How to Judge a College’s Financial Aid Office

by Tucker Glotzbach and Mark Salisbury

Like searching for a college, dealing with a financial aid office and working through financial aid problems takes agency and determination. Every financial aid office is different – colleges have different technology systems, different methods for dealing with students, and different people working in the office. As a result, navigating these experiences effectively becomes critical to a student’s ultimate college success. This is why, in our interviews with college students for Induck College Impressions, we ask students about their experiences working with the financial aid office. Because if we can help college-bound students and families know what to look for (or look out for) in a financial aid office, hopefully we can help minimize the number of students who end up dropping out or transferring as a result of negative experiences with financial aid.

In over 1,000 interviews so far, we have found one common theme: dealing with large sums of money is uncomfortable and stressful. Yet, financial aid offices at different institutions aren’t all the same, and the observations of the students we have interviewed suggest some useful ways to assess whether a particular institution’s financial aid office is capable of providing the support you need to navigate the financial challenges of paying for college.

A Good Financial Aid Office has Great People Skills

In almost every case, the personal interactions between students and the people in their college or university financial aid office matter immensely. When students have positive things to say about their financial aid office, they often reference the speed and clarity of those interactions. One student described his positive experience like this:

“Dealing with money and payments is always a pain, but the office is relatively easy to get through. You usually get your questions answered relatively quickly and if there’s any uncertainty you can call during business hours.”

Another student described a similar experience with the financial aid office at her college. In addition, she pointed out how her interactions didn’t just answer questions, but “dispelled fears” about what might happen as a result of more complex financial aid issues.

“I’m pretty reliant on financial aid. Generally, I found the office to be really helpful in answering questions and dispelling fears I had. If your balance isn’t paid, you can’t apply for classes or if it’s between semesters you won’t be allowed to move back in, which is a really scary situation to be in if your balance isn’t what it needs to be. I have a lot of external scholarships that I have to get signed by the school and that’s always a super easy process. A lot of the time I have a balance that isn’t paid, but there are scholarships that pay it that the school needs to sign, so I’ve been able to work through that easily here.”

Finally, other students pointed to the way that their financial aid office interactions included actions and solutions taken by that office to alleviate financial problems stemming from financial need.

“They’ve been generally pretty helpful. When I was coming into the school and told them I couldn’t make it work they helped me with an additional kind of grant aid so that I would be able to attend.”

“Yes, I do [use financial aid], and I feel that they are fairly accommodating. The cost was a big issue when coming here, so they were able to help me with tuition.”

Overall, these positive experiences with financial aid offices suggest a few ways that students and families can assess the financial aid office at a college or university. First, is the office staff friendly and welcoming? When trying to sort through a stressful financial issue, working with an office that builds trust and calms your stress matters a lot. Second, do they work with students to address potential issues before those issues arise, or is that office primarily about setting rules and applying penalties when those rules are broken? No matter how prepared a student might be, it is almost certain that some financial aid issue will catch them by surprise. A financial aid office that helps you see around the next corner can be invaluable. And third, does the financial aid office have the means to assist students financially when emergency needs arise? Higher education institutions are increasingly realizing the importance of emergency funds or other forms of supplemental assistance. Schools that have already invested in these kinds of programs make a clear statement about their priorities. Students and families can ask these questions when visiting a campus virtually or in person to find out more about the capabilities and philosophy of a particular school’s financial aid office.

Not All Financial Aid Offices are Well Designed

But not all student experiences with financial aid offices are positive – sadly, far from it. Student responses to Induck interview questions provide an important snapshot of the things a student and family should look out for when considering their college options. First, there are times during the school year when there will be inevitable swells in traffic at the financial aid office. And although this might result in longer than usual wait times, some institutions develop smart ways to adapt to minimize those delays so that when they occur, students understand that they are not the norm.

“Right now, they’re being a little slow because it’s a busy season. I’m waiting for them to get back to me and they’re taking a little longer than expected, but they’re usually pretty good.”

However, when these experiences become typical, student expectations begin to drop and their opinion of the financial aid office shifts negatively. In these instances, this student’s response cut to the chase.

