Thursday, September 16, 2010

Don't Compound the Problem

While in a private university the other day I observed a student whose financial aid did not come in at the level of money that he was “Informed she might get.”  This is going to be a situation which was repeated and will be repeated over and over again in the next few days and weeks as classes start up.

As one might guess the student was very upset. Very. She needed all the Pell she could get to be able to do silly things like afford to buy books. Oh silly student. There is never enough money to buy all the exorbitantly overpriced books that are assigned. But that is a topic for another day. He was so upset that he was as close to tears as a young man would allow himself to get in public.

But the bursar’s office person tried to help her understand the situation with information that should have been made clear when the financial aid counselor told him as the admissions counselor looked on “Looks like you could get….”

This is a bad phrase because “looks like you could get…” translates as “you’ll be getting as much as…” but the only part the student hears is you will get….X dollars. The student hears the first and last part because it is the verb and the amount that matter.  The brain acts sort of the same way it does when reading a word. It sees the first and last letters and lets the context fill in the rest.  

It was bad enough that the student was not told as she should have been told. In short clear, definitive sentences. “Okay, you are applying for financial aid. Applying is not equal to getting. According what I see here, you could qualify for a certain amount of aid. You may qualify for X dollars. That is a number that could change. Up or down. So this number of dollars is not a guarantee. It could change. Do you understand that this is an estimate not a guarantee? It could be different after it goes through the federal evaluation. Okay, you following all that? Good. So you know this is an estimate and not a guarantee? Good”

Never end the conversation with the number because all else disappears when the number is repeated. The number comes early in the conversation so it has some primacy but the rest of the details then take on recency which is also a strong learning force.

It is not that the students aren’t smart enough to follow and understand. It is just that they are human and the admissions person is pushing hard to set the number in the student’s mind so she’ll agree to come to school. And she had. This student was like everyone of us. She decided to buy the school if he could afford it. So the only question she now has is “How much?’ In this case, “how much am I getting?”

All that is prelude to the situation I observed. When the student was told how much she was actually getting she of course said “But I was told that…”

That is when the person in the bursar’s office really started to blow it. She explained the process again but in a tone that was defending it. “Well you should have heard that…”  “I am sure you were told…” NO.

Yes we all have  tendency to try to defend our colleagues but first off the bursar’s office person was not there when the student was being “helped” but the financial aid office. And even more, don’t defend what does not need defending but explaining. And empathy. Yes empathy.

“I am so sorry that this did not work out to the amount you expected. That is terrible. What happens is the forms go to the federal government and they make the final decision…”

Just blame the feds. Everyone else is now anyhow. Just blame the people who give us the money to begin with and provide benefits…I am sorry. Just getting tired of teabaggers and especially my brother who takes advantage of every government offering complaining.

Anyhow. Defending those you do not need to defend just gets the customer angrier. He already felt wronged and now she was making him the doubly-wronged by telling him what she should have done or heard or whatever. None of that matters now. That is what was. Now is what is now.

It would be fine to explain as I indicated above. Briefly explain. “We do try to get you all the money you qualify for but we cannot control the final decision. That’s the government.”

Then go to solution. “Do you know that we have a special fund for students who are having trouble paying for books? Let me get you some information.”

Or, “you may want to go to financial aid to see if there is anything they might be able to do to help you now.” But do not just send him off. That is just turfing; starting the shuffle. At least offer to call over to financial aid or whoever has control over any book funds for example, let them know briefly of the student’s situation and get an appointment for him at a time that is convenient for him.

Yes, that might slow up the line but if you talk loud enough on the phone, people in line will appreciate that you are trying to help one of them and appreciate you. Okay, some won’t but then just get in touch with me about what my old Amish grandmother would say to them. It starts with “if they can’t taketh a joke….”

By the way, I'm really not Amish.

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