Trends facing Higher Ed: Affordability

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The other day I happened to take a look at U.S. News & World Report’s list of the Best College Values and was shocked at the “sticker” prices after grants (assuming a student qualifies for need-based grants). Even with financial assistance, college isn’t cheap. For those footing the bill themselves, they have at least 10-15 years of student loan repayment to look forward to after graduation. It’s no wonder one of the biggest trends impacting college enrollment today is affordability.

According to the Lawlor Group, one of the nation’s leading higher education marketing firms,

Many families are experiencing a diminished ability to pay for a college education. Compared to pre-recession levels, median household income, home equity, and net worth are all down. Meanwhile, college tuition costs have continued to climb steadily, even after financial aid is factored in. The annual net price of tuition, fees, room, and board at a private nonprofit institution ($23,840) now averages almost half of what the median household earns in a year.

As a society, we are associating ROI with college education. Gone are the days of attending a college or university because you like the football team or your best friend has enrolled for the fall semester. Now, families are much more concerned with job opportunities for graduates, degree programs with high employment rates, and average salaries earned by graduates within the first three years of degree completion. The proof is in the data. According to TIME/Carnegie Corporation, 80% of U.S. adults think the education students receive at many colleges is not worth what they pay for it, and 55% think the average debt load for college students who take out loans is too high.

So how can colleges and universities address affordability and not lose enrollments?

  1. Be upfront. Don’t wait until an application for enrollment is approved to address financial concerns. Place scholarship and grant information prominently on the website and track who is interested in learning more about financial assistance through requests for information forms, social media, and inbound inquiries. These are prospective students who are interested in attending your college or university but are concerned about the cost. They require different communication than those spending most of their time on your athletics page.
  2. Nurture, nurture, nurture. College is a big investment. Prospective students who are interested in learning about scholarship and grant opportunities are likely to need more hand holding than those whose parents are taking care of their college education. Send them communication that addresses their concerns, introduces them to enrolled students who they can relate to, and make sure you invite them to scholarship weekends and other similar events. By building engagement with these prospective students, you are building relationships which lead to enrollments.
  3. Keep it simple. Attentions spans are short. Make sure content is interesting but to the point — not just in emails or direct mail pieces, but also on websites, social media channels and blogs. It shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out where scholarship and grant information is located on your website, how to apply for financial aid or how student loan repayment works.
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