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By: Robert Mattaliano

“How Do I Pay for This?” Moving Prospects from Sticker Shock to Enrollment

For enrollment marketers, figuring out how and when to talk about costs is critical. By being transparent, communications offices can make the case to prospective students and families that their institution is within reach and a worthwhile investment.

Admissions /
By: Robert Mattaliano

9 minutes

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.

Demonstrating the Value of Higher Education

In addition to discussing the actual price tag — gross and net — another important tactic is demonstrating the potential return on investment of a degree or program, most commonly through stories and statistics about alumni outcomes and success centered around graduate school attendance, employment, and income.

Remember the value and ROI proposition when planning your SEO strategy, and consider keywords including “value,” “affordable,” “lower cost,” and related phrases.

A number of media and third-party rankings have emerged to measure the value of higher education, including Money Magazine’s ranking which considers quality, affordability, and outcomes.  This gives institutions with favorable rankings another message point at their disposal. In the Money rankings, The College of New Jersey is among the “best public colleges for your money” and #1 in New Jersey. That’s an obvious reference for the college to make in almost all of its communications and it supports their positioning as “one of America’s best return-on-investment colleges.” Other rankings which attempt to measure value and return-on-investment include U.S. News, Forbes, The Economist, and Princeton Review as well as sites including Best Colleges, PayScale, and Niche.

Economic mobility — comparing recent graduates’ earnings to their family’s median household income — is measured in a “mobility report card” compiled by the Equality of Opportunity Project and published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Pace University, with campuses in New York City and Westchester County, NY, has been ranked number one in this regard among private four-year institutions. “This list reaffirms Pace’s commitment to successful outcomes for our students and that education is the path forward,” says Pace University President Marvin Krislov.

Remember the value and ROI proposition when planning your SEO strategy, and consider keywords including “value,” “affordable,” “lower cost,” and related phrases.

The Power of Storytelling

Stories and photography resonate with people, so many institutions highlight student internships and alumni in successful careers as examples of how their degree programs deliver value and a return-on-investment. Some tactics to consider:

  • Include internships and work-study participants during their student years as well as once they become alumni
  • Go beyond boldface-name alumni or recent graduates. In lists and photographs, show a diverse range of alumni at different career stages in a breadth of fields and geographic locations
  • Let pictures do the work: a photograph of the student intern or alum in front of the White House or working in an identifiable newsroom, business space, trading desk, or a compelling natural space can tell most, if not all, of the story

Value can even be central in short-form communications which are primarily visual, such as outdoor and transit advertising. “Proven” is a primary messaging keyword in the enrollment marketing of USciences, the Philadelphia-based institution focusing on healthcare and the sciences, resulting in campaigns which proclaim “Proven Everywhere,” “Proven Results,” and “Proven Careers.” On highways, boards stating “Proven Value. Lower Tuition. Top 10 in Earnings.” clearly communicate the value proposition in a few seconds. In a media release announcing the campaign, Michael Schwartzman, then executive director of marketing and communication at USciences, stated, “Prospective students and their families are learning that the rigorous education, quality training, and hands-on learning that USciences students receive translate to successful careers and top salaries.”

Some institutions concede that information, rankings, and stories alone cannot guarantee that they will recruit their desired pool of applicants, so they address rising tuition costs by freezing or cutting them. Of course, targeted media relations and other communications need to promote that. Last month, the University of California system announced that undergraduate tuition for state residents for next year will hold steady at the current level, marking the seventh time in eight years that the university has kept tuition flat for a large body of students, despite rising costs and growing enrollment. Among others, the University of Maine has been offering students from surrounding states the opportunity to enroll at the price they would have paid at their in-state equivalent. According to Forbes, at least 39 colleges have announced significant price reductions over the last 20 years, including at Drew University, Mills College, La Salle University, Sweet Briar College, and St. John’s College, the “great books” school. To highlight Drew’s approach, a headline on the homepage of its website boldly states, “Let’s be clear – college tuition is too high.”

You’re In! Now, What?

Once the cost story is told — what the expenses are, what aid options exist, and how students might measure value and return-on-investment — and an application is submitted, you’ll need to provide accepted and enrolled students clear information on next steps. At a minimum, these include:

  • Calendar of due dates for all forms and information that students are required to submit, clearly labeled for each type of applicant (early action, regular decision, transfer, and international students)
  • Answers to anticipated FAQs (again, consult with admissions and financial aid office colleagues to determine these)
  • Information on how and when admitted students will receive an official financial aid award offer

In addition to print and digital communications, institution-specific apps are an effective way for students to view a checklist of required financial aid documents, including a to-do list and status updates on what has been submitted and what is due.

Of course, not every institution can position itself as a low-cost option, meet every need, or hold tuition through freezes or cuts. Sticker shock among students and families will vary. By being transparent about costs, revealing the gap between sticker and net, offering clear and informative descriptions of aid options, and sharing persuasive stories on how students pay for their education and thrive afterward, communications offices can make the case to prospective students and families that their institution is within reach and a worthwhile investment.

Robert Mattaliano

Robert Mattaliano

Freelance Development Writer

Robert Mattaliano is a freelance writer and project manager who has produced development and enrollment marketing communications for Columbia, Pace, Syracuse and other universities and colleges. After graduating from the University of Chicago, he produced content and messaging at agencies and consumer media companies including Time Warner, where he was part of a team which produced magazines for companies including Fidelity Investments, GlaxoSmithKline and Starbucks.

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