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Financial aid appeals: Tools for #admissions, financial aid and enrollment personnel to cope. #emchat

Enrollment professionals across the country spend much of the month of April responding to and reviewing appeals for additional financial aid. The flurry of appeals from prospective students and their parents has become part of the job. These appeals come in the form of letters, emails, phone calls and even personal visits to campus. Appeals are sent to multiple people (including presidents) and it would seem that no stone is left unturned when appealing for more financial aid.

Again, this has become the norm and a part of the process as natural as reading a viewbook or visiting for an open house.

Once upon a time I hated appeals. But, over the past 20 years, I’ve mellowed a bit. Mellowing does not mean I am any more generous in responding to an appeal and that I don’t say no! I’ve simply gained a greater appreciation for the process and the urge to appeal.

More often than not, the appeals are heartfelt and genuine. Students and families provide detailed information we can use to determine the worthiness of the appeal and it’s clear they’ve put some thought into it. It’s a pleasure to work with these families and we are frequently able to respond in a manner that addresses the appeal in an affirmative way. I really like working these families and find the conversations (and frequently the conversion to enrollment) very satisfying.

As gratifying as it is to work with the students and families who take time and care in crafting an appeal for more assistance, it’s not as much fun to work with the “let’s make a deal crowd.” Sadly, this group is growing and consuming more time; they won’t take no for and answer and sometimes are not even satisfied with a yes.  These students and families make multiple calls, send countless email messages, and leave voicemail messages at odd hours and they request a call back at an equally odd hour. These families are often well coached and know to “shop” the value of their argument for more financial assistance from stakeholder to stakeholder throughout campus.

Once upon a time managing these relationships and serving these families really got me down. I’d get frustrated and throw something; maybe even utter a swear word or two. But, over the years I’ve developed a couple of coping mechanisms to help me through.

Each of these items I keep on my desk this time of year as a reminder and to help me cope.  Here’s a picture of all of this great stuff and a description of how I use each follows.


Red Tape—I keep a roll of red tape on my desk to remind myself that I am in a service industry and I am here to serve the students with whom I work and the institution I represent. The red tape is there to remind me that I need to cut as much red tape in the process review appeals as quickly as possible. I can’t put up too many hurdles or add to the anxiety a family is already experiencing in this process. Cut the red tape, I say!

Erase A-Hole—I work with plenty of pushy and unreasonable parents in this process. Some try to apply corporate negotiating tactics and some make threats about where their kid will go if we don’t act in a manner they’d prefer. Some ask to speak to someone else because of their dissatisfaction with my answer or unwillingness to accommodate their request. Some yell and shout (occasionally swear at me). Most think they are a lot smarter than anyone who works in admissions or financial aid. For these unreasonable and difficult parents, I keep a handy-dandy roller of Erase-A-Hole on my desk. While there are plenty of applications for this product, I use it as a reminder that I need to separate the students from the parents no matter how frustrating. A glance at my roller of Erase-A-Hole allows me to move beyond a frustrating call or shout-filled listening session with a parent to focus on the student involved and try to act in the student’s best interest.  Erase-A-Hole also make me laugh.

My little blue shovel—I don’t know how many of you have a little blue shovel, but I recommend you all get one ASAP. My father, a now retired Episcopal priest, introduced me to the little blue shovel many years ago. My dad told me that he carried one in his pocket and he’d get it out and begin shoveling whenever he was listening to something that simply was not believable. I suspect it’s no a coincidence that blue shovel has the initials of b.s. (It did take me some time to figure this out, though). Let’s just say that I find the blue shovel to be an important and useful tool when trying to discern the veracity of an appeal. Here are three examples during which the little blue shovel gets a workout:

Example 1: A family appeals for more aid “because they’ve received a better offer from another college.” When we request a copy of the award from the other college and the family responds that “it would be unethical” for them to share the other award letter, you might see that little blue shovel working over time.

Example 2: When a family appeals for more aid because XXX institution has offered them more financial assistance and “is now their first choice.” When we reviewing to which colleges the family has submitted the FAFSA and discover that claimed first choice college is not among them, you will see that blue shovel working.

Example 3: When a family tells me about the student who they know “who has the exact same profile and financial circumstances who received a larger financial aid award.” When we ask for the other student’s names and are met with crickets or the response of “It just wouldn’t be right to tell you that,” the blue shovel is at it’s best.

