Parents a Necessary Factor During Recruitment

As students increasingly value parental input during their college selection process, recruiters and marketers are widening their scope to engage parents.

By: Aila Boyd
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Higher education enrollment leaders are rethinking the way they communicate with parents given the current influence these parents hold over their children’s college searches and decisions. 

Aaron Basko is the associate vice president for enrollment management at the University of Lynchburg, a private school of approximately 2,500 students in Virginia. He has observed the trend of growing parental involvement throughout almost every step of the admissions process. 

“Parents have definitely become the number one influence that students look to. They’re much more of a part of the decision-making process. It’s a combination of them being both parent and friend at the same time,” Basko said. 

Generation X parents, those born in the 1960s and 70s, are more transactional in mindset, more anxious and less trusting, according to a recent white paper from education firm EAB. An increase in what the paper calls “intensive parenting” has led to parents of high schoolers wanting to be more involved in the college selection process. According to the data, “Students are more likely to rank parents as a top source in their college search and decision, and parents increasingly seek direct communication from colleges.” 

Vice provost of enrollment management at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Jon Boeckenstedt, agreed, “I think it’s safe to say parents are more involved in everything these days, so it’s natural to extend that to college selection.” 

The paper provided five takeaways, including parents’ desire for direct communication from colleges, their concern about the cost and value of college, the shift in parental interest during the recruitment process, the convergence of parents’ and students’ concerns over costs later in the student journey and parents’ active participation across numerous communication channels. 

Desire for Direct Communication

Parents’ desire for greater communication has led colleges to question when they should start reaching out to parents. Institutions are beefing up their communication strategies and gearing these toward parents. 

Boeckenstedt attributed the desire for more direct communication to the increased number of college-educated parents, as well as the rising cost of college and questions about return on investment. 

However, many parents, the paper noted, appreciate communication early in the college search because it “can help inform, reassure and build affinity with families who are less knowledgeable about or experienced with the college process.”

Basko’s team tries to build trust with parents early by limiting their initial outreach to informational purposes, such as suggestions for saving for college, how to select courses and career directions. “Doing that makes it easier for them to relate to you and to trust you,” said Basko. “If they feel you are a good source of information generally, then they’re more likely to give you a hearing and to come spend time with you.” 

Davidson College, a private school of approximately 1,900 students in North Carolina, also takes parental engagement seriously. “We automatically engage families as soon as a student makes an inquiry. That means that families receive information from Davidson as soon as they initiate contact,” said Christopher Gruber, vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid.

One of the stumbling blocks Basko’s team runs into when attempting to engage parents early on is that the team might not have their contact information. Likewise, Boeckenstedt said his office wishes to increase parental engagement in underserved populations, “We’d like very much to be able to have more direct communication in other languages with parents who are not native speakers of English.” 

Concern over Cost, Value

According to EAB’s data, Generation X has 74% less wealth and six times more debt than their parents did. With substantially fewer resources, today’s parents consider the cost of attendance first when evaluating colleges. 

Basko said he understands the financial skepticism on the part of Generation X parents, “A lot of these parents struggled for a long time with student loans or loan debt, and they don’t want their students to have that same kind of struggle.”

Tips for keeping costs down seem to be well-received by parents. One of the suggestions Basko’s team offers is to minimize the amount of time it takes to obtain a degree by always taking a full course load. Regular communication with academic advisors is important, too. “There is some marketing, but there’s also a lot of education,” he said of how his team alleviates cost concerns. 

As the paper advised, Gruber’s staff talk about finances early in the process, which can help support application and enrollment decisions, as well as retention issues, due to finances. “Early education is crucial. We want families to understand how college finances work as soon as possible,” he said. 

Generation X parents struggled for a long time with student loans or loan debt, and they don’t want their students to have that same kind of struggle.

As a public university, Oregon State University in Corvallis, a school of approximately 35,000 students, approaches cost concerns differently. “We’re still viewed as a very high quality/low-cost option for many, and that’s very different than it might be at a private college,” Boeckenstedt explained. 

