by Jeremy Tiers, Director of Admissions Services
You and I both know that talking about paying for college is a stressful and complex topic for most families.
In our focus group recruiting surveys on college campuses across the country, we ask freshmen students which of the following three things was “most stressful” for them during the college search process – Thinking/talking about paying for college, filling out applications, or waiting for decision letters/emails. The number one answer every single time (close to a 70% overall average) is thinking/talking about paying for college.
Unfortunately I continue to both read and hear a lot of stories about college and university admissions counselors waiting until their school’s financial aid packages are distributed before starting a real conversation with a family about cost…unless you count sending out reminders to fill out the FAFSA and other aid forms (which I don’t, and neither should you).
So, if you’re not sure where to begin, or you’re willing to consider a different approach, let me share with you some strategies that we’ve seen work over the past year that you should think about putting to use with families of this current recruiting class.
- Start the conversation early. Too many counselors do the exact opposite. They avoid talking about cost until a family brings it up in conversation mainly because, they tell us, they’re worried it will lead to an objection. Your ability to clearly explain the process early on will lead to a greater comfort level and a lot less questions down the road when you try to convert those admitted students. I would also recommend that initially you have separate conversations with students and parents about cost and financial aid, not the parents and your prospect together at once. It’s a sensitive topic, and we’ve found that when a school does it this way, both conversations end up being more productive.
- Ask the parents what kinds of challenges this process creates for them. That type of question is one of the effective questions that I recommend to admissions teams when I lead an on-campus training workshop. You need to understand what obstacles the subject of cost creates when it comes to considering your school. By engaging the parents in that conversation, you’ll help them connect the dots which is something they value.
- Focus on what you can offer them instead of what you can’t. Our ongoing focus group research also continues to show that more often than not, multiple other factors rank ahead of “being more affordable than other schools” in terms of their importance of influencing your prospect’s final decision. The “feel” of your campus, how your admissions staff and students treat them on their campus visit, the perception of the college as a whole, and other non-monetary factors play a huge part in the final decision. Are you directing your conversation with your prospects back to those factors?
- Be their guide and always keep them in the loop. I’ve talked numerous times in previous articles about how important transparency is with this generation of students (and parents). The college selection process is confusing and stressful. Both you and your admissions colleagues 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. Also, try and touch on how a financial aid offer might change in years two, three, and four as well as how your school can help them manage their student debt. Don’t just pass these things off to your financial aid office. I want you to strive to be an honest guide who makes the details easy to understand. If you do that, you’ll quickly gain their trust.
- Be prepared to provide detailed student outcomes. You can’t expect a family to commit to taking on any sort of debt unless you can provide a detailed outline of the potential return on their investment. For example, if the student wants to major in business, show them how many graduates have been produced by your school as well as where those recent alumni live and work and what they earn on average in the first few years after graduation. A detailed account like that will help prove your school’s value in easy to understand dollars and sense terms.
- Understand that they might have the money, but they don’t know if they want to spend it on your school. When a family talks about not being able to afford your school, remember 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, prestigious 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 than not your prospect has the money, they just aren’t sure yet if they want to spend it on your school. It’s your job to consistently and creatively find ways to get them to justify the expense and why it’s worth the investment.
- Collaborate with your school’s financial aid staff. The days of directing all “money” questions to your financial aid office are quickly coming to an end. If you haven’t already done some cross training with the folks in financial aid, now is the time. You need to 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 it, you can guarantee your prospects won’t be able to either. Cultivating these relationships will make a tangible difference. Remember that both offices are working towards the same goal of enrolling those “best fit” students.
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 what they consider significant financial debt.
I’m confident, though, if you start the conversation earlier and focus more on the value of your institution and not the dollar amount, you’ll avoid a lot of confusion and frustration by your prospects and their parents.
As always, thank you for taking the time to read this week’s article. If you’ve got a question about any aspect of student recruitment, let’s schedule a time to connect. All you have to do is email me directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org