6 common shortcomings of pricing and aid webpages—and how to fix them

Expert Insight

6 common shortcomings of pricing and aid webpages—and how to fix them

In the age of price-sensitive online shoppers, college websites are the first resource for most applicants seeking financial aid information. Nevertheless, many financial aid webpages bury cost of attendance and scholarship opportunities deep in a series of clicks and financial aid jargon. Confused or frustrated, students may take their college search elsewhere as a result. Reclaim these lost students by tailoring web content to the way today’s college searchers are looking for affordability answers.

College and university webpages make six common mistakes when it comes to presenting information about cost and aid:

  1. Presenting cost without the context of aid
  2. Not explaining differences between different forms of aid
  3. Directing parents and students to the same content
  4. Not including calls-to-action or next steps
  5. Discussing only cost without outcomes
  6. Relying on a traditional net price calculator

Avoid these mistakes by implementing the following best practices within your pricing and financial aid web pages.

More on this topic

This resource is part of the Clearly Communicate Price and Financial Aid Roadmap. Access the Roadmap for stepwise guidance with additional tools and research.

Frame tuition with affordability

Most universities struggle to reengage students already turned off by list price, but Calvin College has found a way to continue the conversation. Calvin presents the topic of affordability alongside list price by first comparing Calvin’s cost to the average 4-year private college. A tuition breakdown immediately follows, further segmenting full cost with explanations of how scholarships, grants, and loans all contribute to “cutting the price tag.” While most universities leave the analysis of financial aid to the student, Calvin takes charge and guides the conversation in the direction of affordability.

Offer more guidance and less jargon

The University of Denver’s pricing and aid webpage doesn’t assume that all students understand the differences between various forms of financial aid. Denver’s webpage explains merit scholarships, need-based grants, and loans, as well as offers links to additional information about each. Denver even exhibits sample aid packages differentiated by family income and student GPA, allowing a quick glance at net price breakdowns in different scenarios.

Most high school students won’t know how work-study or subsidized loans contribute to their net price, and some might not know whether an amount is gift or needs to be repaid. Universities should be sure to provide answers for students where the questions about aid arise, such as following an aid award (hypothetical or real). The University of Denver takes this one step further with proactive financial aid education in a weekly email series on “Financial Aid 101” that goes to students and parents interested in more information.

Differentiate aid communications by audience

The University of Denver tailors web content for undergraduates, graduates, and parents separately, addressing the need for customized resources for the varying audience of a financial aid office. Each category opens a webpage designed to guide the reader through the cost of attendance conversation with emphasis on the questions that audience might be interested in.

  • Undergraduate applicants see explanations and examples of scholarships, loans, and financial aid packages.
  • Graduate applicants are directed to separate pages for each college within the university, as direct and indirect costs differ amongst the many fields of study.
  • Parents are provided more information on PLUS loans, payment, appeals, and financial aid parent events.

Provide clear next steps

A website can list as many prices, scholarships, and fees that it can, but a student is still lost without knowing what to do next. As seen in the Calvin and Denver websites, provide important financial aid dates for FAFSA as well as checklists specific to your college. Plant links to applications and financial aid officer contact information where the need for a next step seems natural, such as at the end of a price estimation page or explanation of loan qualifications. Pricing and aid information on websites should be a bridge for colleges to begin relationships with prospective students, not a barrier that halts progression toward enrollment.

Emphasize return on investment

Students are more cost-conscious than ever, especially when the topic of loan debt arises. Discussing how students at your university are not only able to manage their loans, but pay them back, clearly demonstrates commitment to success. Incorporate this is the same space as other loans and aid, and address any misconceptions applicants might have about the amount of loans students typically acquire at your university.

Simplify the cost estimation process

Only 14% of students attempt the traditional net price calculators mandated by federal regulations, and only a fraction of those ever finish. In the early 2010s, Wellesley College addressed this by building a user-friendly net price calculator called MyinTuition. MyinTuition reduces the traditional set of 40 questions to just 6.

Six key questions for quick financial aid estimates:

Student and family demographics

Total family income

Home value

Mortgage balance

Cash holdings

Non-retirement investments

While institutions still must offer the federal net price calculator, a simplified version can be a valuable supplement. MyinTuition averages only 3 minutes to complete, and, in its first year of implementation, resulted in a threefold increase (3,340 to 11,000) in the number of students getting a price estimate from Wellesley. As a result of this success, more schools have adopted MyinTuition, which now has 66 members and continues to grow.

Additional resources

A good web presence regarding pricing and aid is only a small piece of your communications on pricing and aid.  You’ll also want to make sure your aid letters are as effective as possible and ensure all staff on campus are trained in having conversations with students about this complicated subject.

College cost and financial aid are top-of-mind issues for students and their families, yet most aid award letters—the first communication families receive from you on the topic—are difficult to understand and often missing critical information. Discover three ways you can improve your college or university's financial aid award letter and encourage students to enroll.

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