by Jeremy Tiers, Director of Admissions Services
Lately I’ve heard a lot people refer to it as the “money talk.”
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; Waiting for decision letters/emails. The number one answer every single time (68% overall average) is thinking/talking about paying for college.
This past weekend while watching our local high school basketball team I got into a discussion with a friend of mine whose son is a senior. His son has narrowed it down to two schools, both of which happen to be private institutions with a COA of between $40,000-$50,000 per year.
What happened next is why I’m writing today’s article. The parent knows what I do for a living, so during the conversation he asked me when they should expect the schools to start talking about financial aid. No, that’s not a misprint. It’s the middle of January and no one from either admissions office has initiated the “money talk”…unless you count sending reminders to fill out the FAFSA and other aid forms (which I don’t). The unfortunate part is this isn’t an isolated incident.
Having a useful discussion on the subject of paying for college continues to be a challenge for many college admissions counselors. It’s one of the most frequent topics I’m asked advice about during my one-on-one counselor meetings that accompany our On-Campus training Workshops.
I want to share with you some strategies that we’ve seen work over the past few years that will lead to positive dialogue with families of this current recruiting class.
- Start the conversation early. Too many counselors do the exact opposite. Why? Most are worried about getting an objection. The worst thing you can do is hope that by avoiding any real discussion about cost or financial aid it just magically takes care of itself. Not going to happen. If your admissions team is not prepared to talk about money with your prospects, it’s going to be hard to secure their commitment. Waiting on your financial aid team to do it is a risky strategy. Instead, 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 admits. I would also strongly recommend, if at all possible, 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 involved.
- Don’t make assumptions. Many families may be reluctant to share details about their financial circumstances. Plan on having the conversation with every family and student regardless of what you “think” you know about the family.
- Ask the parents what kind of challenges this process creates for them. That type of question is one of the “15 Great Questions” that I recommend to 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. The parents can then also become your allies. Considering how important their feedback is in their child’s decision, you cannot afford not to reach out to them.
- Focus on what you can offer them instead of what you can’t. Our latest focus group research also showed 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 recruit’s final decision. The “feel” of your campus, how your admissions staff and students treated them on their campus visit, the perception of the college as a whole, and other non-monetary factors play a huge part in choosing a school. Are you directing your conversation with your recruits back to those factors?
- Frame the decision making process for your prospect. By that I mean I want you to make sure your prospect and his or her parents aren’t using money as the final determinant. I think it’s fair to ask them, for example, “Is it smart to make a decision that will effect the next 30 or 40 years of your professional life on who has the lowest price tag?” 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 they 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 necessarily better.
- Guide them step-by-step and always emphasize what’s coming next. We’ve talked numerous 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 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. As an honest guide who makes the details easy to understand, you will gain their trust.
- 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. 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 the “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.
If you start the conversation earlier and focus more on the value of your institution and not the dollar amount, watch how different your conversations are with each of your recruits and their families.
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