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How to Engage Parents During the Recruiting Process

Episode 47

March 2, 2021 33 minutes


EAB’s Kathy Dawley and Al Newell discuss the role that parents play in the college recruiting process and share findings from a recent EAB survey about their communication preferences. They talk about how different types of information become more or less important to parents as they get closer to the application deadline. Kathy and Al also urge colleges to focus on communicating how they support and guide students along their educational journey.

Finally, they recommend that colleges take a hard look at their websites since the quality of the design and content on your website is viewed by many parents as a proxy for the quality of your institution.



0:00:13.1 Matt Pellish: Choosing a college is a family decision in most households, so connecting with the parents of current and future applicants is vital. In this episode of Office Hours, EAB’s, Kathy Dawley and Al Newell talk about the role that parents play in the recruitment process, the communication channels they prefer, and where cost ranks among their biggest concerns. Spoiler alert. It’s at the very top of the list. According to EAB’s latest survey, thank you for joining. And welcome to Office Hours with EAB.


0:00:50.3 Al Newell: Well, good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Al Newell I’m a Senior Consultant and Principal at EAB enrollment services. And real pleasure to be with you today, and I have the great honor to be joined by my colleague and friend Kathy Dawley. Kathy quick hello to our guests today.

0:01:09.7 Kathy Dawley: Hello Al, thank you. I’m Kathy Dawley, Managing Director Partner Success in our EAB undergraduate enrollment services area. Al it’s a pleasure to see you.

0:01:22.6 AN: Yeah, I have to say, in the pandemic it’s, connecting via Zoom seems to be the way our lives are going, and we’ll make the best of it from that standpoint. Real pleasure to have everyone with us today to talk about our 2020 parent communications preferences survey. And Kathy, I know this has been a great interest to both of us as practitioners and working closely with students and now parents in that recruitment process. So I thought I would just maybe frame a little bit about the survey for our guest today, and then I wanna get your thoughts on a couple of more specific areas there. Our timing this year was fortuitous, we generally issue the survey every other year in late winter, early spring, and so we were all poised to do that this year when the pandemic occurred, and so we actually delayed the deployment of the survey by a couple of weeks, so that we could get some Covid-related questions in there, but just to give you a sense, we had a slightly over 2500 respondents to the survey. 71% of them had a bachelor’s degree or higher.

0:02:29.9 AN: We had a nice mix of parents, of students at various times in their high school career, about about 8% were freshman, 30% were sophomore, 61% were juniors and a senior cohort of about 17%. Nice representation geographically, we had a slightly lower response rate from the Northeast, but… And Kathy you may wanna offer some thoughts on that in just a moment, but the good news is, we went back and did statistical analysis and there were no statistically significant differences based upon geography, and the final piece of this a broad representation in terms of ethnicity. And the final piece, which I think I certainly found interesting, and would love your thoughts on it was how it broke… So many of these responses broke down along income bands. And for purposes of the survey, we consider the lower income families to be in that zero to 60,000 dollar range, middle income 60,000 to 120,000 and 120,000 and above higher income. And we saw just some interesting differences based upon those income bands. Maybe use that as a starting point, maybe give us thoughts and reactions to what you saw in the survey that was of particular interest to you.

0:03:41.9 KD: Absolutely Al. And I would mention first, it didn’t surprise us in any way about our slightly less robust representation in the Northeast, if we marry that to the timing, the adjusted timing of our survey, giving the Northeast a sense of grace for what was going on in that region at that time with the virus.

0:04:03.6 AN: Right.

0:04:06.5 KD: Nonetheless, plenty of Northeast parents in there. And the first thing I’d say, and by the way, EAB conducts the survey of high school, college bound high school student parents every two years, so we have a baseline from 2018 to compare on most of our metrics here. One thing that is certain coming away from this year’s version, parents very much want to hear from our colleges and universities, and we put that in context this year, 71% of the survey respondents stated they very much wanted to hear from colleges and universities, and that’s remarkable. Given the spring, the last spring timeframe, we all wondered if there had been a sea change in that regard, and indeed there was not. There was very emphatic, yes, we want to hear from you. So Al going, right where you started, in terms of specific questions, we did compare parents in the 2020 spring 2020 survey results to parents from 2018 on a significantly important set of answers to the following questions.