Even though Oregon State University is viewed as being more affordable, Boeckenstedt said most questions directed at his office are related to costs. To help parents, as well as students, understand the value of the education they are offering, the university is adding more career planning content to its general information sessions. “Career planning staff are genuinely happy to engage students early in the process, as it makes it much easier later in their careers,” he said. 

Parents are also questioning the long-term value of a college education.The paper advised enrollment leaders to help justify the cost through value messaging, which can help families understand the benefit of attending the college in question. 

“When we present to families, we talk about why education really is a good investment and why it is still the best way to give your child the most options possible,” said Basko. 

Most parents of prospective Hollins University students understand the value of a college education, said Ashley Browning, the vice president for enrollment management. “While there is appreciation for the value of higher education, there are also very real financial limitations for many families that can make the college search and selection process very complex,” she added. “One central way we work to alleviate parental fears is to provide individualized information about their student’s cost to attend Hollins and to offer detailed information about the relevant repayment options.” 

Shift in Parental Interest

Over the course of the college selection process, parents go from wanting basic facts about the school, financial resources and information about academics to preferring resources about student life, the application process and campus visits. 

“I think their needs and interests change over time,” said Basko. 

Early on parents tend to take a bigger picture view of the college experience. One of the common refrains Basko hears is that parents just want their children to be happy and do what they want. 

“The closer they get to the actual decision, the more real it becomes,” he said. Later on, he added, parents are more motivated by anxiety and start looking into the specific details of each college. 

The admissions team at Hollins University, a women’s college of 800 students in Virginia, also tailors their messaging to parents depending on how far along their child is in the process. “For parents of younger students, our messaging focuses on building foundational and accurate knowledge about the college search and selection process,” Browning explained. 

This ties in with what the paper suggested: “Ensure that information about majors and minors is easy to find on your website and continues to play a prominent role across communication streams.” 

Gruber said his college does just that. “Information about majors, minors and courses of study is readily available on our website and easy to comprehend,” he said. 

Convergence of Concerns

Although prospective students do not initially consider cost as much as their parents do, the paper noted that students’ concerns begin to shift the further along they are in high school. Nevertheless, there is overlap in the concerns parents and students have throughout the college selection process, including academic quality, fit and student loan debt. 

“Questions about cost and affordability are a near constant in our work with both students and parents,” Browning said. 

Basko’s team spends considerable time messaging the hallmarks of a University of Lynchburg education. “We do really close mentoring with students. We really try to open doors for them. We really try to connect them with alumni,” he said. 

Davidson College has found its net price calculator to be particularly useful for parents and students. “It’s not perfect but it has allowed families to get an early sense of what may be expected of them,” Gruber said. 

The Davidson College admissions team also focuses heavily on conveying the college’s academic quality and potential fit to both groups. Gruber said that his staff focuses “on talking about how their students will fit in the uniquely supportive Davidson community.” 

Participation across Channels

“We have a multichannel communication flow specifically for parents as their questions and concerns often differ from that of the student,” Browning said. She has found success in reaching parents on Facebook and, to a lesser extent, LinkedIn. 

The University of Lynchburg uses a parent–university partnership as the guiding principle of its messaging to parents. “It’s important that parents feel like this is a partnership. We realize that they are entrusting us with their student, and we want to be a good partner for them,” said Basko, who noted parents seem particularly receptive to emails. 

Gruber and Boeckenstedt agreed. “We frequently email parents directly to share information on value, costs, student outcomes and the distinctive Davidson community,” Gruber said. 

It’s important that parents feel like this is a partnership. They are entrusting us with their students, and we want to be good partners.

Parents are not just seeking college information through traditional means, such as college fairs and counselors, but are consuming information from a variety of sources. Although institutions have found that parents believe online information and trusted individuals are the most helpful resources, EAB’s paper indicated the best results are achieved when an institution creates “a cohesive parent journey through consistent, coordinated messaging and imagery across many different channels.” 

 Aila Boyd

Aila Boyd

Reporter

Aila Boyd is a Virginia-based journalist and educator. As a journalist, she has written for and edited daily and weekly newspapers and magazines. She has taught English at a number of colleges and universities and holds an MFA in writing.

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