Skip navigation
EAB Logo Navigate to the EAB Homepage Navigate to EAB home
Blog

Engage low-income parents in their students’ college search

August 28, 2020

Of all the problems the pandemic has created for higher education, an especially troubling one for many enrollment leaders is its impact on students from low-income families. These students face additional challenges in making the decision to attend college, evaluating potential schools, securing funding, and navigating the complex path from application to matriculation. Now COVID-19 and its fallout have suddenly made the challenge that much more daunting. 

Because these students need your support now more than ever, I wanted to offer some thoughts on an important and often undervalued means of getting them that help—engaging their parents. Specifically, I wanted to share insights from some recent EAB Enrollment Services survey research on how parents engage in their students’ college search.

You may have seen a recent webinar I cohosted that included some findings from that survey, including how the pandemic has increased parents’ price sensitivity. What I’ll be focusing on here is how schools communicate with parents. This will include considerations related to recruitment marketing—a form of outreach that we know works especially well with low-income families.

As we’ll see, there are important ways in which the information needs and communication habits of low-income parents differ. Since getting maximum traction with them depends on understanding those differences, I’ll be walking you through related insights concerning:

  • The degree and timing of their involvement in their students’ college search
  • How they prefer to learn about schools their students are considering
  • What they look for in a college

Low-income parents are involved in their students’ college search

A variety of factors make it harder for low-income parents to participate as actively in their students’ college search as parents from wealthier families. But that doesn’t mean they’re not involved. Better engaging low-income parents means getting beyond generalizations and understanding the true nature and extent of their participation.

74%

Of students from low-income households said their parents were involved in their college search
Of students from low-income households said their parents were involved in their college search

It’s true that low-income parents are significantly less likely to initiate their student’s college search; only 25% do so, as compared with 35% of middle income parents and 45% of high-income parents. Furthermore, students from lower income families are less likely to see their parents as key sources of information for their college search.

But it would be a mistake to think that low-income parents are not engaged in college decisions. In a separate EAB survey of new college freshmen, almost three quarters of students from low-income backgrounds said their parents were involved in their college search. Furthermore, low-income parents themselves report having a moderate to high degree of influence on key decisions related to college choice, including how much the family will spend on their student’s education and how much debt they will take on to fund it.

So, while low-income parents may not typically be initiating their student’s search or serving as experts on the process, they are participating.  If you’re doing your recruitment marketing correctly, you’ll help make that participation more meaningful by providing them with important information and moral support. And you can rest assured that most will appreciate hearing from you; almost three quarters of those we surveyed said they think colleges should communicate directly with them.

“Do you think colleges and universities should communicate directly with parents of prospective students?”

74%

Responded “Yes”

6%

Responded “No”

21%

Responded “Unsure”

Ensure you’re using communication channels low-income parents favor

Before you can start a conversation with parents, you have to reach them, and this means knowing which communication channels they are most comfortable with. 

The good news is that many of the familiar mainstays of recruitment-marketing outreach, including email and paper mailings, work at least as well with low-income parents as they do with the general population. Provided you’re making the most of those channels, you can rest assured that you’re working from a solid foundation.

But if you’re looking to maximize engagement with low-income parents, you’ll want to look beyond the basics and understand how they engage with other critical channels, where their preferences do sometimes differ in important ways from those of their more affluent counterparts.

A good place to start is by looking at the information channels parents rely on most when learning about schools. This is actually pretty consistent across income groups, at least in terms of how sources rank; those most frequently cited by parents of all income levels were, by a wide margin, web searches, college websites, and campus visits. 

But how a source is ranked is not the same thing as how widely it is used. For example, whereas college websites ranked second for both low- and high-income parents, they were cited by just 45% of the former, as opposed to 62% of the latter. And the findings were similar for campus visits. 

There are probably several factors at play here. In the case of campus visits, it is likely that the expense of travel and less flexible work schedules reduce the appeal of this channel for low-income parents.

