By Jeremy Tiers, Director of Admissions Services
We all know how important a role parents (and families) play during the entire college search process. As I explain to admissions teams during the workshops I lead, they’re either your biggest asset or your biggest obstacle.
Right now parents are attending online/virtual college events in record numbers, and more than ever your admitted students are leaning on them to help with the final decision.
Here’s what continues to concern me. Despite everything that I just mentioned, way too many college and university admission and marketing departments aren’t committing enough time to building and cultivating personal relationships with this group. I’ve had conversations with a number of schools over the past six months that have zero parent specific enrollment communications. If you’re an admissions counselor reading this and you have a large number of admitted students in your territory whose parents you haven’t communicated with in months, or in some cases ever, please make changing that a priority. It matters, now more than ever.
Today I’m going to share the top parent frustrations, and give you a handful of tips and strategies that will help you improve your communication with these influencers.
Let’s start with their biggest frustrations:
- They want to be a partner in this process from day one. Too many colleges and universities are waiting until financial aid awards go out before attempting to seriously engage with parents.
- They expect to be kept in the loop. When that doesn’t happen many start to wonder if you’re hiding something, or just how serious your school is about their son or daughter.
- They want you to explain things like test optional, scholarships, financial aid, the FAFSA, net price, and various student loan options in layman’s terms. They also don’t want to feel dumb if they have to ask you to explain one or more of those a second or even third time.
- They want you to invite them to engage with you in conversation. That happens much easier after you create some trust and rapport. Then it’s about the questions you ask and the calls to action you use in your emails, letters, and phone calls.
When it comes to improving your parent communications, strengthening those relationships, and providing value, I want you to consider one or all of the following:
- Create a specific communication stream for parents. As soon as you have their contact information, send them an intro/welcome email or letter from their families’ admissions counselor. In that message I want you to introduce the counselor, makes it clear that the counselor values their input and is their families’ go to person for everything, and let them know that moving forward you plan to communicate with them on a regular basis. Set the tone from the beginning that they’re important to you and you want this to be a partnership.
- Communicate with them in a personal way every 4-5 weeks. According to our focus group research, that’s the right spacing between contacts for them. Plus it keeps it manageable for you. Email will be the most frequent medium you use, but it’s important to sprinkle in letters and phone calls. Both of those mediums feel more personal, and you can have a more efficient conversation during a 7 to 10-minute phone call versus a long email thread. Also, don’t just “CC” them on their child’s email. That’s not sufficient. And finally, I can’t stress enough how important your consistency is, especially during a crisis like COVID-19. Over communicating right now is okay, just make sure you’re providing something of value each time and not cluttering up their Inbox.
- Focus on the same topics and selling points, with a slight twist. Recap what you’ve been sending/talking about with their son or daughter over the past few weeks, but do it in a way that would matter to the parents. As we’ve talked about many times before, personalization matters always and in all ways. As an example, if you’ve been describing campus life and your college’s atmosphere to prospective students, focus more on safety and the support systems that are in place, both of which are key selling points for parents. *Because of COVID-19, more and more parents are having behind-the-scenes conversations with their child about a college’s location and cost. If you haven’t created personalized ad hoc messages to address these two issues/concerns, you need to do so immediately.
- Be intentional with the questions you ask. It’s the same approach I’ve been encouraging you to take with prospective students. Don’t just ask parents what questions you can answer, be more intentional. Go ahead and ask them about their feelings, fears, and concerns. Here are a few questions you can use that will produce useful, useable information. In every conversation you have, you want to open the door for parents to talk about how they’re feeling about things.
- When you and your family sit down and talk about college lately, what are some of things that get discussed?
- Has this crisis changed the way you’re seeing your family pay for <Name>’s college education?
- What worries you the most about <Name> making his/her college decision?
- What’s the biggest thing you wish more colleges would talk about right now?
- What do you think the most important factor is going to be in <Name>’s college decision?
- If you could talk to some parents of our current students, what would you want to know?
- Start the cost/paying for college conversation earlier, and plan to reiterate it down the line. As we’ve talked about in previous articles many times, talking about cost as early in the process as possible is the best strategy. Parents will always have questions, and trying to cover financial aid and finances in one or two conversations often times leads to frustration and feeling overwhelmed. This should be broken out into multiple, smaller, shorter conversations over time. Plus, COVID-19 has a lot of parents and families focusing even more on the cost of college. With jobs and earnings interrupted, and with an uncertain immediate future ahead of them, justifying the expense of college (or paying more for one college) has become even more important to most of the families you’ll be talking to. That means you need to be prepared to lead a conversation about their plan to pay for college, and why it’s still worth the investment.
- Encourage them to offer feedback and clearly invite a conversation. The goal should always be to get a back and forth conversation going. Even now with your admitted students, your communication with those parents should not end with just a link to the deposit page. Invite them to engage with you about the specific topic you just discussed, and/or about how they’re feeling about specific things. As I alluded to earlier when I listed the top parent frustrations, consider using a targeted question as your call to action.
- Reassure them. As you continue to cultivate a relationship, reassure parents that this crisis will eventually pass, and their son or daughter will be able to start working towards their college degree. It’s also important to reiterate that this crisis has not changed how important they are to you. Parents and students are both nervous and unsure about what all this means for them and their college goals. It’s your job to reassure them.
One final thing – At the beginning of this article I mentioned that parents are attending online/virtual college events in record numbers right now. Attendance at one of these events is not a substitute for personal outreach. You should be doing both. And if you’re looking for a parent session idea for your online event, consider doing “Ask a current parent” where parents of admitted students are able to engage in question and answer with parents of current freshmen or sophomores.
Parents are looking to see which colleges and universities consistently respect their opinion and input, and view them as a valued partner in this process.
When you take the time to create and cultivate a relationship with the parents, you’ll significantly increase your chances of securing that student’s deposit/commitment.
If today’s article was helpful, I encourage you to forward it on to a colleague that you think might also benefit from it. And if this article was forwarded on to you and it was helpful, I’d love to have you sign up for my weekly newsletter. You can do that right here at the top of this page.
P.S. If you’re looking for ideas on gathering parent information, go ahead and send me an email because I can help.