Cost is a huge consideration for most prospective students (and their families) at all levels of higher education — undergraduate, graduate, professional, online, and continuing education. Learning too little about how to afford tuition, housing, and other expenses can push prospective students to rule out an institution which might actually be within their reach or worse, to not even consider higher ed as a real option. As with other messaging points, successful enrollment communications need to be frank about costs by showing facts, stories, and solutions that are accessible, relevant, and compelling for their specific audiences during each stage of the consideration, application, and acceptance process.
Addressing the Elephant in Enrollment Marketing
When I was working at a large media company writing proposals for our Fortune 500 advertising clients — perhaps a large auto company or global bank which might spend tens of millions of dollars in media time and space over just a few months — one rule of thumb was to list the required budget at the end. The thinking was: “They already know it’s going to be expensive, and they have money for these purposes.” And after wowing them with our stories and awards and our growing audiences, asking for millions of dollars would seem reasonable.
In contrast, except for the comparatively small handful of student prospects who aren’t worried about cost, pushing price aside in a discussion about a degree or a program likely isn’t going to benefit the institution or student, particularly when other relevant schools are being more upfront and transparent. For enrollment marketers, figuring out how and when to talk about costs is critical.
Sometimes, the discussion is easy or at least straightforward. Students in some online and graduate business programs may be eligible for partial or full reimbursement by their employers. Veterans may be eligible for specific financial support. To encourage students to consider careers in comparatively lower paying public service positions, law schools have long been offering financial aid programs rewarding that career path. More recently, to help young physicians consider the broadest range of career specialties, medical schools including NYU and Columbia have announced tuition-free M.D. programs, largely funded by significant financial gifts from alumni and other donors. At the undergraduate level, the wealthiest colleges and universities increasingly have been making students eligible for fully-covered tuition costs, loan and debt free. However, these benefits represent a small portion of the overall undergraduate and graduate student population, leaving most to still ask, “How do I pay for all of this?”
“Aid programs should be designed to encourage all qualified students — regardless of their financial circumstances — to consider applying for admission,” says a branding strategist who has advised Pace University in New York and other institutions.
Some messaging points are no-brainers, as they are required by law. Since 2008, the U.S. Department of Education has mandated that schools include a net price calculator on their websites, showing the gap between the defined costs for a year and the reduced net price which factors in estimated scholarships, grants, and loans based on what students in similar circumstances paid in the previous year. Institutions have discretion on where the calculator is located and can use the government’s template or develop their own. Aside from the calculator, institutions need to decide for themselves how and when to talk about costs and which channels to use.
Building a Solid Strategy to Communicate Cost
On the one hand, you need to communicate that a quality education, leading faculty and researchers, and a dynamic campus are expensive to maintain, and tuition revenues do not fully meet those costs. On the other, you should anticipate that students and families will have varying levels of “sticker shock,” depending upon the student’s financial circumstances and the experience the student and family have with funding higher education in the past. For example, first-generation students will likely find the experience and cost more overwhelming and complicated than those with previous experience.
“Aid programs should be designed to encourage all qualified students — regardless of their financial circumstances — to consider applying for admission,” says a branding strategist who has advised Pace University in New York and other institutions. “We accomplished that by offering a range of financing solutions and creating awareness about them throughout all of the stages when students are considering Pace and in all of the ways they connect with us, including our websites, emails, social media, print, media outreach and during events and on-campus tours.”
When the Carey Business School of Johns Hopkins University was planning a new design and structure for its website, their research and discovery process found — not surprisingly — that costs were a crucial factor for prospective students.
Often, the first goal is to help relieve students and families from the “sticker shock” they likely perceive when first seeking to understand various costs of attendance. As with any communication, the more you understand the mindset of your audiences, the more effective you will be. “We try to make the financial aid process as simple and as clear as possible for all our students. It’s especially important for the one-third of our students who are first-generation, whose families often aren’t familiar with how financial aid awarding works,” says Jeff Gant, director of undergraduate admissions at Montclair State University in New Jersey. “We automatically consider every student for any awards they’re eligible for, and we notify them at the time of admission. Our goal is to make the process transparent and student-friendly.”
When the Carey Business School of Johns Hopkins University was planning a new design and structure for its website, their research and discovery process found — not surprisingly — that costs were a crucial factor for prospective students. The structure of the new design purposely addressed that. Previously, costs and financial aid options were somewhat buried in their site. In the redesign, they made sure that information about costs and aid is always one click away from the homepage, landing pages, and any location within the site — and not just from admissions-related pages. Similarly, while virtually every institution has an “Admissions” button on its homepage navigation, Johns Hopkins edited that to read “Admission & Aid,” joining others including Amherst, Caltech, Colgate, Emory, Fordham, George Washington, Harvard, MIT, Minnesota, Pace, Penn, Pitt, Princeton, Rice, Swarthmore, Tulane, UChicago, UT Austin, and Williams. A handful, such as Penn State, even go one step further with a dedicated “Tuition & Financial Aid” or similar button directly on the home page — at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), the copy is “Paying for NOVA.” The primary message on Ohio State’s homepage is that the school “has some of ‘the most employable graduates’ in the world,” with a prominent “Paying for College” button.