Experts Share How to Tackle Tough Conversations Around Financial Aid

By Maria Carrasco, NASFAA Staff Reporter

As institutions begin their fall semester, some financial aid administrators across the country might have received phone calls and messages from students and families saying they can’t afford to attend their institution anymore after getting their bill for the upcoming semester. 

While these conversations are never easy, two experts shared with NASFAA on how financial aid administrators can work through those difficult conversations about billing with students and families using their counseling skills and other resources. 

Dana Kelly, NASFAA vice president of professional development and institutional compliance, said conversations with students and families about affording school can be daunting to newer financial aid administrators. However, seasoned financial aid administrators are well versed in the art of saying no, she said. 

Kelly added that conversations around billing between administrators and students could lead to professional judgment decisions, which is sometimes viewed as one of the more challenging aspects of Title IV program administration. 

“It is important that the student and family feel heard and that they have all the relevant information for their circumstance,” Kelly said. “If you can go into these conversations with that goal, the conversation becomes less difficult and more an opportunity to educate and possibly resolve undisclosed issues.”

Karyn Wright-Moore, vice president of compliance and quality assurance at the Higher Education Assistance Group, added that this season is the busiest time for financial aid administrators, and many could struggle with the added influx of students and families calling with inquiries on how to afford college at a time when resources in aid offices are already spread thin. 

“A challenge is fielding those calls,” Wright-Moore said. “You want to make sure that even if you don't have the time, that you schedule time. If you have the time to take that call, and to listen attentively and to develop a solution with the student, take the time. But if you don't have the time, demonstrate empathy and schedule time.”

The Higher Education Assistance Group wrote a blog post about this issue, and laid out some questions and responses administrators could use during a billing conversation with a student or family. First, administrators should recognize that just because the family doesn’t have enough saved to pay the whole bill, they may still have something saved, so it’s important administrators identify that first, the blog post states.

Administrators also need to ask whether the situation is permanent or temporary. If it’s permanent, administrators could break the billing down into smaller monthly payments if their institution allows it. If it’s temporary, the administrator could defer the remaining payment if the balance can be paid before the end of the term or the end of the academic year. 

Wright-Moore said it’s important that administrators engage with academic staff, dean’s faculty, and the institution's finance team since they might have internal practices in their units that can help a student defer payments with zero interest. 

“The general theme is to really try to dig deep, and identify what the problem is and what the potential solutions are because, ultimately, the institution values retention and they want to keep a student,” Wright-Moore said. “It's really about understanding a problem. And then leveraging your institutional knowledge and other resources, even outside of financial aid, and ultimately pulling on your skill set.”

Kelly added that listening to students and families is vital. She noted that offering students and families a constructive option, such as giving them information about private lending, is helpful – even if it may not be what they want to hear. 

“Hear them out and ask questions to ensure the information on FAFSA reflects their current situation,” Kelly said. “If it doesn’t, let them know the process around your professional judgment policies. Putting a task back to them gives them a way forward. If that isn’t an option, offer explanation where you can and empathy if there is no additional recourse.”

And since the pandemic started, both Kelly and Wright-Moore said conversations with students and families about billing have been more prevalent. 

“There are so many impacted individuals that many students and their families are facing financial strain,” Kelly said. “The good news is that hardship specific to the pandemic may often result in the potential for professional judgment.”

“Pre-pandemic, there were still students and families struggling to make the dream happen,” Wright-Moore said. “So I don't necessarily believe that they've become more difficult. I believe that clearly the volume has increased, because there are certainly families that were able to stretch and [afford college] without having to make that phone call. As a result of the pandemic, now some of those families are making those phone calls as well.”

Kelly recommends NASFAA members get comfortable with professional judgment as a beginning step to tackling difficult financial aid conversations. NASFAA members can easily access the monograph titled “Professional Judgment in Eligibility Determination and Need Analysis” and tune in to a webinar on professional judgment best practices on September 28. 

Kelly added that NASFAA’s “You’re the Director” book offers insights into many of the people skills needed not only for someone in a director position, but any who work in the financial aid field. Lastly, Kelly said NASFAA colleagues are a valuable source of wisdom and practical experience and recommended using the membership directory to find other administrators in similar institutions for collaboration.


Publication Date: 9/2/2022

James T | 9/2/2022 9:0:37 AM

The suggestion about breaking the bill down to smaller payments, would require school policy changes. Most FA offices would agree with this, but the business office and/or student accounts office would be the ones to talk to students,etc. For schools who do not have a one stop shop atmosphere, this means hallway run arounds and eventuall a student will just withdraw rather then face all the administrative bs.

Stuart S | 9/2/2022 8:37:20 AM

So what you are saying is that limited fin aid staff must also be psychologists and make time where there is little of it to help families borrow money.

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