0:05:41.8 KD: When you think about college and university affordability for your son and daughter, what price, what cost are you willing to pay each year? And this means out of pocket after scholarships, after aid, and… Not to quote actual finding metrics here, but to go with the big story line, and that is across all income groupings, so we had a low-income grouping, middle and high, the amount parents are willing to pay each year for their son or daughter’s college education is significantly less today than it was in 2018. Makes sense, right? If we marry the pandemic with economic hardships, but this was true across the spectrum of family income levels. So I’ll stop and I wonder if I… If that brings any further questions to mind for you, Al?

0:06:57.5 AN: Yeah, well, I think what was interesting, and you’ve sort of alluded to it, there were sort of three buckets, that we put the responses into. There was the first sort of the COVID bucket, and certainly… And we deployed the survey in mid-March and carried in… And left it in the field until early April. So clearly that was a different time than today, but I think some of the things that we saw relative to parents saying that the COVID environment was absolutely going to impact whether or not they visited, or attempted to visit, college campus for a face-to-face visit. And we’ve certainly seen an uptick in our partners utilizing virtual tours of varying types to sort of supplement for their inability to have folks on campus. I do think one of the things, again getting back to the income piece of things, was surprised by the degree to which it was having an impact… A greater impact on those lower income families. Which when you think about it makes sense, right? Because you probably have a higher percentage of front-line workers among that group. You certainly have a higher percentage of folks who may be at a more challenging socio-economic status.

0:08:10.8 KD: That’s true.

0:08:11.7 AN: And in the pandemic, that affecting them. But I think what was interesting as you sort of point out relative to cost, was how much the impact really was with all three groups. That those higher income families were saying, “We’re gonna have to factor cost more into consideration.” And beyond the obvious things of concern about in the case of higher income families, maybe the value of their portfolio or whatnot, because we were at a time of great uncertainty in terms of that. I was just struck by the fact that that was an area where the three groups really sort of mirrored each other. Maybe the dollar amount was different, but the concern was still there from that standpoint.

0:08:53.7 KD: Absolutely right, Al, I think it all rolls up to this point, a direct result of the findings in the survey across a lot of different questions, it’s a universal truth no matter what a family’s income circumstance, that affordability is a critical concern. And it’s an interesting thing, and we learned… This was confirmed for us again in this year’s version of the survey, Gen Z and Gen Z’s journey in the college search process is characterized by a partnership with parents in ways that have not always been true for their predecessors. And so we explored in the survey, in this partnership are there differentiated areas of interest comparing the parents and students? And indeed there are. Affordability tops the list of concerns in a number of metrics. Cost, scholarships, but also debt incurred, so it’s the whole bucket of financial concerns. And they are… Parents are, by their own student, delegated the part of the college selection process that is financial. So they’re driving the bus on that part of the selection, whereas their son or daughter is more in control of fit. And other environmental and academic variables of preference that will guide their decision-making.

0:10:46.3 AN: Yeah, one of the sort of the juxtapositions here that’s intriguing to me, Kathy, we spend a lot of time talking about a family’s ability to pay, contrasted with their willingness to pay. And I think one of the things that we… And understandably saw in the survey results is that perhaps there was… If the ability to pay was sort of in question in their mind, Am I gonna have a job six months from now, am I gonna be able to make the mortgage payment, or whatever it might be, clearly that was coming under that category of ability to pay, but I think it was also closely followed by a willingness to pay a higher price ticket. So, can you express your thoughts there? Sort of that ability to pay versus a willingness to pay and how that maybe changes in how parents perceive these factors in the process.

0:11:40.2 KD: That’s a wonderful transition point question, Al, thank you for it. Into other areas of the survey because the… Is it worth it? Is this cost worth it, is really answered by a whole bunch of non-financial things. So part of the work of this survey was to get a sense for how parents were searching or joining their sons and daughters in the search process. And when they were searching, what did they want to know about?

0:12:16.2 AN: Yeah.

