How do students really feel about affordability? Here’s what they told us.


How do students really feel about affordability? Here’s what they told us.

It goes without saying that affordability is important to students and their parents. Just how important, though—in what ways, and for which populations—has been much harder to get a read on. Data from our recent survey research on affordability sheds new light on exactly these questions.

Every year, my team at EAB Enrollment Services (formerly Royall & Company) undertakes several survey-based research initiatives with college-bound high school students, enabling us to explore a variety of issues of pressing concern to enrollment leaders. Our most recent effort polled more than 8,000 students, parents, and guidance counselors about college affordability and the newly accelerated FAFSA calendar.

While the survey assessed participants’ opinions about a range of topics, their responses for two categories in particular stood out—how they rank cost relative to other drivers of college choice and how the revised FAFSA timing will influence their college-choice behavior.

Clear urgency on cost

The good news is that students still show strong affinity for their chosen schools, with admission to their first choice ranking #2 on a long list of other potential concerns. The bad news is they’re a lot more preoccupied with their top concern—cost. While 12% of students cited admission to their first choice school as their #1 concern, close to twice as many—22%—ranked the cost of attendance as their top worry.

It turns out that parents are even more cost-focused, and increasingly so. The proportion of parents listing cost as their top concern increased from 25% in 2012 to 36% in 2015. Parents also place a lot more importance on cost relative to other factors. By way of example, four times as many ranked cost #1 versus students’ admission to their first-choice school.

Percentage of Parents Citing College Affordability as Their #1 Concern

These results suggest that deferring financial conversations with your prospective recruits, an approach that was perfectly reasonable just a few years ago, is now less of an option. Our expectation is that families’ growing concern with cost will spur them to seek out related information early—with or without your assistance. Engaging them proactively, and setting the terms on which that conversation happens, will be increasingly important moving forward.

The expedited FAFSA and student propensity for earlier action

As I’ve just suggested, families’ growing concern with cost means that value-based communications should be playing a bigger role in your recruitment efforts. But there’s another reason you’ll want to give such efforts special attention—the newly accelerated FAFSA calendar.

As you know, beginning this fall students will be able to file the FAFSA as early as October (versus January under the old calendar). This raises some interesting and consequential questions: Will students actually file earlier? And will earlier aid offers create a competitive advantage for schools that shift their calendars forward?

In an effort to shed light on these issues, our survey included questions regarding the FAFSA. Here’s what we found.

When asked about their expected response to earlier FAFSA availability, more than a third of students said they will apply earlier and 20% said they would expedite enrollment decisions. If you factor in students who say they may act earlier (but are not sure), the number exceeds 50% for both application and enrollment. So you’re likely to see a critical mass of students ready to act much earlier in the admission and aid-packaging cycle than in previous years.

Student Responses Regarding Their Likely Response to the Accelerated FAFSA Timeline

That said, it’s important to note that the vast majority of students we polled—almost 80%—were unaware of the FAFSA timing changes at the time they were surveyed. This lack of awareness represents a major outreach and educational opportunity for your recruitment efforts.

There’s good reason to believe that colleges and universities are well-positioned to provide this sort of guidance to families. Our survey results indicate that school websites are by far the most popular financial aid resource for both students and their parents—they’re far more likely to consult your website than visit FAFSA-sponsored online resources, for example.

Ongoing EAB research also indicates that students readily engage FAFSA-themed content provided by colleges and universities and that such communications have a quantifiable positive effect on the rates at which students file (and yield).

I want to stress this last point because, in my experience, a lot of schools underestimate their ability to advance prospective students’ understanding of complex issues such as financial aid. What our Enrollment Services teams have seen across hundreds of campaigns is that students will, in fact, engage with you eagerly if approached in the right way—even (or especially) when the issues you’re talking with them about are daunting.

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