Tell me, what does it really cost?

Rachel Louise Ensign’s article College Math 101: Calculating the Real Cost of Attending featured in the March 25, 2012 Wall Street Journal highlighted the plight of the bottom dollar faced by many of today’s college bound students. Rather than picking a college based on class size and amenities, many students are bound to selecting a college based on the ultimate price of attendance.

Take out the guessing!

Admissions and Financial aid professionals wear out yellow legal pads figuring up final out of pocket expenses for prospective students and their families. But what if they didn’t come to you for help? Then families are going at it alone, trying to come up with the cost of attendance solely based on your college’s messaging. Take the guessing out by providing transparency in presenting the all factors which impact the cost of attendance.

+ Clarify

Take the lead in ensuring your college is communicating clear tuition, fees, room, and board rates. This includes presenting any hidden or last minute fees such as a deposit, orientation, or parking fees. The last thing you want is for a family to feel you are trying to pull a bait and switch.

+ Update

How you can achieve this end is by updating your messaging. Many times colleges fail to update charges in all areas of college communication. As an enrollment leader, don’t just trust that your institutional messaging is congruent. Often charges are featured in multiple places, on printed materials, on different sections of the college website, etc. You must make sure that your message is harmonious.

+ Utilize

+ Publications

Specialized Financial Aid publications explaining the college’s financial aid process as well as grant, scholarship, work, and loan opportunities can be of great value to families. Like Ensign’s article referenced, students can’t always pick the college with the “greenest quad or best dorm. It’s about how much her (the student’s) parents have to shell out (2012).” Given this opinion, you don’t want to lose prospective students out of lack of communication.

+ Net Price Calculator

As administrators, you encountered the mandates of the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act requiring colleges to provide an online calculator to estimate the cost of attending the institution. If you were a college who buried your calculator for fear it would reveal the true cost of attendance, think again. Utilize show parents how to make their student’s first choice college, your college, a financial reality.

Social Media and Financial Aid

Kind of sounds like an oxymoron—to use a media outlet to talk about private financial matters… but more and more schools are finding that social media is the best way to reach their students. From the beginning of the financial aid process there is a constant tug-of-war between financial aid and the student. From the FAFSA, to verification, to counseling, it seems like the cycle never ends.

Sending home financial aid literacy publications with the same look and feel as admissions materials, along with an award letter, creates value added in a successful recruitment process. These publications may be addressed to the student, but moreover it’s the parents’ eyes that are studying the financials. So when a school is trying to glean response on inform a student, what is the best avenue? Sending letter, after letter, after letter?

After a student withdrew from a college where I was Financial Aid Director, the campus postmaster showed me the pile of financial aid letters and postcards, no less than three inches high, that had been sent to his campus mailbox, never opened, never seen. This was an aha moment…

These aha moments are forcing campus offices to change how they communicate with students. First offices became accustomed to using cell phones and e-mail to communicate; now financial aid offices are utilizing Facebook, Twitter, webinars, online chat, and blogs to communicate with students. How colleges utilize these tools is the key—communication should be intentional.

Messages need to be timely, prudent, and interesting! Example messaging includes: new scholarship opportunities, deadlines, advertising financial aid workshops, and government grant and scholarship aid news.  The University of South Florida featured study abroad in a status update—an opportunity many students wouldn’t know they can afford!

Many students have Facebook linked to their smart phone, yet their campus e-mail is home to unread messages. Because of this, some schools go as far as to send students private messages through Facebook to let the student know the Financial Aid Office is trying to get in touch with them.

Another method colleges are using to engage students is a chat feature. Prairie View A&M University offers a “chat online now” feature to have instant access to a Financial Aid Agent.

Finding students where they are and gearing communication to fit their preferred social outlets while offering a sense of instant connectivity is the direction of higher education millennial communication.