The Power of Asking

It’s a classic kind of head-scratcher for financial aid professionals: How can a family have negative income for three years in a row, showing a loss for their total income but live in a million-dollar home with two brand new cars while claiming they can’t pay anything for tuition?  Even after reviewing the tax forms, allowing for depreciation and other write-offs, the numbers just don’t pass the smell test. You did all you can to make the numbers add up, but they just don’t make sense. You’ve read their explanations in the notes but lots of questions flow through your head about how this family’s situation really works. After accounting for everything you can, the EFC is still negative but you know there’s money here but, on paper, you just can’t see it (not to mention prove it).

You’ve even posted a message on online discussion groups to see how others review situations like this and get one or two replies of the “I’d like to know how people deal with this too” variety. After all these efforts, nothing quite does the job. Lifestyle and resource mismatches can only be explained to a limited degree in your review of the numbers themselves. Now what?

Embrace the power of asking!

As American novelist Thomas Berger once said, “The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge.” To know what you need to know, you need to ask the right questions.

Seems simple but confronting parents about their family financial matters more than they’ve already divulged in their application can often be among the most dreaded aspects of financial aid work. But very often, a simple phone conversation, a short meeting, or an email exchange with the family will get you the explanation that you need to go forward without angst, worry, or wonder.

Just ask for it.

If things don’t make sense on paper, just ask the family to help you understand it. Since you shouldn’t make assumptions about any possible explanation, just ask them ask to give it. If there’s incoherence between the lifestyle they appear to lead and the resources they appear to have, just ask them to clarify the disconnect.

Some wonder “Am I allowed to ask them for that?” when it comes to seeking more information, whether it’s monthly budget statements, legal documents, or third-party corroborations of a story. I tend to lean on the “more is better than less” approach when it comes information on hand for aid review. While that might feel to some like more work (i.e., for the family to provide more information and for the school to have to review or make sense of it), when faced with cases that just don’t add up, it’s the ask for deeper clarity that will almost always make the difference. So, yes, you are allowed (at least) and expected (at most) to ask for whatever you need to make the best decision you can.

Here are a few ways to open the line of questions you want to pose:

  • “Help us understand something about your application that’s a little unclear.”
  • “We need more insight into your situation before we can make a decision.”
  • “There a few things we need to clarify in order to finalize your award decision."

Keep your request about “we” and “us” as a representative of the financial aid committee or the school administration. Refrain from making it about what you need and keep focus on what the school needs to know.

Make the request about the family’s goal to complete the process. It may be motivating for the family to know that they are just one explanation away from getting the award they’re seeking and that you’re not just putting them through the wringer. Refer to specific details that have you stumped so that you get direct answers. If you ask a vague or general question, you’ll get a less helpful answer.

Describe the consequences of no response. Let them know what will happen if you don’t hear from them by a certain date to spur action on their behalf.

When there's no clear answer to a confusing situation before you, you owe it to the integrity of your process to ask the family for clarity, before making an award decision. A skillful trait of strong financial aid professionals is responsibly exercising the power of asking.
In short, families aren’t the only ones who can make an appeal for another review. You can too. If the application you have doesn’t work for you, ask for more: more information, more explanation, more clarity. Don’t rush to an award without having everything you need to feel as confident as possible about your decision. Once the question is out there, you can do as my grandpa James used to say to us all the time: “Just sit back and listen” until you hear what you need to know.