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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.

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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

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Is that “your best and final offer?” Yes, it is. #admissions #emcat #highered

For the first time in my enrollment career just days ago I had a father of a prospective student ask me “is this your best and final?” He was asking about his daughter’s financial aid package of course. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard countless contortions of this question over the past 20 years, but never as straightforward and never in the same language I hear used on Bravo’s Million Dollar Listing. (Yes, I’ve watched Million Dollar Listing).

I mean really, best and final offer!!!

Most frequently this question or similar questions are not from families with demonstrated financial need, but instead are from families that view this “negotiation” as part of the process. In fact, last year I even saw eerily similar letters/emails from families requesting additional financial assistance. (The requests were so similar, in fact, I thought I might need to consult our Honors Council to determine if academic integrity had been breached and plagiarism was at hand).

While I am at it, this conversation almost always includes a reference to “we know another student at XXXX college who got a better award.” The comment is so forced it feels a little like Anthony Michael Hall’s character in The Breakfast Club describing his Canadian girlfriend. This line about knowing another student is about as believable. If you’ve never seen the clip before you can watch it here. You might picture this clip the next time you hear a similar comment from a parent.

What I’ve concluded (and should come as no surprise) is that there are consultants and services that are making a business of coaching and advising parents and students about how to go about the process of asking for more aid. (I suspect it’s all pitched at the level of “How to negotiate the best possible financial aid package”).

I understand it and have become increasingly comfortable with all of this.

But, I know it’s not good for higher education.

Over the years, I’ve responded to a number of the requests “for more aid” or for “a best and final offer.” I put a few of the responses together into one and offer it below. I’ve done everything I can to protect the innocent, but have used various “no” responses is the model below and tried to keep the tone. (My file folder on this one is titled “Mean no more money responses).

Dear XXXXX,

Your recent e-mail regarding your daughter was sent to me as a member of the scholarship committee at XXXX College. Your daughter is a very qualified candidate and we are very pleased that she is still considering XXXX College.  I am writing to address your e-mail concerning our offer of financial aid.  

First, there is nothing further that can be done in the area of merit scholarship–XXXX has earned a very fair award and in comparison to the rest of our admitted pool we cannot and will not make any further adjustment.  If my memory serves me correctly we discussed your daughter’s award previously and I explained the context for the financial assistance package that we offered. That context has not changed.

I know that this letter will come as a disappointment to you and to your daughter; however, there is nothing more that we can do unless there has been a dramatic change in your family’s financial circumstance. We do not “negotiate” a financial aid offer or package and it is my understanding that our merit scholarship offer has exceeded any demonstrated financial need.

As mentioned in your e-mail, I am aware that two of our coaches have expressed interest in your daughter, and I have no doubt that she can contribute much to our athletic program. However, her athletic ability is not factored into any equation since we abide by all guidelines governing Division III athletics. Our awards are based on need and merit and that is all.

As you and your daughter weigh final choice, I would urge you both to very carefully consider the opportunity that she has been presented with by being offered admission to XXXXXX College.  There are many things to consider when choosing a college–and cost is one. But, we sincerely hope that you will consider the qualities of and QUALITY of each of the colleges your daughter has as potential options. 

Not all colleges are equal–in cost or in quality–and it is my belief that your daughter’s financial aid offer is more than fair for the value of the educational and co-curricular options she will have if she chooses XXXXX College.  

In closing, I want to note that I don’t think the comparisons you and your daughter are making are particularly comparative when it comes down to results and outcomes, which are the aspect that are most meaningful in the end when it comes time to make a wise college choice.  Each of the colleges that your daughter has as options are very different places and offer decidedly different experiences. Please keep this in mind in the coming weeks. College is like with any other product or service; it is typical to pay more for a better product, experience or service.

If you have further questions please feel free to contact me directly. I sincerely do hope that your daughter will be a part of our student body–she has much to offer.

Yours very sincerely,

W. Kent Barnds

It’s probably not all that mean really, but I am interested in your impressions and whether or not you have or have seen similar response. I’ve become more courageous over the years in sending letters like this, but I am sure I still don’t send it enough.

What are your thoughts and experiences?

Thanks for reading.