The blue shovel is a very useful tool!

These three symbols/coping mechanisms represent important things we cannot forget when reviewing financial aid appeals in the coming weeks.

First, we serve students and should not make the appeal process any harder than it needs to be. Cut the red tape and remember you provide an important service.

Next, even when working with a pushy, overly demanding parent remember that it’s the students on whom we must keep our focus. Do your best to erase a difficult conversation to do what is in the best interest of the student. Erase the thought and keep focused on the student.

Finally, make sure you dig a little to see if it is necessary to use your little blue shovel. You owe this to your college to protect the college’s resources and not get tricked into offered aid that is unnecessary.

Do you have coping mechanism you use during this time of year?

W. Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission

My take on the #WSJ op-ed about #college #admissions? She might be one of us! #emchat

Last week a young woman got the college admissions world talking with an opinion-editorial she wrote in The Wall Street Journal. There have been countless tweets, retweets and posts about her essay, and many have chimed in with their two cents. I’ve heard praise and outrage about her essay, which you can read here (if you haven’t already).

Late last week a listserv associated with a professional organizations of which I am a member started to fill up with commentary about this young woman’s essay. While some posts were understanding (I won’t say complimentary), many more were quite critical of the author. In fact, I hope the author never sees the exchanges, because some even resorted to what amounted to name-calling and implying that the young woman as “homophobic” and “racist.”

I must admit to being uncomfortable with the exchange on this professional listserv, which is why I am using my personal blog as a forum to discuss this matter.

I know it may not endear me to some of this young woman’s critics, but I think her essay sounds familiar and represents something that permeates the “professional” discourse of college admissions more frequently than we might want to acknowledge.


As I read her essay, I read very clearly that this young woman is critical of practices viewed by others (we in admissions and college counseling) as being conducted with the best of intentions. I think it is this that has gotten under the skin of many; we don’t want our best intentions questioned.

While I don’t defend the examples she used (which some have described as racist and homophobic), she engaged in the sort of critique I see all the time as part of “professional” discourse. These critiques might be veiled, subtle or simply implied, but they are there all the same. The critiques are by those who don’t like something that they consider to be an objectionable practice—a practice that others are using with the best of intentions. I see this all the time. Some examples of topics that generate similar discourse include: the rankings, “crap application” programs, the role of international agents, financial aid gapping, the elimination of class rank, deemphasizing standardized testing, the College Scorecard, affirmative action, for profit college and universities, and many others. What each of these has in common is that someone, somewhere, at some time envisioned a practice or program with the best of intentions, but probably did not explain the intent very effectively to those who criticize a practice they don’t like or don’t understand.

Sound familiar?

In my view, it’s a mistake to be too critical of this young author without doing a little self-reflection about how we react (sometimes in a public forum, too) to practices we don’t understand (or like). We offer critiques in similar fashion (my guilt on this is my own reaction to the College Scorecard and the outrage that I expressed).

Again, this young author sounds a lot like us when we criticize a practice we don’t fully appreciate or understand.

However, what we do well in these situations is engage in a dialog to develop a better understanding. We don’t resort to name-calling or applying our personal lens of the world without giving a professional colleague the benefit of the doubt that they are doing something with the best of intentions. 

I wish we’d offer this young author the same respect even if she has offended.

A final thought on this matter is the larger point of her essay, which I don’t believe was to whine or to satirize or to be mean-spirited or to dismiss privilege or entitlement, but was to convey a perception that admission to the most selective colleges in American is no longer based exclusively on merit. We dismiss this perception at our own peril. To ignore it is dangerous. This perception is perpetuated when we focus so much time on admissions rates, and hear (and provide) quotes about how similarly credentialed all of the applicants are, which is why it is necessary to look for distinctions among them. The process has become increasingly confusing, and misinformed perceptions have become a reality.  Let’s be honest about this, these impressions of the process, which many have attributed to the author’s youth, are not limited to this particular high school student, but have been informed by adult perception of the admission process.

You get the picture, don’t you?

As professionals, we should take a moment to reflect on the big picture, rather than the small stuff around which the critiques of this young woman are centered.

This entire incident reminds of the timeless Pogo cartoon entitled “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

W. Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission