Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Things Your Higher Education Professional Doesn't Tell You About Student Aid

"Reader's Digest" does this feature every month where they do "X Number of Things Your (Insert Professional Career Here) Doesn't Tell You." Yes, I subscribe to "Reader's Digest" so shut up. I figured I would do one that is tangentially related to my job and hopefully it won't turn into a bitch-fest because that's no fun for anyone. One of my biggest pet peeves about the information that goes out to parents and students about higher education is that it is all homogenized as if every school and Admissions department is the exact same. This isn't true, so generic advice is what parents get. The advice given is either from people who don't really know the answers they are giving (the lack of knowledge I find in some high school counselors can be frightening at times) or are so far up in the hierarchy of a school they have no idea what useful advice to give. So here goes. Here are things your higher education professional doesn't tell you about student aid.

1. Everyone wants college to be paid for completely. Your child deserves a full scholarship like every other child deserves a full scholarship. It's no fun to tell your child "no," but if your child is looking at a $40,000/year school and you can't afford that then you are only hurting your family and the child by pretending you can afford this. Much like it is not the job of a mortgage banker to subsidize the cost of a house you can't afford, a college can only do so much to subsidize the cost of a $40,000/year education. Sometimes even if your child wants to buy a Lexus, you have to buy the child a used Honda instead.

2. It's not always the place your child goes to get an education. It is the education your child chooses to get at that institution. There's no point in chasing a degree from a "name" college if your child can succeed at a university that is more affordable and gives the child the same opportunity to succeed in life.

3. Every letter/email/fax a Financial Aid counselor receives begins with some form of "Thank you for the generous financial aid award offer. We are so happy that X college offered the money and we are grateful..." followed by an appeal for more money. So excuse the counselor if it seems like there is a bit of an eye roll. If the award offered was truly that generous then you wouldn't be asking for more money. It's the "It's not you, it's me" of higher education and blowing smoke up a counselor's ass isn't going to get you further. Be honest, be straight and if you can't afford it, then be honest and straight with yourself.

4. Speaking of asking for more money...sitting down with a counselor or even the Director of Financial Aid won't necessarily get you more money. It's not 1965 and a face-to-face meeting is no longer more effective than a well-written appeal or letter. Oftentimes it is a matter of budgeting and consideration with the Admissions Counselor on whether the student deserves more money or more money should be offered. Writing a letter or an email allows this process to begin, while a face-to-face meeting only serves to waste the time of two people.

5. Students who have succeeded the first or second year in college often will come to see if they can get more money for their good grades. You aren't seven years old and getting "A's" on your report card anymore. It's college and the money you were given is based on the college's anticipation that you would get good grades and be a contributor to the community. Doing so only reinforces you deserve the money given to you, but doesn't necessarily qualify you for more aid. If additional scholarships are what you want, the specific department within your major is your better bet. Academic departments like to reward students within that department who succeed with some of the departmental scholarships they have. I would usually try there first.

6. When writing an email or sending a phone call, do wait 24 hours for a return phone call or email if specified in the voicemail. Calling back repeatedly and not leaving a message in a desperate attempt to not have to wait 24 hours isn't going to get your call returned more quickly and writing an email after a voicemail will not either. Every college has caller ID and knows the phone number that has called repeatedly without leaving a message. Often it won't be 24 hours before your phone call is returned, but that message is left on the voicemail to protect the counselor who may get busy in the meantime from the expectation the phone call should be returned immediately.

7. This is more of a general rule for life in general. If you have left a voicemail for someone to call you back, always check your voicemail before calling that person back. In the field of customer service or in the field of life, there are few things more frustrating than answering a question in a voicemail only to have the person asking the question call you back and ask the same damn question again. If you expect the courtesy of a call back, then extend the courtesy of checking your voicemail.

8. Financial Aid counselors do have favorite students. The best way to not become a favorite student is to be a pain in the ass and require constant maintenance. Questions are fine and that's why your Financial Aid counselor exists, partly to answer questions. When a parent constantly calls and asks questions answered previously or has new questions on a regular basis rather than putting all questions into one email it becomes obnoxious.

9. Regarding being a pain in the ass. I find that many students/parents who become a pain in the ass actually end up receiving a lower level of service. It's not intentional, but whereas the squeaking wheel gets the grease, the squeaking wheel also is ignored in favor of wheels that don't squeak if given the opportunity. This is also a lesson in life also. Subconsciously humans don't want to do something painful or uncomfortable to do.

10. For divorced parents...everyone working in higher education understands divorce is difficult and the ability to communicate with an ex is not always easy. That being said, it is not the responsibility of the Financial Aid office to communicate payments due and other financially necessary issues to the non-custodial parent who is responsible for paying part of the tuition. We are not the middle man or a convenient way for you to not be forced to communicate with your ex. It's not about you. It's about your son/daughter's education. If that's not important enough to call your ex, then why should it be important enough to your Financial Aid department to make sure your ex understands when his portion of the payment is due? FERPA requires only the custodial parents on the FAFSA be notified of amounts owed to the school. Explaining to a Financial Aid counselor on the phone you and your ex don't get along is no reason for why the counselor has to become the mediator in your great battle to get your shared child's education paid.