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

New blog post: Tough questions about #tuition cuts and freezes. #highered #college #admissions

In the last few weeks there have been several reports of colleges that are cutting or freezing tuition. Here’s a pretty neat announcement from Belmont Abbey College and here and here are announcements from Wittenberg and Mount Holyoke about tuition freezes. Given the growth in tuition (and the media attention surrounding the high cost of higher education) these reports have been met with a great deal of praise (as they should be).

However, I have to admit to being very curious about what these colleges are doing (or stopping) in order to freeze or cut their tuition?

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So far, I’ve not read much “inside higher education” commentary about these practices. I think the silence is because so many higher ed. administrators are hesitant to heap on too much praise or criticism.

In this case, too much praise could elicit calls to do the same; and, too much criticism is pretty dangerous because we all may need to follow.

I am hesitant to write about it myself because my “crystal ball” is so cloudy about the vexing problem surrounding the perception of high cost in higher education.

However, I offer a couple of questions I’d like to have answers to so I can be more thoughtful in responding to those who are asking when we will follow the lead of the freezers and the cutters.

If I were a journalist covering all of this (which I am not), I’d ask the following questions?

  • Will the net-cost to attend change or remain the same for students?
  • Will you be reducing institutional financial aid? If so, by how much?
  • Do you expect to net more revenue per student (or overall)? If so, how and why?
  • Is this a short- or long-term plan?
  • Will this reduce a student’s need to borrow for college?
  • Can you project future increases?

If I were a student or parent of a student considering one of these college (which I am not), I’d ask the following questions?

  • Are you making cuts to any programs or services in order to do this? If so, which programs?
  • How will my experience be different from the experience of a student five years ago who was paying more to attend?
  • Are you cutting financial aid in order to do this?
  • What will future increases be?

As a college administrator, I want to ask.

  • Does your plan entail growing enrollment and therefore making up for lost revenue by attracting more students? (Do you have the resources and facilities to accommodate growth without adding to your expenses?)
  • How will you continue to offer financial aid to increasingly financially needy students?
  • How will you continue to offer pay raises to faculty, staff and administrators?
  • How will you meet inflationary demands on operating budgets and operating expenses—particularly benefits, health care and energy?
  • How will you maintain your physical plant without increasing revenues to address plant depreciation?

I know higher ed. is competitive, but it would serve us all to know how the cutters and freezers are doing what they are doing. They probably know something the rest of us don’t. I want in on it.

W. Kent Barnds a.k.a @bowtieadmission

A new yield strategy: An “investment prospectus” for high-achievers. Will it work? #admissions #highered #higheredmarketing

In February I attended a session at the Regional meeting College Board meeting in Chicago during which Jon McGee (St. Johns/St. Bens) and Brian Zucker (Human Capital) made a pretty compelling case that college need to do a better job of describing the bigger picture when asking a student to choose their college. Both discussed the need for colleges to think about the four-year experience as well as  results after college in painting a complete picture for prospective students, who they contend are more savvy than ever.  Both seemed to suggest that colleges need to do a more effective job of putting all of the pieces together and neatly packaging them to help guide a student’s decision-making.

I have to admit that I left the session wanting more (which doesn’t always happen when I attend sessions at conference).  I also left the session with a bunch of ideas rolling around in my head. I was asking myself,  “What we could do at Augustana College to respond?”

As I sorted through all the thoughts in my head the idea of a “prospectus” along the lines of what a start-up might put in front of an investor started to have some appeal and I started to wonder if we could put something similar together for prospective students.

When I returned to campus the first thing I did was Google “investment prospectus” and began to sort through templates and examples. I found a few that looked pretty good and then decided to pitch the idea to the admissions and communications & marketing team.

Here is the email I sent:

“I have been thinking about piloting (during yield season) and developing a prospectus on choosing Augustana. This would be aimed at some of our top students. Think prospectus like trying to convince an investor, etc.  Within this prospectus we might include information about a 4-year plan and the high-impact practices we offer, as well project what four years will cost and then connect it to outcomes. I am thinking a couple of fancy charts and some narrative. Again, this would be aimed a tip-top recruits who have not yet decided to attend.”

I asked my admission, financial assistance and communication & marketing team if they thought we could develop a customized prospectus for prospective students? I asked them if they thought we could customize academic information and combine it with personalized financial information that would paint a clearer picture for prospective students who are in the process of making their final college choice?

Because I have a very creative team, which is always ready to rise to the challenge, they responded affirmatively and we started work on developing a customized “investment prospectus” for accepted students in selected programs.

