By Jeremy Tiers, Director of Admissions Services
In our ongoing survey research, the majority of students continue to list financial aid and specifically the FAFSA as the hardest and most confusing part of the college search process.
What concerns me even more is, outside of encouraging students to complete the FAFSA right now, too many schools have decided to wait until they release financial aid packages before having a serious, concrete discussion with families about cost and paying for college.
I can promise you this. The longer you or your colleagues wait to start the conversation around this topic, the harder it will be to enroll that student.
On that note, let’s dive right in and talk about some key things that you can do to help make this part of the process a little easier and less stressful for students and families:
- Start the conversation early. For most students and families it’s about figuring out what they know and don’t know, and then educating them. This is especially true for high school freshmen and sophomores. With those groups, focus on things like sticker price versus true cost, and familiarizing them with future timelines and deadlines. For juniors, also talk with them about applying for scholarships. For seniors, help them develop a checklist or calendar of key deadlines. Encourage them to visit their high school guidance office and ask about outside scholarships. And once those seniors (and juniors) show some serious interest in your school (ex. they visit campus), find a way to have a personalized conversation with that family about paying for college. More on that in just a minute. Whatever you do, don’t avoid talking about cost because you’re worried it will be uncomfortable and potentially lead to an objection. Be proactive because this will lead to a greater comfort level and a lot less questions down the road when you try to convert those admitted students.
- Your conversation should begin with the parent(s). When you’re talking about finances, it should always be a parent(s) first or parent(s) together with the student conversation…unless the parent(s) won’t be involved. That doesn’t mean you can’t touch on things like completing the FAFSA or deadlines with the student. But anything beyond that should always involve the parent(s). In most cases, the parent(s) are going to play a significant role in their child’s college decision, so go ahead and make them a valued partner from the beginning.
- This is NOT a one-time conversation. Because there are so many moving parts with financial aid, I recommend you break things into a bunch of single, easy to digest conversations throughout each student’s search. The number of these conversations will be based on a families’ knowledge and comfort levels. Do not try and cram everything into one or two big conversations. For example, completing the FAFSA should be a single conversation. So should the “4 buckets” talk.
- Lead off with the “4 buckets” talk. Every family you’ll deal with falls into one of four financial aid buckets when it comes to paying for college – The parent(s) will be paying for everything; The student will be paying for everything; The parent(s) and student will do some type of split; and finally, some version of, “Our family is so confused by all of this that we have no clue.” For your seniors right now, I want you to ask them which bucket they fall into. Meaning, regardless of which school they choose, what’s their plan to pay for college? Having that information will be helpful in allowing you to keep the process moving forward. Depending on the volume of students you work with, you could create a personalized, ad hoc email around this, or set up phone calls to discuss. When prioritizing your list, always start with students who have demonstrated the most interest.
- Help them develop a financial aid timeline/checklist. I touched on this briefly earlier. Sending or helping students and families develop a step-by-step checklist that includes key deadlines as well as any school specific deadlines will make everyone’s lives easier. And in many cases it will make this part of the process more efficient.
- Ask the parent(s) what kinds of challenges this process creates for them. This line of questioning is extremely important for the parent(s) of every family you work with. You need to ask questions that allow them to share their challenges, concerns, and fears. You also need to probe and figure out how important cost and affordability will be in their families’ decision-making process (and why). Doing these things will allow you to understand what type of family you’re dealing with. Meaning, some families have the ability to pay more and will do so if they fully understand the value that your school offers. Other students and families might want to choose your school but may not realistically be able to afford the leftover cost.
- Explain what the FAFSA is and why it’s important. There are still a large number of students and families in 2019 who either don’t know what this form really is, and/or why they should not only complete it, but complete it as early as possible after October 1. Always explain the why.
- Explain the importance of net price. The following situation still happens every single year. A student considering your school looks at your financial aid award letter and compares it to the award letter from school B that they’re also interested in. As part of your school’s award they will receive a $15,000 scholarship. As part of school B’s award they will receive a $19,000 scholarship. However, the net price to attend your school is $4,000 cheaper than school B. Instead of processing that fact, the student oftentimes focuses on just the scholarship amounts and thus views school B as the better option. This is another reason why I encourage you to educate the families that you’re working with early in the process, so when they receive their award letters they have a better sense for what the actual cost will be.
- Share relatable student stories. Show/tell the parent(s) and/or the student that they’re not alone when it comes to feeling the way they do about this part of the college search process. Share a similar situation where someone like them made the decision to move forward with your school, and why. It’s much easier when they have a current example (or two or three) of someone like them, or someone in a similar situation to theirs, who moved forward with confidence, made the investment in your school, and is happy with their decision.
- Be prepared to provide detailed student outcomes. Building off my last bullet point, you shouldn’t expect most students or families to commit to making a greater investment in your school unless you can provide detailed examples of the potential return on their investment. Detailed outcomes and alumni stories will help prove your school’s value in easy to understand dollars and sense terms.
- Continually educate yourself and your colleagues. The days of college admissions counselors directing all “money” questions to their financial aid office is quickly coming to an end. That means ongoing education and training on this topic is more important than ever. In addition to collaborating and cross-training with your school’s financial aid staff, make sure you understand how to navigate your school’s financial aid website, because if you can’t do it, I can guarantee you there will be a bunch of prospective students and families that won’t be able to either.
- Can you explain your school’s “value proposition?” This final bullet point is a question that I want you to think about. If I asked you to explain the different parts of your school’s value proposition to me today, could you? How detailed would it be? I frequently ask this question of college admissions professionals and too often the answers I receive are extremely generalized. Details and context are critical.
One final thing I want you to keep in mind. 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. Be okay with that as long as you’ve been transparent and helpful throughout.
Thank you for taking the time to read this week’s article. As always, reach out to me if you have follow-up questions.
And if you found this article helpful, please forward it on to someone else you work with who also might get value from it.