38%

Of low-income parents said the school's website played a bigger role than any other information source in helping decide whether the institution was right for their child
Of low-income parents said the school’s website played a bigger role than any other information source in helping decide whether the institution was right for their child

Their attitude to college websites, on the other hand, seems to be part of a more general preference on their part for push communications and direct personal interactions, as opposed to self-service information channels; low-income parents are significantly more likely than the general population to report finding the following information sources helpful:

  • College fairs
  • Personal letters and emails from colleges
  • Phone calls with colleges

But that’s not to say that self-service channels don’t matter when it comes to engaging low-income parents. School websites are a great case in point. As already mentioned, proportionally fewer low-income parents cited .EDUs among the top information sources they used when learning about potential schools. But, at the same time, they were more likely than wealthier parents to say that school websites played a bigger role than any other information source in helping them to decide whether a school is right for their child. So, although underused by low-income parents, school websites can prove extremely helpful to them. This is a strong argument for using channels that they do naturally favor—email, direct mail, and personal interactions—to steer them to your website.

Make sure you’re addressing low-income parents’ most pressing concerns

Even if you’re successfully reaching low-income parents via channels they favor, getting them to engage will depend on speaking to topics that resonate with them. And in this regard there are also important differences with higher-income parents.

Most obviously, low-income parents worry more than the general population about affording college. That’s no surprise. But their concern on this point is not just more pronounced; it also finds expression in a greater variety of ways and extends to adjacent topics.

For example, around half of low-income parents say they are not sure how much they should pay for their child’s education—significantly more than their middle-income peers and almost twice as high a proportion as for high-income parents. 

45%

Of low-income parents worry their student will not qualify for financial aid
Of low-income parents worry their student will not qualify for financial aid

This may be related to their uncertainty regarding sources of funding.  Forty-five percent of low-income parents we surveyed reported being unsure if their student would qualify for financial aid, and more than a quarter said they were concerned about their ability to complete financial aid applications. They were also far more likely than wealthier parents to want an individual appointment with the financial aid team as part of campus tours.

Low-income parents differ not only in their level of interest in certain topics, but also in terms of the timing of that interest. Specifically, in their student’s senior year, low-income parents show more interest than their higher-income counterparts in information sometimes associated with earlier stages of search, including general information about the school, admission requirements, and information on majors and minors—a fact that mirrors low-income students’ tendency to complete search milestones such as application, FAFSA submission, and testing later than their wealthier peers.

Parents reporting wanting information during their student’s senior of high school

Percentage of responding parents by household income, EAB’s 2020 Survey of Parents of College-Bound Students

51%

45%

44%

38%

35%

35%

31%

29%

33%

39%

35%

25%

31%

25%

28%

17%

27%

32%

28%

26%

26%

22%

21%

15%

Equipping a powerful ally

While I’ve had a lot to say above about different ways to get through to parents, I wanted to close with a reminder of whom all this effort ultimately serves—the college-bound low-income student. 

Many of these students do not, like their wealthier peers, have college-educated parents to serve as expert higher education “concierges” for them, and the negative consequences of that are amplified in the pandemic era.  You can help level the playing field by equipping low-income parents with the information and understanding they need to help see their students successfully through to matriculation.

My hope is that the thoughts I’ve shared above will help strengthen efforts you’ve already taken, or, if you’ve yet to start, then to help you take important first steps in that direction.

More resources to engage parents

More Blogs

Blog

3 ways to engage admitted students on social media

As colleges grow their applicant pools, it can be harder for admissions teams to remain responsive to incoming…
Enrollment Blog
Blog

Crisis response 101 for enrollment teams

Although prospective students are the future of every school, enrollment leaders are too rarely included in campus crisis…
Blog

6 proven ways to boost your college enrollment

From our extensive testing, we've identified six tried-and-true college enrollment best practices proven to work.
Enrollment Blog

You may have noticed EAB.com looks a little different. Explore what's new for partners.