0:12:16.9 KD: And you mentioned at the start here that we… Our sample includes freshmen, sophomores, juniors. So it turns out there are real differences. And so if it’s okay with you, Al, I think we could pivot into the… At least the first of those areas.

0:12:40.1 AN: Sure.

0:12:40.1 KD: Which is, where are parents looking for information about colleges?

0:12:46.1 AN: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely.

0:12:48.5 KD: And the answer is not a spoiler here.


0:12:54.7 KD: So they’re on the web and specifically on our partners’ or our institutional colleagues .edu But they’re getting there by way of Google search. And so we know how important keeping track of one’s search optimization efforts and all of that makes very, very big sense. Perhaps even greater sense now that we are in this almost exclusively digital environment for a while still. So parents, a lot of the information sources we tested with them, they go to college websites, search engines, most often, campus visits there are but of course, it’s a very variable dimension whether they can or want to do that. They tell us that in web searches, 51%, so half of them, discovered a school they’d not previously considered. And that’s…

0:14:21.2 AN: Interesting, isn’t it?

0:14:22.4 KD: It’s very interesting. So there’s a message here from both of us, and from all of EAB, about staying on top of optimization, and making the first time visitor and frequent visitors welcome, and making it easy for them to find what they need, and we can talk about what they look for first and foremost.

0:14:54.0 AN: Yeah. I was really intrigued. You and I spend a lot of our days looking at data. And at some levels I guess we could say we’re not always easily impressed by data, questioning it. But one of the data elements that really stood out to me, as I stepped back and looked at the entire survey data component, was the degree to which, and you mentioned this earlier, the website is really becoming their driving engine. I think we’ve known that about students for a good while, but I think this is something that’s just really sort of taking on a life of its own with the parents. And what I was struck by, and a couple of data points here, 93% of the parents said that they were looking at the websites of schools that their child was considering, 93%. That was very closely followed, 86% of them said a well-designed college website improved their opinion of a college. Immediately followed by 81% of them telling us that a poorly designed website reduces my confidence in a college.

0:15:58.6 AN: It’s almost as if, as they’re looking at a college or university, the website is the place holder for quality, and it’s amazing when you think about how much emphasis they’re placing both affirmatively, they’re going to the websites, they’re using it, and if it’s a good website, opinion of the college moves up. Conversely, if it’s not a good website, if it takes a long time for pages to load, if they can’t quickly find whatever information they’re interested in knowing more about, they’re gonna have a view of the institution that’s more pejorative.

0:16:37.1 KD: Absolutely.

0:16:38.5 AN: Would welcome your thoughts on that as to… I think that has powerful stuff, and so what does that tell us for our partners, that they should be doing in light of that information?

0:16:50.8 KD: Absolutely Al. It was stunning for us, the skeptics on data, as you’ve described, to see how judgmental parents were trending toward about this vehicle. But let’s think about it for a minute. We rely on the internet and for digital sources for just about everything in life. We have that reliance more intensely right now, and so making a visit to a .edu site, agreeable, warm, easy. The apples don’t fall far from the tree, so we have Gen Z sons and daughters applying to college who are digital natives, and they have absolutely no patience.

0:17:53.5 AN: Right.

0:17:55.3 KD: Slow loads, hard to find, and all that.

0:17:58.5 AN: They’re gone. If they encounter that, they’re gone, right?

0:18:01.3 KD: Right. So you have to assume that there’s some of that at the parent level too. One of the trivial points, that’s not so trivial, that we learned in the survey as well, is that when parents do a Google search, the most frequent way of searching is by major. So that opens a whole area of attention required at our institutions, because that’s a complex ecosystem. And just checking to make sure that landing pages are appropriate for first time visitors for majors, and that the information is up-to-date, clear, fun even. That can be a wonderful thing. And are we looking to make sure that the bragging points, which are really important, it might be on the career services website, about students in a particular major, that we’re cross-pollinating and making sure those links.

