by Jeremy Tiers, Director of Admissions Services
During a recent phone call with a good friend he mentioned that his daughter, a high school junior, was starting to receive a lot of mail from colleges and universities. What he said next is something that I’m sure many of you in admissions have heard a thousand times. “Most of the schools she likes are really expensive and I have no idea how we can afford any of them.”
Knowing that their family had visited a couple of those schools earlier this fall, I asked him if any of the college counselors had touched on financial aid before, during or after the visit. “Not one of them.” In the words of Tom Hanks’ character in Apollo 13, “Houston, we have a problem!”
More than ever before today’s prospects, and their parents, are limiting the college search to schools they believe they can afford. By doing this, many students sacrifice their best “fit” for an apparent lower cost option. Several do so without researching affordability or talking to an admissions or financial aid counselor at the better “fit” institution.
Studies have shown that when students were asked where they obtain information on financial aid, both admissions offices and admissions counselors ranked near the bottom of the list. Instead, your college’s website and the student’s high school counselor are the top sources. This is a trend that needs to change.
Discussing the issue of paying for college is a challenge. I won’t dispute that. It’s a frequent topic during my one-on-one counselor meetings when we conduct one of our On-Campus Workshops. How then do you approach your prospects correctly?
We have some strategies that we’ve seen work over the past few years, and we think you can use them to help overcome the “money” objection as you talk with this next class of recruits.
- Be prepared to start the conversation early on. The “money” objection is one of the most common negatives that many schools face. We tell clients the worst thing they can do with any objection, including this one, is avoid talking about it in the hope that it will magically disappear. It won’t. If your admissions team is not prepared to talk about money with your prospects, it’s going to be hard to secure their commitment. Being able to explain the process ahead of time will lead to a greater comfort level, and a lot less questions later on when you try to convert those admits to deposits. I would also strongly recommend you have that talk with the parents, not the parents and your prospect together. It’s a sensitive topic, and we find that your prospect’s parents will be more open with you if their son or daughter is not there.
- Ask the parents of your prospect how this crisis is effecting them. That type of question is one of the “15 Great Questions” that author, speaker and founder of Tudor Collegiate Strategies, Dan Tudor, and I, recommend to college coaches and admissions teams during our On-Campus Workshops. You need to understand how this crisis is effecting them, and what obstacles it creates when it comes to considering your school. By engaging the family in that conversation, you will help them connect the dots, which is something they value. Mom and dad will also become your allies. Considering how important their feedback is in their child’s decision, you cannot afford not to reach out to them.
- Guide them step-by-step, and always emphasize what that next step is. We’ve talked many times in previous articles about how important transparency is with this generation of recruits. The college selection process is both confusing and stressful. You and your staff need to be their guides from start to finish. Be sure and reiterate key dates and deadlines well in advance. If you want to avoid “sticker shock,” explain to them how the bottom-line total is calculated and why that’s the important number to remember. In addition to the FAFSA, be prepared to discuss each of the three main types of financial aid – loans, grants and scholarships, and programs such as work-study. As an honest guide who makes the details easy to understand, you will gain their trust.
- How you communicate the value your school offers matters. Especially in your letters and emails. If you have a family who is worried about finances, your basic recruiting letter is going to have an even harder time getting through to them and grabbing their attention. Communicating clearly, systematically and with some originality is vital. When you discuss the value or ROI that your college’s graduates have experienced, have institutional data or at worst national data at your disposal, in addition to success stories of your alumni. It’s your job to show the value of your school’s diploma, and the benefits that will come as a result of the experiences your prospect will gain during their time on your campus. When done correctly you will be able convince many of your recruits and their parents that cheaper isn’t always better.
- Collaborate with your school’s financial aid staff. The days of directing all “money” questions to your financial aid office are coming to an end. Admissions’ collaborating with financial aid is now essential. If your college hasn’t merged the two entities, then I strongly recommend you do some cross training. Understand what financial aid officers look for and how they make their decisions. Be able to navigate your school’s financial aid website, because if you can’t do so, you can guarantee your prospects won’t either. Cultivating these relationships will make a tangible difference. Remember that both offices are working towards the same goal of enrolling the “best fit” students.
- Understand that they might have the money, but aren’t sure they want to spend it on your school. When a family talks about not being able to afford your school, understand that in some cases they can afford it, they just haven’t decided that they want to. Ask yourself what would happen if a bigger brand name school with a perceived higher academic reputation entered the picture for your prospect and offered the exact same financial aid package. Chances are that family would find a way to “make it work” financially. Just remember that more often then not your prospect has the money, they just aren’t sure they want to spend it on your school. You then need to consistently and creatively find ways to get them to justify the expense and why it’s worth the investment.
At the end of the day there will be times when despite your best efforts, you won’t be able to overcome the reality that some families just cannot afford your school without taking on significant financial debt. Your goal is to present smart reasons why your school is the “right fit” for their child, and demonstrate greater value than your competition.
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