Enrollment Blog

Why parents are college enrollment’s closest ally in student recruitment

by Emily Bauer

It's harder than ever to get the attention of college-bound students, leaving enrollment leaders to increasingly look for back channels through which to engage them. One of the most effective, and often untapped channels, is parents.

It’s no secret that parents play a critical role in a student's college decision. In our survey of students' communication preferences, parents were cited as key influencers at least three times more often than any other person. Moreover, in control group tests, we found that sending recruitment marketing outreach to parents boosted application rates by 10% —and the effect carries through to deposit.

Despite parents’ heavy influence, enrollment teams have been slow to engage them, especially during college search. Two primary challenges hinder enrollment leaders from maximizing parent influencers—here's how you can navigate them.

Challenge #1: Understanding what parents want

One reason enrollment leaders hesitate to engage parents is a fear that marketing directly to parents might turn them off. But it's important to know that most parents expect to hear from you and welcome your contact. In a recent EAB survey of 1,500+ parents of college-bound students, 74% said they believe schools should communicate directly with them during recruitment.

Parent Communication Preferences

That’s not all we learned from our survey—responses also highlighted how enrollment leaders can engage meaningfully with parents.

Communicate to parents about parent interests, and to students about student interests

Your communications with parents should always happen in tandem with conversations you’re having with students. Outreach to both audiences is most effective when it's coordinated. However, parents and students aren't always concerned about the same things.

For example, our survey research tells us that parents are much more interested in cost than students. We also learned that both audiences show equally high interest in the academic quality of schools under consideration.

Enrollment leaders can make the most of these insights by designing parent-specific communication streams on topics of uniquely strong interest, while developing joint communications for issues that are of equal concern to both parents and student.

Own the cost conversation

It may seem obvious to point out that parents worry about the cost of college, but it’s helpful to understand just how big a preoccupation it is for them. When we asked parents to identify their most pressing concerns, three of the four most commonly cited had to do with paying for college.

Parents concerned about college cost

A lot of parents (more than a third) aren't sure at all about how much to pay for their students’ education—and 43% reported being unsure if they could afford any college at all.

Why it's so hard to choose a college, according to families

As a result, parents are likely receptive to any help you can offer them on understanding college finances, as many of them are unsure how much they should be paying. As you’re guiding that discussion with parents, you have an opportunity to choose the way in which cost is explained and contextualized, including the opportunity to highlighted the value of your institution (e.g., "We have a high four year graduation rate, which can ultimately cut your overall college costs by xx% or more...")

Highlight the outcomes of an education from your college

Your value proposition to parents has two elements: cost and benefit. When it comes to the benefit side of the equation—what parents consider worth paying for—they care about the factors most closely tied to outcomes. This includes student-success support, job placement, and career prep.

It’s worth noting that parents and students tend to have equal interest here. For example, career prep is something parents and students care about deeply, suggesting that outcomes-related topics can provide a sound basis for communications across both audiences.

Think across school segments

Many colleges and universities assume they are, to some degree, competing across school segments, with public institutions drawing on much of the same prospect pool as private institutions, and vice versa. But the extent of the overlap might surprise you. In our survey, a large majority of parents reported considering each type of school (87% for publics and 73% for privates).

Furthermore, the balance of power between different types of schools appears to be shifting, suggesting intensifying competition. Comparing results from our 2018 survey with those from 2012 shows the percentage of parents willing to consider private institutions has decreased much more than the percentage of parents open to public college options (a reduction from 81% to 73% for privates versus a drop from 89% to 87% for publics).

Engage parents as early as possible

There are many compelling reasons to reach out to students as early as possible in their high school careers. Our research and testing has consistently shown that students who engage earlier also enroll at higher rates and have stronger academic profiles.

Related: Message segmentation doesn't always work in initial student contact

According to our survey, early outreach to parents seems equally beneficial for many reasons. Overall, parents are generally more open to various options earlier in their students’ high school careers. And they tend to narrow down the range of options they’re open to considering as their students approach graduation.

This is particularly apparent in parents’ willingness to consider schools at various distances from their homes.

Distance preferences of parents

The trend holds for other school parameters as well. Parents are open to a broader range of school segments (public versus private) earlier on, and they also show interest in a greater variety of enrollment-related topics in their students’ freshman or sophomore year.

Challenge #2: Identifying parents

Even if colleges and universities make the decision to engage with parents, getting parent contact information isn’t easy. There's no "built in" collection point in the enrollment process prior to the application.

But it’s not impossible. There are a few ways we've been able to reliably gather parent contact information well in advance of a student’s senior year in high school.

Ask your student prospects for their parents' contact information

One proven way of getting parent contact information is to ask students directly. For schools that partner with us to help recruit sophomore and junior students, 41% or more of their student search responders share parent contact information. And the students who share parent contact information are also 53% more likely to apply.

While asking students to provide parent contact information sounds simple enough, it's not quite that easy. We've had to optimize across countless parameters, from the copy used in email outreach to the mobile-friendly landing pages used to collect parent information.

When parents remain unknown, turn to consumer data analytics

But what about the other half (59%) of a school's prospect pool that doesn't provide parent contact information? We now have a process to gather parent information without any student action at all.

We start by cross-referencing student information with national consumer data sets. Our team of data scientists and targeting analysts have created a comprehensive matching algorithm that allows us to reliably identify parents for around 30% of a typical school's total prospect pool (not just search responders).

What Starbucks can teach enrollment leaders about using analytics to inform strategy

How EAB Identifies parents

The number of parents identified though this algorithm is larger than the typical number of responding prospective students for a typical college search campaign—and is 3x greater than the number of parents for whom contact information.

Results of consumer-data-analytics-powered parent search

One exciting feature of this approach is that it allows parents to be pursued at the same time as students, from the outset.

In doing so, it offers another channel to influence students who might otherwise remain nonresponders and jumpstarts engagement with other students who may be slow to engage. Because of the proactive stance with parents that this approach enables, EAB has termed it "parent-first" search.

Parent-first inquiries are "real" inquiries

The parent-first approach would not mean much if parents didn’t respond or if that response didn’t indicate genuine interest.

We found parents not only engaged via the parent-first approach, but they went on to show levels of engagement similar to parents sourced through other means. Nearly half (47%) of our parent-first responders shared student information and 49% of those responders expressed interest in a campus visit.

What do those percentages actually mean? We conducted a parent-first search for a large selective university in the southeast and produced 1,234 new parent inquiries, 789 for whom we were able to confirm student information. And 53% of the parents expressed interest in a campus visit.

Probably the most important point is that students from families who inquire through parent-first search are at least as likely to apply as "traditional" search responders.

Likelihood to Enroll based on Parent-First Contact

Perfect your parent communications

Download our latest research on how to craft parent communications to ensure maximum interest and engagement and which channels to use to reach as much of your parent audience as possible.

Download the White Paper


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