Last week we mailed a “customized prospectus” to about 100 high-achievers in select academic programs who remain in our accept pool.

Within each prospectus we have the following sections:

  1. Distinctive Augustana Academic Programs and Resources (we describe college-wide programs that we believe stand out and help our students stand-out)
  2. Four-years of Signature Experiences in (insert the major the student in interested in) (we identified aspects of each academic program that we believe define the major and offer some distinguishing experience to our students)
  3. The Qualities and Skill Employers Seek (we cite a Job Outlook survey and identify the skills employers seek in new employees and provide examples from a recent alumni survey we did to reinforce how we prepare graduates in these areas)
  4. Great Results and Earning Potential (we cite Payscale information about what our graduates earn two and fifteen years out and compare it to eight peer colleges)
  5. Conclusion (we describe retention and graduation rates for this targeted group of students and provide additional information from our recent alumni survey related to how Augustana contributed to our graduates’ success and happiness)

We also provide each student we a customized letter outlining “a balanced financial commitment.” In the letter, which I’ve copied below we describe the following:

  • Estimated total cost for four years (we estimate increases for the next three years)
  • Estimated four-year college investment in the student (
  • Estimated four-year net cost (subtracting merit and need-based assistance)
  • Estimated debt responsibility

This is a new effort and I am not sure how it will work out. I guess only time will tell if it proves to be successful.

We developed a prospectus for the following programs: Accounting, Communication Sciences and Disorders, Education Geology and History. If you would like to see an example, please feel free to email me at wkentbarnds@augustana.edu and I will gladly provide you with an example.

I am proud of the effort because I think we’ve done a better job than ever before  thinking about questions of value and what makes an experience valuable. I also believe we’ve made stronger investment arguments than past efforts because of the way we chose to organize the information. I am also very proud of the admissions, financial assistance and communication and marketing teams for their creativity in putting together attractie materials and for thinking critically about this project.

I am also cautious about this approach and am not sure how this will also work out. We will do some research on this effort after May 1.

I am interested in your thoughts and reactions to this approach. Let me know what you think.

W. Kent Barnds @bowtieadmission

New blog post: Streamlining the financial aid process: Will it work? #admissions #highered #financialaid

In recent years we’ve seen increased emphasis on transparency in and streamlining of the financial aid process. It is a complex process as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan conveyed when we declared when discussing the FAFSA, that “you basically need a Ph.D. to fill that thing out.”

I understand the sentiment expressed by Secretary Duncan and am sympathetic to families who struggle with this process each year. As an enrollment professional, I am also sympathetic to my financial aid colleagues who continue to wrestle with these changes.

I do think hope is on the way, but not without some work on everyone’s part.

The feds efforts began this simplification and transparency effort with the mandate for colleges to develop Net-Price Calculators to help families understand bottom-line cost. While the jury is still out on how well this will work, it’s inarguable that this is a symbolic step in the right direction. Another effort to help is the recently announced effort by the Consumer Protection Agency to explore standardization of a financial aid award letter; another well-intentioned idea, like the Net-Price Calculator, that may or may not work.

Perhaps the effort with the greatest potential is the IRS Data-Retrieval System, which allows a FAFSA filer to pull specific data from IRS tax returns to populate the FAFSA. This step alone should enable those of us who have not earned a Ph.D to be more adept at the process since we are already filing taxes!

Last year the IRS Data-Retrieval System was piloted and allowed FAFSA filers to securely link the FAFSA with federal tax information through the IRS. The intent is to streamline both the financial aid application and verification processes and to provide greater accuracy of data. In addition, the IRS Data Retrieval system should eliminate the need for families to submit tax returns and W-2’s, both a staple of the financial aid application and verification process.

However, this “improvement” has not received a great deal of attention; yet, its impact is significant.  Families, colleges and the federal government need to take appropriate action to make sure the enhancement actually helps families. Below are some suggestions about what colleges, the feds and families need to do to make this effort work for everyone.

Colleges and universities will need to do the following:

Resist the urge to develop a new information gathering-tool—Any time an initiative like this is introduced the first reaction on the part of colleges is to simply gather the information in an alternative manner or to turn to an alternative system. We must resist this urge and instead partner with the Department of Education to improve the effectiveness of this effort for families and for our institutions. Wouldn’t you prefer to work to improve the system then develop your own?

