By Jeremy Tiers, Director of Admissions Services
In our focus group surveys throughout the year we ask what one part of the college admissions/college search process was or is the most confusing. The winner by a wide margin, every single, time continues to be financial aid or specifically the FAFSA.
What concerns me is I continue to read and hear stories about colleges and universities waiting until their school’s financial aid packages are distributed before starting a real conversation with families about cost and paying for college.
In addition, more schools are starting to have their admissions counselors be the point people for these conversations, which I believe can be extremely beneficial if done correctly. I phrase it that way because, behind closed doors and via email, some of those same counselors tell me they either don’t receive any real financial aid training, and/or there are parts of that process that they don’t fully understand. Just like financial aid shouldn’t be a one-time conversation with a prospective student/family, one training session on this topic is not nearly enough for those who are tasked to explain it.
I want to help, so today I’m going to share with you some strategies and tips for starting the cost conversation and making the overall financial aid process a little less stressful for the families you’re trying to serve. These are things that I talk about when I lead a staff training workshop and when admissions professionals reach out to me for advice/best practices.
Let me start by giving you some specific financial aid items (I call them pain points) that students have mentioned numerous times in our aforementioned surveys this summer.
- The paperwork was hard to keep up with (and not the same for every school)
- Different deadlines
- Financial aid online vs. on paper
- FAFSA – My parents are divorced and have split custody. What do we do?
- Trying to figure out outside scholarships
- FAFSA verification
- Different loan options and applying for them
- How much the actual price of a school really is
All of these things, and more, lead to frustration. And frustration can unfortunately lead students and families to do nothing. As one student said in a survey last month, “FAFSA was too hard so I didn’t fill it out and submit it.”
On to the strategies and tips:
- Start the conversation early. Let me define what I mean when I say early. For high school freshmen and sophomores, it’s helpful to educate both them and their parents about financial aid processes and terms. Be mindful though that they’re at a different spot in their college search than juniors and seniors are, so don’t overload them with too much information. Instead, focus on things like sticker price versus actual price, especially if you work for a private college and don’t want them to potentially rule you out because of sticker shock. For juniors and seniors the process is becoming more real, but again be mindful of where they’re at in the overall process. Once they’ve shown “demonstrated interest” in your school (ex. they visit campus) I would encourage you to begin the conversation about paying for college. I’ll talk more about how to do that below. For seniors specifically, if you haven’t already brought it up, this needs to happen as soon as possible. Start with the students who rank high on your list or again have shown demonstrated interest in your school. I cannot stress enough how much harder you’ll be making things for yourself if you wait until after your school has sent out financial aid awards to start a real conversation, or you assume that your school’s financial aid staff will handle this for you. Don’t avoid talking about cost because you’re worried it will be uncomfortable and/or 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.
- Start it with the parents. This should always be a parent first or parents together with the student first conversation…not a student first one. That doesn’t mean you can’t touch on things like completing the FAFSA or deadlines with the student. But anything much beyond that should always involve their parents. In most cases, the parents 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. And because this is the biggest financial decision that just about every student has had to make to this point in their young life, most believe this is (and want it to be) a mom and dad conversation anyways.
- This is NOT a one-time conversation. I would argue it’s not even a two or three times 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. It’s about educating each family on processes, timelines, and terminology, while also being mindful that some families won’t need as much education. For example, the FAFSA should be a single conversation. So should the “4 buckets” talk.
- Begin by having 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 – Parents will be paying for everything; Student will be paying for everything; Parents and student will do some type of split; and some version of, “Our family is so confused by all of this that we have no clue.” As your icebreaker, I want you to ask the parents which bucket sounds most like their family right now. Having that information will be super helpful in allowing you to keep the processing moving forward.
- Ask the parents what kinds of challenges this process creates for them. That line of questioning is extremely important for the parents of every family you work with. You need to ask questions that allow parents to ask questions and share their challenges, concerns, and fears. You also need to probe and figure out how important a factor cost 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, and will pay more if, they fully understand the value that your school offers. Other families would love to choose your school but may not realistically be able to afford the leftover cost.
- Help them develop a financial aid timeline. I talk a lot in this newsletter about developing timelines. So many students in our surveys tell us they wish they had a list of next steps specific to financial aid. Sending them a step-by-step checklist that includes key deadlines will make everyone’s lives easier and in many cases make this process more efficient.
- Explain what the FAFSA is and why it’s important. We both get it, but you might be surprised to learn that in 2018 there are still a large number of students and families 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. I encourage you to figure out what they know/don’t know about the FAFSA, and then educate them as much as needed.
- Explain the difference between scholarship and net price. If I had a dollar for every time I heard about the following situation occurring, I’d be a very wealthy person. 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 (and in some cases their parents) focus on just the scholarship amounts and view school B as the better option and the college that wants them more. This again is where 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 examples they can relate to (aka: storytelling). Show/tell the parents 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. Tell them about a similar situation with a family where someone like them succeeded…and how you helped. 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 and made the investment in your school…and is loving their decision.
- Be prepared to provide detailed student outcomes. Building off my last bullet point, you can’t and shouldn’t expect a family to commit to making a greater investment or taking on additional debt 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. Just like prior-prior, changes will continue to happen. As I mentioned earlier in this article, the days of college admissions counselors directing all “money” questions to their financial aid office are quickly coming to an end. That means ongoing education on this topic is more important than ever before. 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 that won’t be able to either.
- What is 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 your value prop to me today, could you? How well would you do? I frequently ask this question of college admissions professionals, and too often it’s radio silence. If you want families to make the investment in your school, you need to have a firm grasp of your value prop, part of which is what makes you different from your direct competitors and other schools with a similar profile. I would also tell you that the customer service piece is another part to consider.
Here’s something else 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.
As always, thank you for taking the time to read this week’s article. If you’ve got a question about it or any other aspect of student recruitment or leadership, I want you to reach out and connect with me.
See you back here next Tuesday!