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Guide to Dealing with Unhappy Students and Upset Parents

Every school financial aid office receives letters and telephone calls from irate and unhappy students and parents. Usually the student or parent complains about the "rude and unprofessional demeanor" of the financial aid staff, when they are really objecting to your unwillingness or inability to increase their aid package or make a special exception for them. Sometimes they make the complaint in an attempt to negotiate a better financial aid package (i.e., they hope to intimidate or pressure you into changing your mind). Demanding that you be fired and emphasizing how rude you were seems to be a very popular tactic. Often these letters are sent or copied to the school's President, the Provost, the Dean, Board of Directors, the student newspaper or some other authority figures.

When this happens to you (and it will because even the best financial aid administrator isn't immune), remember that you're the closest target for the family's anger, so don't take it personally. They feel frustrated because they expect a free ride and you aren't giving it to them. Or if they made a mistake or didn't read the instructions, it is far easier for them to blame you for their problems. Sometimes you'll receive a complaint about something completely unrelated to financial aid. When you deal with money and federal regulations, not everybody is going to be pleased with you every day. Just grin and bear it.

Of course, when you receive such a letter, take steps to make sure it doesn't harm you professionally. Treat every complaint as genuine and investigate the circumstances. Document the circumstances surrounding the complaint and prepare a summary of the student's file or the situation that resulted in the complaint. It is usually very easy to demonstrate that such complaints are unfounded, since most students with legitimate complaints have their problems resolved by interacting with your office. Provide a copy of this documentation to the higher administration.

It is also helpful to maintain a file of all the thank you letters you receive, and let the higher-ups know about the ratio of good to bad letters. Also point out that the number of complaints is very small compared with the number of students you serve.

If the complaint is justified, correct it, institute procedures to prevent it from recurring and write a thank you letter to the student or parent. A carefully written letter that addresses their concerns and thanks them for bringing the problem to your attention will make them very happy. Often such complainers will then become your biggest supporters, because you took the time to show that you listened to them.

Don't assume that just because most complaints directed at you are unfounded, that every complaint should be ignored. When a student is a victim of the bureaucracy, they will be justifiably upset, and it may be difficult to distinguish them from the ones who are merely trying to leverage more money. In any event, the techniques for dealing will all complaints, good and bad, are the same: listen to the complaint politely and calmly, and address the cause of the complaint, if at all possible.

If the student wrote a letter to the campus newspaper, you are in a catch-22 situation. You probably should write a response for publication in the newspaper, to correct the record. Yet you cannot cite any facts about the student's complaint to protect the student's privacy. The best approach to writing a reply is to state that you cannot answer the specifics of the student's complaint because of privacy restrictions and that you invite the student to visit your office to discuss his or her complaint. You should also describe your standard procedures for resolving complaints and any other procedures that are relevant to the complaint published by the newspaper.

Another occasional circumstance is when a student complains on behalf of a fellow student. Usually the complainer does not have all the information. If so, explain to the complainer that they do not have all the details, that you cannot reveal them to him or her because of privacy restrictions, but that you would be happy to talk with the affected student directly.

Incidentally, most of your complaints will arrive by telephone, since it is much easier to pick up the phone and vent than to write a letter. Complaints sent by mail indicate a greater degree of effort by the complainer, and deserve an equal amount of effort on your part. If you respond to a written complaint by telephone, also send a written response by mail. In fact, it is a good idea to respond to all complaints in writing, since this establishes a paper trail.

If you have an encounter with a student or parent that you feel might escalate into a complaint, take proactive steps to prevent it from harming you. Write a summary of the encounter and relevant details from the student's file, and provide it to your higher administration. When the student or parent complains to them, they'll be able to ask pointed questions about the incident.

When meeting with a student or parent, here are some tips:

  • If you have a personality conflict with the parent or student, just bite your tongue. Your job is to serve them, even when they are in the wrong, so always act in a cool professional manner. Reacting emotionally doesn't help anybody.

  • If the student or parent makes outrageous claims, ask for documentation.

  • Remind the student and parent that the federal government and the school expect the student and their family to have primary responsibility for paying for the student's education. The role of the school and the government is to bring school within reach, not to provide a free ride. Paying for school will entail some sacrifice on the part of the student and their family.

  • When your responses are limited by federal regulations or university policy, tell this to the student and their family. This shifts the blame from you to the federal government, which everybody loves to hate. For example, a financial aid administrator should point to the federal regulations governing over-award situations as an explanation for the school's outside scholarship policy.

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