Financial aid, a customer service test

As a former Director of Financial Aid, I still have a special place in my heart for helping students through the confounding process that is financial aid. I work with local students whose parents are unemployed, under-employed or worse yet, in the abyss occupied by throngs of middle-income families. FAFSA

I volunteer with a remarkably talented but financially challenged group of young people. With the exception of their status as high-need students, they are a college recruiter’s dream. It is the financial aid process, however, that strikes fear in the hearts of these seemingly unstoppable, resilient young people because they know it is the one obstacle that stands between them and the education so important to long-term success.

Some of these students traverse the financial aid process almost entirely alone either because their parent(s) don’t speak English, are disabled, abusing a substance or working multiple jobs to pay the rent. They are organized and proactive, yet this process leaves most of them confused and overwhelmed.

As administrators, we all play the role of teacher and mentor whether or not we actually work in a classroom. While many of us have explained the concept of financial need, how an Expected Family Contribution is calculated or how outside scholarships are handled, literally thousands of times, we must remind ourselves that our customers, students and mentees are hearing it for the very first time. They are intimidated and beleaguered. While many of us understand these processes intimately, we must remember that taking the time to kindly and gently explain them to a teen and his/her family can truly have a lifelong impact.

In the weeks prior to the May 1 deadline, I worked with several students who illustrated the need to make sure our message is being delivered as if for the first time, every time. The fact that Federal Work Study appears on a financial aid package yet does not get deducted from the student’s bill has confused students for the 20+ years I’ve been in higher education. The fact that the process requirements and deadlines differ on a school-by-school basis, as does the handling of outside scholarships, is confusing and seemingly unfair to families. Additionally, the fact that each school has its own way of listing info on their website and that there is little, if any, consistency across schools makes the process that much more maddening.

Financial aid officers are among the most dedicated, passionate people I’ve met, and I’m proud to be one among them, but the financial aid system is still not a user friendly one, and until such time as it is simplified, each one of us must remember to treat every student with care and understanding, a difficult task among so many competing priorities in our work day.

One way to touch prospective students more thoroughly is to train each admission officer as a front-line financial aid officer. If admissions and financial aid offices exist independently, the prospective student suffers. Communication breaks down. At some basic level, the people in these two offices should be able to operate interchangeably and seamlessly.

In an era when paying for college is such an awesome undertaking, we may not always be able to give people the answers they want, but we should always strive to make them feel like they’ve been heard and valued. Our goal is not to administer financial aid. Our goal should always be to help students finance their college education in a way that, within the law and the goals of the institution, best serves the student.

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