Quit asking for items that are no longer necessary—Colleges must also quit asking for items no longer necessary to offer a student a financial aid award. Those colleges that maintain the process of requiring tax returns, W-2’s, etc. will further confuse families and will create more aggravation in the marketplace and for themselves. If we continue to ask for stuff we don’t need while others don’t ask we will just outrage families further and this effort will backfire. Do you really need everything you think you need?

Communicate clearly what is expected of a student/family—I’ve have discovered some very good examples of colleges that have been proactive in communicating about this change and expectations for students and families; but many are late to the game, which was evident when the financial aid staff at Augustana College called regional and peer colleges to ask what they were doing about this change. I know we have a long way to go to effectively communicate with our families and I suspect others do, too. Have you clearly outlined the sequence families should follow in submitting taxes and the FAFSA? Have you described the benefits of applying early and online to families?

Become increasingly comfortable with estimated financial aid awards—Because many of us will still want most students to make their choice by May 1 and there is a high likelihood that there will be some further kinks to work out of the system, we have to become more comfortable with estimated financial aid awards. While I know many have been sending estimated awards for many years, there are still some of who like to have virtually everything verified before awarding aid. With this new system the days of verifying and the awarding are long gone and we all must become more comfortable with estimated aid packages. (If we are to be good stewards of our institution’s resources we also need to be more disciplined in our messages about estimated aid packages and how verified data may change the estimated aid package. If we don’t and we choose to honor our estimate, we run the risk over-spending financial assistance).

The federal government will need to do the following:

Ensure speedy processing (even during peak times)—Because filing taxes and the FAFSA occur during the same time frame and many students are expected to make a college choice by May 1, the federal government needs to be sensitive to the need to process tax returns and FAFSA in a timely manner without fail. Furthermore, since it’s been estimated that taxes need to be filed two weeks in advance of the FAFSA for the systems to link successfully that estimate of two weeks better really be two weeks, rather than three or four.

View colleges as partners—One cannot help but think that the “improvements” to the process were introduced, in part, to fix a problem. But, for many families the process has worked very well and it is because colleges have worked hard to develop fair, equitable and good practices for awarding aid and stewarding college resources. The only way the IRS Data Retrieval System will work is if the Department of Education listens to its partners and higher education and respond when constructive feedback is offered.

Students and parents applying for financial assistance will need to do the following:

File taxes as early as possible and file online—I don’t know how to say it any better…families must files taxes as early as possible. The longer they delay or wait the worse for everyone involved. This coordinated effort between the Department of Education and the IRS creates a new timeline that adds two weeks the process for a family. For all those fathers who want to wait to file until the last minute, don’t! File early so the coordinated system can work.

Submit the FAFSA as early as possible, but not too early—In order for this system to work most effectively, a family should submit the FAFSA approximately two weeks after filing taxes. This is new wrinkle in the process and while estimated data for the FAFSA is still possible with updates after taxes are filed, the system will work better is families file taxes, followed by the FAFSA. The accuracy of the data and the integrity of the financial aid award will be better if families follow the proper sequence.

Give the federal government and colleges the necessary time to be accurate—Families need to do their part by committing to the timely submission of information necessary to determine eligibility for financial assistance. They also need to be patient. With the introduction of a new player (The IRS) and a new timeline (two weeks), families cannot expect on-the-spot decisions from colleges. Families need to adjust their expectations and need to work within the necessary timeframe, rather than the timeline they’ve established.

One fix that is absolutely critical

I do believe this will add to transparency and will streamline a complex process, but one fix that is critically important is the potential for the IRS Data Retrieval System to over-estimate income because the taxes include taxable and non-taxable income. This must be addresses as quickly as possible or we run the risk of under-estimating eligibility for financial assistance, which will negatively impact families. If this fix is not addressed, colleges will continue to ask for unnecessary items in an effort to be fair and equitable, rather than in an effort to confuse and complicate.

Bumps, but great progress

There will no doubt be some bumps along the way, including the rumor that tax transcripts and the Data Retrieval Tool won’t be available until you satisfy your tax bill, which I investigated myself. This particular rumor led me to voluntarily call the IRS to debunk it. Twenty minutes on hold followed by a very helpful IRS representative resolved my questions.

I applaud this effort (even if I am bit suspicious about the motives) and believe the IRS Data Retrieval System will improve the financial application and verification process. But, it will only work if everyone—college, the federal government and families do their part to make it work.

W. Kent Barnds @bowtieadmission