Framing Financial Aid Follow Ups: Who, What, How, When & Why

Contributor: Dr. Kyle Brantley

Date: October 1, 2021

Financial aid—and the family’s understanding of it--can make or break a student’s chances of attending your college. It’s a powerful resource that enables many students access to higher education, but it can be a very overwhelming process to navigate.

How you (and your recruitment team) frame a student’s scholarship & financial aid package is crucial. Do you know how exactly your recruitment staff is framing this discussion with prospective students? If you don’t have a handle on this as an enrollment leader, you may be losing out on students.

And if you confuse, you lose.

Do you know what happens when your award letters go out? What kinds of communications or conversations follow this oftentimes confusing financial offer? Are your recruiters thoughtfully guiding students through the process with the heart of a teacher? Are they asking the right kinds of questions to get to the bottom of uncertainties or reservations? Is the family clear on what the numbers really mean?

Hopefully, you have a dynamo team of recruiters. Likely this team contains a mix of fresh college graduates and the more veteran variety. But when it comes to money and financial planning, these kinds of conversations can be awkward and difficult for even the most seasoned of recruiters, especially if they have never personally faced a financial decision of this magnitude before. No matter where your team is in this regard, at the end of the day, I like to abide by the adage:

Trust, but verify.

Make sure you regularly vet your team for how to have this critical conversation. I offer below one way to make sure all of the boxes are checked when framing financial aid follow ups. Whether you use this to train your recruitment staff, or use it as a guide to walk through the “Who, What, How, When, and Whys” of financial aid with prospective families, the purpose of this framework is to help demystify financial aid and move students to the next step in your enrollment process.

Who

While most recruitment is geared towards the student, make sure the financial conversation is targeting parents, i.e. the one(s) most likely paying the bills. As the award letter goes out, make sure you have a trigger in place for a prompt follow up phone call. Timeliness is key. You want to give the family clarity and confidence in a path forward and you want the information to be fresh on their minds.

Questions to ask yourself and your team

  • On a scale of 1-10, how “effective” do you assess your team’s financial spiel to be?
  • Do you follow up with award letters within a few days of arrival so you can provide clarification and field questions?
  • Is the recruiter targeting the student or the parent in this conversation?

What

Make sure the family understands exactly what is being offered. Explain the difference between scholarships, grants, and loans and the conditions of each. Explain the ins and outs of loans and how either a full or partial amount can be taken out to cover the cost. What other sources of aid can be factored in (i.e. work study, student wages, outside scholarships, etc.). And, ultimately, what can the student expect to pay out of pocket each year? Factor in ancillary costs like parking, books, etc. if those aren’t included. Transparency will win you trust.

Questions to ask yourself and your team

  • Do your recruiters know the fundamentals of loans, grants, work study, etc? The more they can answer and the less apt they are to forward a phone call to another office, the more control you retain on recruitment.
  • Do your recruiters approach this conversation with the heart of a teacher, explaining how grants and loans work, etc? Do they realize that many families are unfamiliar with this process or the language used to navigate it?
  • Does your team know what other avenues of aid exist to help students pay for college, (i.e. work study, work, outside scholarships)? Do they have resources handy to share (i.e. list of links, handouts, etc.) that guide students to additional aid options?

How

Make things easy and reduce barriers by spelling out next steps. Does loan paperwork need to be completed? Do they need to apply for state grants on a government website? Do they need to deposit to secure their scholarships? Clarify their steps for them to make it as easy as possible. When something becomes unclear or difficult, we put it off which leaves room for doubt, delay, indecision, or a lack of follow through altogether. Give them one step at a time to make it easier. Check back in once they complete a step and offer more guidance and prompting as the student progresses.

Questions to ask yourself and your team

  • Do your recruiters have access to financial aid documents (i.e. loan forms) or know how to find financial aid web applications (i.e. FAFSA, state aid, etc.) so they can easily share these with the students directly?
  • Do your recruiters dump the full financial process in the families’ lap, or do they provide breadcrumbs to follow, step by step?
  • Do your recruiters have a system to follow up with students who are “stuck” on a step and who won’t take action to move to the next step?

When

Explaining the When goes hand-in-hand with the How. What is the timeline for the steps you’ve laid out? Are you creating a sense of urgency? What are the early benefits to confirming the scholarship, applying for the FAFSA, or making the deposit. Are funds first-come, first-served? Will the decision remove a burden off their shoulders, giving them a peace of mind? Will they have a better shot at residence hall and roommate options if they commit sooner rather than later? Spell out the benefits and advantages of taking action.

Questions to ask yourself and your team

  • Are your recruiters creating a sense of urgency, laying out the pros and cons of taking the next steps towards commitment?
  • Are your recruiters putting students on a timetable, asking if they can complete the next step by, say, the following week? Do they know how to keep students on the move?
  • Does your recruiter know how to tie confirmation of the aid with the next step, be it an enrollment deposit or registration?

Why

The biggest question you can help the student (and parent) answer is Why? Why make this investment in the student’s future? It’s expensive, the process is confusing, there are likely cheaper options...acknowledge these barriers if necessary. Remember, transparency wins trust. So, why is your institution worth the investment? This is where, hopefully, your recruitment team can make the compelling case of what your institution has to offer versus the competition. The benefits of a college degree, the competitive edge your program(s) will give them, the transformation that occurs in your students over their four years on our campus. Is the recruiter making the case that the student will be investing in a life-altering experience that will pay dividends the rest of their lifetime?

Questions to ask yourself and your team

  • Does your recruitment team know how to close? Do they know how to make a compelling case for why the investment in YOUR school is worth it to the student?
  • Does your recruitment team know how to make a compelling case to not just the student, but also parent(s)?
  • Are your recruiters making it a BIG DEAL once a student commits to your institution? The financial aid decision-making process is often tied to a final decision, so be sure you celebrate with and affirm for the family their decision to commit when it’s their time.

To recap

Who? Whom should you be addressing in this critical conversation?
What? What information are you presenting and what does it mean?
How and When? What are the next steps and when should they be taken?
Why? Why does this matter?

Every institution is different and may have to adapt this framework to fit their unique context. Use this as a training guide with your recruitment staff to ensure they’re covering all of the bases when it comes to the overwhelming and complicated world of how to pay for college. Approach the conversation with a teacher’s heart, demonstrate transparency, and seek to clarify and simplify every step of the process. This will build trust, pinpoint uncertainties that can be addressed directly, and lead to a stronger peace of mind when it comes to the financial portion of the college decision.