“It’s not good. If you try to email them, they might respond sometimes. Most of the time you have to go there in person and try to get your situation sorted out. Most of the times when you have to sort it out it’s at the beginning of the semester and during that time the office is usually really crowded. You might have to go there multiple times to get your situation sorted out. It is one of the downsides of the school because it just takes a while to get things done.”

The inability to adapt to increased student traffic at times of the year that are entirely predictable might also suggest a deeper issue in the way that an institution’s financial aid office helps students navigate a complex and often convoluted system. Unlike the financial aid office that ensures that students know what is coming before it arrives, some financial aid offices leave it on the students to read the fine print.

“I’m on a lot of financial aid. The financial aid office is bad about telling people when deadlines are. I guess that’s on the students to figure out, but they also could give some reminders. (College) gives out really good financial aid.”

In many cases, this approach is most clearly seen in the way that a financial aid office organizes and maintains its web page. Often, these sites are little more than a parking lot for information or a list of links where key information might be located.  This “parking lot” approach presumes that students know what to do with each piece of information.  Unfortunately, that is exactly the info that students need most.

“Yes, I do use financial aid. I’ve had ups and downs with the financial aid office. When you have complicated situations, they’re really good with helping you understand your financial aid and why you got a particular scholarship. I just wish the financial aid website was better with giving information instead of having to call them.”

Unfortunately, in some instances students find going to the financial aid office to solve problems a difficult experience. The two responses below portray two situations where students have become reluctant, or worse, to go to the financial aid office – the very place where they have to go to resolve financial problems when they arise.

“Financial aid depends on which person you get. Sometimes they will be nice and respectful but if you don’t get a person like that, they will have an attitude and act like you’re doing something to them when you’re not.”

“Personally, because I’m a person of color, I don’t really like the financial aid office because they’re kind of rude. We’ve expressed this to staff and residence life because they need to be more welcoming. Because I’m a person who has a scholarship, I don’t always have to go to them, so I avoid that.”

Finally, institutional financial aid policy can actually undermine a student’s efforts to improve their financial situation and complete college with less debt. Most common is the act of “folding in” external scholarship money. Folding external scholarship money into a student’s financial aid package means that if a student wins additional scholarship money from a private source, the institution will reduce that student’s institutional financial aid by the same amount so that the student is charged the same amount as before. Institutions that engage in this practice ultimately hurt many students who are struggling financially to make college work.

“I think my biggest complaint about (my college’s) financial aid is when I got an additional scholarship my third year they reduced the amount of money they were giving me so that I was paying the same amount for the next year.”

This practice is the clearest indication that an institution’s policies are not aligned with the student’s best interest.  Unfortunately, this philosophy of financial aid packaging is common.  If you only ask one question of a college’s financial aid office during your college search, make sure you know what they do when you earn a private scholarship.

What can we conclude from this brief review of the Induck student interviews regarding financial aid offices? First, many financial aid offices are composed of hard working and wonderful staff members who put substantial effort into helping students stay enrolled and avoid financial trouble. Students and families can ask the questions outlined above to identify the financial aid offices that will be most supportive and helpful. Second, the warning signs of a financial aid office that is less supportive and helpful start with evidence of long wait times during the busiest times of the year without any clear effort to resolve this overload. The last thing a student needs is a seemingly endless waiting room experience that can cause conflict with class schedules and other important learning events. Third, this sense of disorganization might reflect a deeper philosophy that prioritizes waiting for students with problems to show up over proactively helping students prepare to navigate financial aid systems, rules, and procedures. Financial aid offices that tend to wait for students to show up are often more likely to leave students feeling disrespected and put down.
Finally, it is always helpful for students to have a plan or strategy before working with the financial aid office. This can range from just having a strategy of ways you plan to get in contact with them to understanding when the best times to go ask questions. Don’t hesitate to ask older students or other connections who have worked with financial aid offices for help and guidance. And ALWAYS save emails and other communication from the financial aid office. So many problems come up just because students don’t open their mail or email.