0:19:19.1 AN: Yeah. I think put simply, particularly as it relates to majors and programs, which I was greatly reassured that, that was of great interest to them, but what it tells us is the days of putting a faculty bio and a course syllabi and letting that be the landing page, those days aren’t going to work. They want a better sense of, you mentioned outcomes an extremely important focal point throughout the survey of… And it’s understandable, in tight economic… That’s gonna be a factor no matter what, but in the tight economic times, that’s even gonna be more of a factor, I think, for many parents from that standpoint.

0:19:58.7 KD: Right, and Al we should mention that lots of our partners are taking full advantage of their YouVisit tour, hotspots, tour spots, to make sure that there are linkages by major where there is an immersive content and exciting content piece that can be utilized. So parents can visit those too.

0:20:26.1 AN: Yeah, yeah. Another element of this that was interesting to me, Kathy, was… Because we asked all the parents, to tell us more about what you are most interested in knowing when your son or daughter is a freshman in high school, about the college process versus their sophomore year, junior year, senior year. And some of this I think was self-evident, they’re most concerned about residence hall options later in that cycle, and more concerned about admission processes and those sorts of things earlier in the cycle, or when they’re getting ready to apply to college universities. I’d be curious on your thoughts and reactions as to how that calendar plays out, and what in your work with partners, you’re suggesting that they do to make sure they are addressing those needs as parents and students go through that process, particularly in light of the fact that we all know within the growing cohort as students who are first generation college students. And so there may not be support at home to encourage campus visits and those sorts of things. So again, back to that point we were making earlier, the website is really the place holder for those other experiences that maybe are not possible in the COVID environment. But talked to us a little bit about sort of that… I’m a parent of a freshman in high school, how does that make my perspective different than if I’m a parent of a senior in high school?

0:21:49.3 KD: Absolutely Al, this is really important, and I… You’ve made an important point here, and that is about lower income, less supported, less access to counselor students. The general impression is that students in that category have less support from their parents, but we did dig down into lower income or less than college educated parent respondents. And yeah, they’re distracted more, sure, than the folks with more resources, but they are very interested in this and very invested in it. So it certainly crosses all spectrum of student and family type. And so, when… We should share with our podcast listeners the insights we gathered from having done a quick poll in a webinar, you and I. Where we asked, I don’t know, I think over a 100 participants to tell us which high school year was their focus most on… For communication with prospective parents or parents of prospective students.

0:23:19.4 AN: Right.

0:23:19.9 KD: And wasn’t it stunning?

0:23:20.4 AN: Yeah.

0:23:21.7 KD: That communication was in the senior year.

0:23:25.5 AN: Yeah, yeah.

0:23:27.2 KD: So the big secret here, the tip for the day is that parent-con flow in the sophomore and junior year can be differentiating in the institution, for sure. So all that said, there were some differences in terms of need-to-know or specific content areas, and anyone who’s listening can certainly request some more information from us about this. We asked about things like costs and scholarships and admission requirements, and majors and minors, and degree programs, financial aid, application deadlines, student housing options, funding, general information. So, when would you like to receive the information on these topics is the question, so quite an array of things. And as we expected, parents of sophomores kind of want a little bit of information about everything, but as you hinted out, student housing options, they’re not there yet.

0:24:43.7 AN: Yeah, yeah.

0:24:45.0 KD: A lot more general stuff.

0:24:46.4 AN: I get more worried about where I’m gonna live, right when I’m getting ready to live there, not two years in advance of that.

0:24:52.4 KD: That’s right. And so really emphatically wanna know about stuff as sophomore parents, but believe it or not, less so about the cost side of this. So they’re in an exploration phase for sure, and we know from our ongoing research at EAB, if we wanna win hearts and minds in the admission funnel, the sophomore year is the time to be doing it.

0:25:25.4 AN: Yeah, right.

0:25:27.0 KD: That’s when some really big bonds can be developed. Now juniors too, but their parents are a little bit more specifically prioritizing almost everything. So that’s the heavy duty, tell them lots about everything here. And interestingly, we didn’t see a whole lot of people concentrating on it.

0:26:02.0 AN: Right, right. So there’s opportunity right there.

0:26:04.0 KD: Opportunity, I think. So senior year, guess what pops is the cost, the scholarship.

0:26:13.9 AN: Surprise, surprise.

