What frustrates students and parents about college applications

Daily Briefing

What frustrates students and parents about college applications

The college application process is often a stressful one for students. There’s the pressure to beat application deadlines, tick off application requirements, and figure out how to pay for tuition.

These pain points can frustrate or even dissuade some applicants from submitting a completed application, according to EAB enrollment expert Anika Olsen.

Here are two common complaints students have with the application process and a few ways colleges can ease their stress.

1: Surprise costs

Most students expect college tuition bills, but few are prepared for the fees that arise during the application process, Kaitlin Mulhere wrote for Money in 2017.

One student’s decision to apply to 20 colleges costed him $1,700, reports Mulhere. The student says he didn’t realize how expensive college applications would be—until he was paying for them.

It’s not unusual for students to cast a wide net during the application process. Most students apply to more than one college, and about 28% of students apply to between six and 10 colleges, according to Higher Education Research Institute‘s Annual Freshman Survey.

Application fees can range from $25 to $90 depending on the institution, Mulhere writes. Many applicants also pay to send colleges their SAT scores and to apply for financial aid. All in all, the process can easily cost students up to $100 per college they apply to.


of surveyed students discovered that their top-choice school was more expensive than they expected
of surveyed students discovered that their top-choice school was more expensive than they expected

But most families don’t expect the college application process to be so expensive, says Jenney Buyens, a consultant with College Connectors.

For many students, financial surprises can play a role in their enrollment decisions. Thirty percent of students discovered that their top-choice school was more expensive than they expected, and almost half of those students decided not to attend for cost-related reasons, according to research by EAB’s Enrollment Services. This finding underscores the importance of educating prospective students on college costs, early and consistently, throughout the admission cycle.

To lower application costs, a growing number of institutions now only require students to send in their standardized test scores if they’re admitted and plan to enroll, Mulhere writes. Many colleges also waive the fee for students who apply by a certain deadline or for students who attend a college access event, she adds. Other universities are removing the application fee altogether for first-generation students or for those who apply for financial aid.

2: Family tension

Students and their families can also disagree on how to handle the application process, wrote Sue Shellenbarger for the Wall Street Journal.

Pavanaja Reddy recalls that it was difficult letting her daughter choose which colleges to apply to. “She could get into the Ivies. But that’s not what she had in her mind. It was a really bad time for both of us,” says Reddy.

“I was thinking about what I would do rather than what she would do,” says Reddy. She now sees that her daughter, currently a student at Case Western Reserve University, was well-equipped to make her own decision.


of parents of college-bound students are unsure if they can afford college
of parents of college-bound students are unsure if they can afford college

Given the competitiveness of college admissions and the steep price of tuition, some parents feel pressure to clear away any application roadblocks, writes Shellenbarger. That means checking off routine application tasks or even heavily editing their child’s essay, she adds.

But when parents take over the application process, students can become disengaged. They also lose a valuable opportunity to practice making decisions and to think critically about their college goals.

While parents shouldn’t take over the application process, they can still play a role during student recruitment. Enrollment teams can engage parents during the application process by guiding them through the college cost conversation.

When EAB asked parents of college-bound students to identify their most pressing concerns, three of the four most commonly cited had to do with paying for college. A third of respondents aren’t sure how much to pay for their students’ education and 43% reported being unsure if they could afford any college at all.

Enrollment teams who help parents understand college finances have an opportunity to contextualize college costs and highlight their institution’s return on education, wrote Emily Upton, managing director of program marketing, for EAB’s Enrollment blog. Emphasize the benefits parents care about the most, such as student-success support, job placement, and career prep, she recommends.

Source: Shellenbarger, Wall Street Journal, 12/11/18; Mulhere, Money, 12/26/17

To help our partner colleges and universities better understand this complicated landscape, EAB Enrollment Services recently surveyed over 9,000 high school students about their communication preferences and behaviors. As the white paper explains, their responses reveal clear trends and opportunities for improving student engagement.

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