11. I have had a parent tell me, "If you guys want to get paid, then you will call my ex and say what is due from him." In response I would like to say, if you want your child to go to school, then you will not be a child and communicate with your ex. Finance and the Accounts Department at a university see a bill either as paid or not paid. An unpaid bill has no feelings.

12. On a related note, if the child isn't on speaking terms with the non-custodial parent it still isn't the job of the counselor to be the mediator. Life is hard and sometimes you have to talk to people you don't want to talk to for a greater purpose. If the child wants to go to college and have that parent pay his/her portion, then no relationship is required, but notification when the bill is due will be required. You want it paid, forward the bill to the non-custodial parent.

13. What makes a person love this job is working with parents and students to get that student into college and see them graduate. It's nice to see students succeed and get an education.

14. You don't know how many times I've been asked, "Do you know anyone who would be good for X scholarship?" I will always name one of my favorite students who hasn't been a pain in the ass or one who has good grades. So please remember this when making that phone call after you have had a bad day, don't understand your bill because you haven't read it, and feel the need to have your balance explained rather than attempt to understand why the balance is due by viewing the bill.

15. It can be incredibly exhausting and not fulfilling being the one handing out the money. Students/parents remember their Admissions Counselor who recruited them, their coaches, favorite professors and anyone else who helped them graduate. The person who hands out the money and explains why you owe $5000 when you thought it would only be $4000 needs a pick-me-up every once in a while. Financial Aid often sees the worst part of the student/parent because they are always talking money. It's nice to be appreciated every once in a while by simply being thanked. It's so few and far between, that it's remembered.

16.  Financial Aid counselors don't know about scholarships at other schools. They don't know about every scholarship available either.

17. Financial Aid counselors are suckers for students who take their education seriously and don't require mommy or daddy to call after they have had a conversation they don't understand about Financial Aid. If you don't understand, then don't waste our time and pretend like you will understand. Just have your parent call.

18. Parents, if you have an AGI of $270,000 and your husband loses his job taking your AGI down to $220,000 then don't necessarily expect more Financial Aid because you can't afford college anymore. Cancel the country club dues, maybe lower your lifestyle demands a little bit. Someone who makes $270,000 a year who can't afford college is seen as a person who wants college further subsidized without having any type of sacrifice on their part. That's how it is seen.

19. You don't know how many parents who send their child to private school I talk to on a yearly basis. These parents just can't afford college, though they found a way to afford a $35,000/year private school because it was necessary due to some medical or emotional issue. I've seen students with behavior problems sent to horse camp or sent to boarding schools and their parents are happy to pay less for college. I've seen students who have behavioral or educational issues sent to private schools that cost $30,000+/year because "it's necessary." Pretend that college is necessary too. It's frustrating to see a parent who finds private schools necessary, but wants someone else to give them a break when it comes to paying for college.

20. College is too expensive. Few people disagree with this. It's expensive to run a college though and I guarantee you that the person in middle management you are talking to at the college isn't making as much money as you think he/she is. College administrators like the Chancellor, CFO, etc. make a lot of money. That doesn't always trickle down. When saying your income was cut to $170,000/year and complaining you can't afford college is a slap in the face to a person who earns half of that for his/her entire household and is planning on sending his/her children to college too. Know your audience and just generally understand how fortunate you are.

21. Speaking of college administrators. Few of them have guts and the intestinal fortitude to talk to parents who appeal for more money and decline their appeal. The difficulty of the situation is it is hard to get to these administrators because they direct any questions to their underlings to be answered. It's preached constantly to educate parents, students and be tough when declining an appeal for more funds, but it's always a different story when that administrator has to be tough.

22. For parents, no matter how much you don't want to admit it your child is an adult once he/she goes to college. He/she is having sex, doing drugs, making the decision to attend class or not, and making daily decisions you know nothing about. The student has to be treated this way and allowed to fail if he/she starts to fail. There is a time to step in and help your child, but delaying your child taking responsibility for him/herself and his/her mistakes isn't helping him/her nor will it help you.

23. On a related note, your child will receive correspondence from Financial Aid and saying, "Child X doesn't check his/her email" or "Child X didn't understand the email so she/he deleted it" is not a good reason for something requested to not be completed. Don't be angry with me, be angry with your child. In the real world, not answering an email or taking action on an email due to disinterest or because that person didn't understand it is an easy way to get fired. College is preparing a student for the real world, which involves reading email. If your child can update his/her Facebook or Twitter account, he/she can check his/her email hit the "forward" button to send the information to you.

24. I mean really, your child is a grownup. You may not like it and want to be the savior parent from time-to-time, but I will treat your child like a grownup. If you don't want your child treated like an adult it's probably best your child isn't in college preparing for a real world where he/she will be treated like an adult. I have had parents tell me their child's brain doesn't form completely until the age of 25 and that's why email doesn't get answered or a request isn't fulfilled. Regardless of the scientific nature of this claim, you must empower your child rather than continue to make excuses for why empowerment only will lead to failure. Failure teaches lessons that are remembered.

