9 Tips for Handling Parent and Student Complaints

One of the most challenging parts of a college financial aid adviser’s job is being on the receiving end of fallout from parents and their college-bound offspring.

Sometimes it’s justified, more often it’s not, but life isn’t always fair. Explaining that fact to parents who are upset because the financial aid package wasn’t what they’d expected can take all the patience, tact and diplomacy you can summon.

Then there’s the student who may be upset over the way his/her aid meeting went and wants to get back by posting snarky comments about your university’s financial aid office on social media, writing a letter to the head of the department or loudly complaining while in the office.

How should you respond?

1. Listen. First, listen to what the complainers have to say – acknowledge the perceived problem, whether factual or not.

2. Respond. Respond by returning calls, letters or emails quickly. If the complaint was a letter and not a phone call, for example, good etiquette dictates that you send a written response back.

3. Stay calm. Be courteous and calm in your response – always be professional. Being denied aid is difficult to accept and they may lash out in anger and helplessness.

4. Consider. Is the complaint justified? Did you, or another staffer, say or do anything, however unintentionally, to offend or give the indication that you didn’t care? Was the student or family simply caught up in the annoying bureaucracy of the application process?  If so, be quick to acknowledge and apologize, as well as make it clear that you and your staff will do everything you can to help.

5. Be firm. If not justified (and most complaints probably won’t be) and they’re overreacting or venting frustration about federal aid regulations or other matters out of your control, then politely but firmly let them know that while you sympathize, you have to follow government guidelines.

6. Educate. Perhaps the parents aren’t really familiar with the application process itself or the type of aid available. They may have made mistakes in the application, resulting in reduced or denied aid. If so, this is the time to educate them about what to expect and why they are (or are not) receiving aid or other assistance.

7. Document. Whatever the cause and the outcome, make a file documenting everything including circumstances and forward copies of correspondence and other materials to your supervisor or department head.  It would also be a good idea to keep a file of positive letters and email copies showing how your successes outnumber the complaints.

8. Discuss privately. If your name and reputation are coming under public attack from a student or parents, you need to respond immediately and firmly. Explain in your response that while you’re not at liberty to discuss the details of the matter in any public forum, you would like to meet privately with them to clear up the issues at hand. It would be a good idea to have a colleague or the Director of Financial Aid on-hand as a witness.

9. Prevent. Reduce the incidence of complaints by sending out financial aid award letters that are easy to understand, timely and thoroughly explained. This will reduce mistakes, omissions and misunderstandings concerning the acceptance and aid procedures.

Acknowledging complaints, educating parents and students about the aid process, correcting legitimate problems and documenting everything concerning the complaint are your best defenses toward reaching a positive outcome for all concerned.