate or complicate matters.

#2. Establish the appeals process at your school.

This doesn’t have to be complicated; rather, it means having a clear, consistent process to apply to any appeal request. It might be as simple as thanking the family for calling or emailing, letting them know that the school has a formal appeals process and that the next step is to provide additional information in order to be reconsidered.

For example, if you are using Clarity, you could let the family know that you will prompt their Clarity account for an appeals request where they can formally upload their request to have their application reconsidered and upload any new or additional information they want to provide.

Asking a family to provide a formal request, including any further details on their financial situation or new information (like a very recent job loss), gives the family direction and allows for a pause in the process while this information is gathered. New or additional information also provides context for a recalculation rather than just implying to a family that the award decision can be changed to a different decision using the same information just because the family asked.

#3. Get it in writing.

I cannot stress this enough: Get the appeal information in writing from the family. Families upset by their award grant or denial of aid may call with varied intense emotions and it may be tempting to just plan to relay information from a phone call to your FA Committee to reconsider the award, or worse, give an answer right there on the phone. 

Don’t do it! 

It is important to get these details in writing from the family and, preferably, added to their financial aid application for record keeping purposes. The same issue may arise the next year or something may happen at some point in the future where the information the family provided is needed for confidential context. This “in writing” policy also makes your appeal process formal, gives you more time to bring the appeal to your committee, and documents new or more detailed explanations from the family.

#4. No matter how involved you are with the Financial Aid Committee, give the perception of distance from the committee to families and be their advocate.

It is surprising how being a good listener with a disgruntled or otherwise upset parent can truly diffuse a situation and give you further insight into what is really going on. When a parent calls upset about a financial aid decision, the most important action you can take is to just listen. Then take a breath and thank them for reaching out to share their concerns. Be genuine in that response, too. However you handle appeals, it is important to align yourself as an advocate for them (meaning they have been heard) while also directing the appeal process to the next steps and away from you being the decision maker. All of this ultimately serves to positively work with the family toward enrolling regardless of the final aid outcome.  Here are some examples to give you a sense of how to manage these conversations:

  • “We have a formal appeals process and let me share the next steps with you so that I will have everything I need to take your application back to our financial aid committee.”
  • “Thank you so much for calling, I know this is stressful and difficult. As you know we have a formal appeals process and we would need for you to provide a written request. I recommend that you provide any details in the request, like those you just shared with me, that would be new or additional information for our financial aid committee to take into consideration. I would be happy to help explain your situation but I do need a formal appeal request from you in writing and it is always helpful to have detailed information included.”
  • “As you know, our financial aid awards are determined by our financial aid committee based on the information they receive from your application and the data used to calculate demonstrated financial need. I understand you disagree with the decision and I am happy to share our appeals process with you. I cannot give you an answer right now as all appeals go through the committee, but I will get back to you as soon as the appeals process is complete.”
  • “I appreciate you calling and I understand how stressful this is, please know I want to help you. In order to do so, I need you to submit a request for appeal in writing with any new or additional information to be considered, as that is our appeals policy. Know that I will make sure the committee reviews your application in our next meeting as long as I have that written request from you.”

Note that it is important to keep in mind that the makeup of the financial aid committee is strictly confidential and financial aid committee member names should never be shared with a family. When the committee does reconsider and it is up to you to let the family know the news, again it is helpful to give the appearance of distance from you personally being the decision maker. It is also important to send an appeal decision in writing to a family. This is to document either an appeal denial or a change in the grant and give the family time to absorb the decision or even go ahead and sign the enrollment contract.

#5. Don’t let your emotions get the better of you.

It often seemed to me that the most difficult family contacted me at the most intense day or moment. Sometimes their stress and intensity increased my stress and intensity. This escalation never ends well. For example, a family who believes they should be given financial assistance yet refuses to adjust their lifestyle to pay full tuition calls shouting at you just when you have spent every waking hour getting decisions out. A call like this may trigger you to tell them “we are not funding you.” Guaranteed this reaction on your part is not going to be effective and will only make things worse. When you get a call like this, remember to breathe and listen. This might be the time to invite them to come in for a meeting at a mutually agreeable time. This gives them time to calm down (hopefully) and for you to be prepared and non-reactionary. 

Explaining a “Do Not Qualify” to a family

Whether on the phone or in person, explaining to a family why they don’t qualify for an aid grant is difficult. If you are having this conversation, the family clearly disagrees with the decision and wants to see about changing that decision. Even with an appeal process, the DNQ at some point will likely need to be addressed.

  • Refrain from providing a written report. So many times I have seen schools insist on giving a family a report of their award calculation from the aid platform the school uses and this just confuses or frustrates a family more. A printed report or PDF can also give the family fuel to offer a counterpoint to everything on the report and greater insistence of a decision change.
  • Use the methodology. If you understand the methodology behind the aid calculation and the methodology aligns with your school’s financial aid policy, then you can use this to help a family understand an aid decision. Here is an example of explaining a methodology to a family: ‘the financial aid calculation is far more layered than just looking at a family’s income. The process takes into account the verified income as well as assets of the family. Regarding assets, our policy does not take retirement into account and protects families from having inflated home equity counted as an asset. We protect a portion of bank accounts for emergencies and understand that business owners must continually invest to keep their business going. The process subtracts taxes, allowances for housing, other general living costs, transportation and healthcare as well as other allowed expenses to determine discretionary income. From that discretionary income is a calculation of tuition contribution for children. Number of children in tuition charging schools is factored in as well.” Providing this type of insight into the depth of the process helps give definition to the aid decision, yet at the same time it does not give much detail for them to counter argue for reconsideration. 
  • Don’t overshare and have confidence in your language. Be thoughtful and prepared for any of these conversations. The anxiety or emotion a parent is feeling may cause you to feel the need to ramble and potentially say something the family may later use against you or the school. Remember to listen and stay calm. Starting your response with “I understand that you do not agree with the financial aid committee decision and I realize this is difficult,” may go a long way to diffuse the tension. Continuing to say that the application was reviewed thoroughly and carefully by the committee can be helpful as well. Finally, it may just be that you have to come out and say, “with the use of our financial aid platform to support our financial aid policy, you do not qualify for need based financial aid.”

Sometimes though, the real situation for a family is a cash flow issue - not a need issue - and, in that case, it can be extremely helpful to be able to add “however, we recognize the cash flow issue your family is facing and there are cases where a special payment plan can be arranged with our business office to help spread out payments.” If your school can offer such “special plans” on a case by case basis, this may go a long way to help a family accept an aid denial and still keep a student enrolled. Note that for a family with an aid denial, a special plan would ideally be free of any payment plan fees to, again, best help a cash flow issue and allow for the family to feel they are getting a break. Obviously these special case handlings should have the blessing of your CFO or finance director as a potential option to offer in such a difficult conversation.

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