25. Oh, athletes. Athletes can be the best and they can be the worst. Your son/daughter can hit a ball well? Congrats, but despite what he/she has been told over his/her entire life this doesn't make her more important than a student with a 3.70 GPA in my eyes. The best athlete is one who excels in the classroom and on the field. The worst athlete is one who thinks excelling on the field is the only purpose. Most likely your child won't be making money as a soccer player, while the student with a 3.70 GPA will probably succeed and give money back to the university.

26. I laugh when I read stories about students who graduate with tons of debt and have an Art degree. It's not that I don't have sympathy for them, but when you go to an expensive school and come away with a degree there's no guarantee of employment. Again, school is too expensive, but the price tag is right there for many schools and students choose to purchase anyway. The media likes to jump on stories of unemployed students who have $100,000 in debt, but what they don't pay attention to is the Admissions Counselor who did/did not advise that student perhaps this school isn't the best one for him/her.

27. Speaking of student loan debt, there is no reason adult students should have the same loan limits as dependent students who are the age of 18-24. The cost is cheaper for adult students and all that happens is these adult students use the additional loans to pay for expenses through a refund check. Adult students should have lower loan limits than dependent students from ages 18-24, rather than allow them to use school as a secondary source of income. It only hurts the adult student that he/she is racking up so much debt at a more advanced age.

28. The two main questions I receive from adult students are: (1) "How do I apply for loans?" and (2) "When does my refund come in?" Trust me, I believe many of these students are in school simply to take advantage of the refund check. It's possible to graduate from a four year degree program as an adult student with less than $10,000 in debt.

29. Many families have two students in college at one time. The fact that you are calling me and saying you are helping your first child who graduated from college pay back his/her loans so you want me more in aid to compensate for having to pay back these loans is annoying. Why should my school subsidize promises you have made to your children? Don't make promises you can't afford and then expect someone else to subsidize your other child's education as a result.

30. When receiving an email that says "Your password and login is incorrect, please contact the IT department," don't call me and ask who you should contact. It's right there. This goes for other departments as well. I don't hold sway over your professor and what grade he gives out nor do I know why Housing put you in a certain dorm. Universities and colleges are big places. Just like someone who services your Bank of America IRA doesn't know why you weren't approved for a loan, I don't know why other departments do what they do.

31. I like my job and I like dealing with parents/students. The 75% of students/parents who aren't a royal pain in the ass make up for the 25% that are a royal pain in the ass. And yes, I find those figures are probably accurate. 


  1. When I was in college, my biggest issue was getting scholarships. The scholarships I applied were often awarded to others "better qualified". I had great GPA (graduated magna cum laude); however, being Deaf, I thought it would be a good minority case, but sadly "Deaf" is not among the "checkboxes" in Scholarship applications (white and male--big strikes against me). There are very limited venues for Deaf to receive it. Unless you go to Gallaudet University or National Techincal Institute for the Deaf (NTID), your chances of getting a scholarship are pretty much nil.

    4. Speaking of asking for more money...sitting down with a counselor or even the Director of Financial Aid won't necessarily get you more money. It's not 1965 and a face-to-face meeting is no longer more effective than a well-written appeal or letter.

    This is the saddest thing that has happened over the last 30-40 years. When I was in college, we could no longer talk to the Director of Financial Aid in person. I never have seen this person, rather I only saw the assitants and secretaries. The Financial Aid office had a glass window that separated the line and the office itself. You did not go into the office but talk to the person behind the glass. I hated it because it was loud and bright in that room, and I could barely hear (with hearing aids) and barely read that person's lips. Never got the information I needed about scholarships or financial aid. I had to learn it all myself by searching online ('95 to 2000) which did not have nearly the amount of information today!

    Furthermore, communicating with Bursars office was just a pain in the butt for me since most of them were unwilling to write what they were saying (since there are usually long lines of students behind me). Hated dealing the business aspect of colleges.

    Financial Aid and Bursars were my two biggest pet peeves in college!

    1. Slag, oh no don't get me wrong. Financial Aid still sees a ton of students who drop by the office. It's required. A lot of it depends on where you went to school. At small private colleges you tend to talk to your counselor for as long as you want, while bigger state schools have layers of people who can answer the question before it gets to someone who actually does the packaging of Financial Aid.

      Sitting down and requesting more money just isn't as effective as writing an email and allowing time for your appeal or letter to process. It's often a group decision between several departments whether you should get more money, so it probably makes the wheels turn faster as it is and wastes less of your time.

      The way it has changed in the last couple of decades is that technology has gone to where every student expects something to happen RIGHT NOW but a lot of the government education systems aren't built to do that. It can take weeks for a student's information to be updated in certain systems and there are a bunch of other bureaucratic systems that can gum up the works.

      A lot of it depends on the school you go to. I never saw FA at either of the two schools I attended, while Financial Aid and the Bursar are expected to see students and meet with them. It's just, to get more aid that's not the best way to go. Get good grades, write a nice appeal, that's probably more effective. Except, everyone wants more money. People who make $250K per year think they need more money, so it becomes numbing after a while.

      Nobody likes Financial Aid or the Bursar. That's the way it is!

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