0:26:15.0 KD: And aid packages. And also, the atmospheric variables they’re close to it, so housing, environment, fitness, all very, very important there. But junior year is the big deal year, I think.

0:26:34.4 AN: Well, the year we need to take advantage of, for sure. Well, I wanna be mindful. We have a few minutes remaining, and I have a couple of things we wanna leave our guests with. I’m curious, in most areas of the country, the communication with parents of rising college freshmen in 2020 seemed to revolve around, not exclusively, but in large part, around a safe return to campus and what that was going to look like. Of course, we’re now in a different phase of the pandemic. The vaccines are starting to hit the market, but unfortunately, we still have lots of hotspots. Curious, let’s get our crystal balls out here and sort of try to predict how that parent and student perception of a safe return to campus, what was the dynamic there, from your perspective, Kathy?

0:27:24.0 KD: That’s a very important question, Al. And you and I both know for many years of watching surveys carefully, our beloved data, that parents have always prioritized campus safety and security. And my takeaway from the cycle of 2020, recruiting students, is that that became paramount, but it also became a very complex… You couldn’t define it as easily as… So in the past, we thought about it as crime. Is there crime or…

0:28:06.2 AN: Give me the safety… Give me the safety… Excuse me. The safety brochure that you’re required to provide to me. Yeah. All right. Now, I’ll read that, and I’ll have all my questions answered.

0:28:13.7 KD: So it’s still that, and then in the spring and the summer, we were thinking in very big ways about that being COVID. So how will my son or daughter be protected, and how are you going to make sure that he or she is healthy on campus? But we also added a dimension of racism and awakening across the country. So we began to think, “Wow, that’s another dimension of safety and security for parents.” So it’s all of those things. And in many ways, we can see ourselves coming out the other side potentially as institutions who have a new story to tell about how safe and how caring and thoughtful they have been about protecting the health of their students through this process, their faculty, their staff. There’s a lot of new story telling that can happen there and some parental confidence that will come with that. I think all of our anti-racist focus and activities on all of our campuses will help us there as well. But I don’t know about you, Al. I come away from that cycle from this year understanding that things got, at once, more complicated and yet more clear, right?

0:29:58.9 AN: Yeah. Yep. Agreed. Yeah. All right. Well, I think we should leave our guests with a couple of tips and reminders, and I’ll polish up my crystal ball first, for mine, and if you wanna wrap us up on that. I think the thing that I would say to our colleagues around the country is to focus on the things you have control over. You do have a great deal of control over your website. We’ve clearly established how critical that is. And so working… If you don’t have direct responsibility for that within your portfolio, at least getting with the folks at your institution who do, sharing some of these data with them. Again, we’re happy to provide that to allow you to take that forward, to sort of win that argument. And the second piece of advice I would offer is to recognize just how critical cost in the minds of families are or is as an issue that they’re focused on, and that’s only been heightened by the pandemic, and I don’t see that going away. Kathy, what would you add to that list?

0:31:04.0 KD: I would add a total agreement, Al. And also a spirit of thanks and gratitude, not only for joining us on this podcast, but also for all that you’re doing for your students, and all that you will do in renewed ways in the upcoming spring, fall semesters. We’ve learned a lot, Al, haven’t we?

0:31:30.0 AN: Indeed.

0:31:31.4 KD: Collectively as an industry. And there’s still an awful lot to worry about, but here we are.

0:31:36.3 AN: Indeed.

0:31:37.2 KD: And thank you, Al. It was a pleasure to be with you.

0:31:39.1 AN: It was a pleasure to be with you as always, Kathy, sort of talking through these things, and I just wanna thank our guests who joined us today, and please tune in again soon for the next episode of Office Hours with EAB, and God bless and stay safe.

0:31:54.8 KD: Thanks, folks.


0:32:02.4 MP: Join us next week when EAB’s Tom Sugar is joined by Paula Short, head of the Houston GPS system, to talk about how efforts to eliminate equity gaps in higher education have evolved over time and how the two are working together to involve more colleges in the effort today through EAB’s Moon Shot for Equity. Thanks again for listening to Office Hours with EAB.


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