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Why Parent Engagement Should Be a Central Focus of Your Recruiting Strategy

Episode 118

August 30, 2022 33 minutes


EAB’s Madeleine Rhyneer and Michael Koppenheffer share findings from EAB’s newest survey of parents and guardians of prospective college applicants. The survey helps pinpoint parent preferences around the types and timing of communication they most appreciate from colleges, as well as the top concerns they have about the college search process. Michael and Madeleine share tips for institutions looking to make parent engagement a more central focus of their recruiting efforts.

They also urge schools to lead with empathy and do everything in their power to educate parents about the challenges and opportunities that go along with sending one of their own off to college.



0:00:12.5 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today, our experts share findings from EAB’s newest parent engagement survey. The survey was designed to identify how and when parents want your college to communicate with them throughout their family’s college search odyssey. Our experts dig into the data and offer tips on what the survey findings suggest your school should be doing differently as you consider where parents fit in your overall recruiting strategy. Give these folks a listen, and enjoy.


0:00:50.4 Madeleine Rhyneer: Well, hello, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. I’m Madeleine Rhyneer, and I serve as the Vice President of Consulting and Dean of Enrollment Management at EAB. Today, we’re gonna talk about an aspect of student recruitment that is often undervalued and underutilized. I’m talking about the small percentage of colleges and universities that make comprehensive parent communication and engagement a central focus of their recruiting strategy. We know how closely tied Gen Z students are with their millennial appearance, and that phrase, “We’re going to college,” is how they think. So why is it that more colleges and universities don’t make this a priority? Today, we’re gonna dig into EAB’s hot-off-the-press survey data from 2300 parents who shared their perspectives on college communication preferences and priorities for choosing a school. Joining me today to discuss this issue is my colleague, Michael Koppenheffer. Michael, will you mind introducing yourself, and will you tell us a little bit about the new survey findings that we’re gonna dig into today?

0:01:53.9 Michael Koppenheffer: Thanks, Madeleine, and it’s great to be with you. As Madeleine was saying, my name’s Michael Koppenheffer. I serve as the Vice President for Marketing and Analytics for EAB’s Enroll360 group. So that means that I work with people who do the marketing strategy, the people who analyze the performance of marketing campaigns, understand student and parent behavior, and so forth. And so, for all those reasons, I’m very concerned about understanding the preferences and priorities of parents. So we’ve done this survey now for many, many years, big biennial survey, bi- which we mean every two years, and we survey parents on their communication preferences with regard to colleges and the college search for high school students, but we also try to understand a little bit about their psychology, their concerns, their worries. And so we’re gonna talk about all of that today as we unpack the findings of the survey.

0:02:54.5 MR: Yeah, thanks, Michael. I mean, the survey questions are really interesting, ’cause I think when enrollment leaders have the opportunity to look at the survey results in their entirety, there are gonna be a lot of things in there that don’t really surprise people; these are long-term trends. Families are very worried about cost. But there are also some real nuggets, I think. And the one thing that came through loud and clear was parents absolutely wanna be communicated with. And interestingly enough, because we also survey students about when they’re beginning their college search, that the rate at which parents want to be involved sort of seems to be mirroring the same timeline that their students might be following. So when you think about that, when you think about how and when is it that parents wanna hear from colleges? What advice do you have for enrollment leaders about setting a strategy?

0:03:44.4 MK: Well, the first thing that I say to colleges and universities about building a parent communication strategy is to do it at all. So, you wouldn’t be surprised, but many of our listeners might be surprised to learn that most colleges really do not have an organized strategy for communicating to the parents of prospective students, and by parents, I should stipulate right now, we mean the parents, family members, guardians; the people in students’ lives who are concerned about taking care of them and concerned about their future. So most institutions don’t have a communication strategy, so the first thing to do is actually set an intention that you want to engage with parents. And then, to your specific question, which is a little bit about when, realize that there’s an opportunity to do it long before the student applies and is admitted. Really, the institutions that take this the most seriously, that have the most concerted and comprehensive effort start sophomore year or even before, with regular, intentional communications to parents.

0:04:52.3 MR: I think… I appreciate that. So it’s kind of like Nike: Just Do It. [chuckle] Because many enrollment teams recognize the import, but of all the things on their list, that… It feels like this often kind of falls down between the cracks, and from the webinar that Michael and I did on the same topic, we asked our participants to share with us sort of where they were in their parent communication journey, and it’s not surprising; they were all over the place. Some felt that they really had a pretty tight parent communication plan and executed on it, but it was a very small percentage, as Michael said. So Michael, when you think about…

0:05:29.3 MK: Yeah…

0:05:30.3 MR: Oh, go ahead.

0:05:31.2 MK: I was just gonna say, not to belabor the obvious. The reason that it’s so important to communicate to parents is two-fold. One is that parents are telling us in the survey that they want to hear from colleges. The percentage of the parents who say assertively, “I want to engage with colleges and universities about my student’s choices,” it is overwhelming. So parents want the communication. And also, students are telling us that parents are not just highly influential, but they’re growing more influential in their college choices. You’ve got a group of people, the parents, who wanna hear from you, and they’re gonna make a difference in students’ college choices. So it really is important and highly leverage to talk to these parents.

0:06:17.7 MR: So I really appreciate you calling those two factors out. And talk to us a little bit about… Were there any differences in demographic groups? Was there a material difference between how racial and ethnic groups of parents want communication from colleges?

0:06:36.6 MK: Well, so I think the biggest differences that we saw were actually ones of intensity, not a type, and what I mean by that is that we actually did analysis of the survey results where we cut by the racial or ethnic identities of the parents or of the students. And what we found is that by and large, no matter what the race or ethnicity of the parents, their concerns modeled the same patterns of the concerns of the average parent. So great deal of concern about cost, great deal of concern about safety. So the topics like that, that are perennial and that are true across racial and ethnic identities.

0:07:23.0 MK: What we did find is that the intensity of those concerns grew depending upon the identities of the parents in question. So in particular, for instance, what we found is that when we looked at the percentage of parents who are concerned about the cost of family, the Latinx identifying parents said 73% of them identified financial cost as a top concern, and you contrast that with 71% for Black, 60% for Asian, 59% for White. So a high concern for all of these parents, but even more intense for certain groups.

0:08:07.2 MR: One of the things that I was pleasantly surprised by was when you just looked at racial groups and whether or not they wanted to be included in their child’s college search or that family member that they’re supporting, it was overwhelming, and that was across all groups. So, I really appreciate your point that some of the concerns are slightly… There are variations of intensity of concerns, but in general, everyone wants to be involved. And so one of the ways that I interpret that is some enrollment leaders will say, Well, gosh, so our version of our parent communication plan is we CC parents on messages that we’re sending to their children, and what’s your take on that as adequate and sufficient?

0:08:56.3 MK: So my take on CC’ing parents on communications to students is that it is better than nothing, so if you’re starting out by doing nothing to communicate to parents, at least starting to include them in the conversation is a step in the right direction, but what the survey reinforced to us, which is not surprising, because we see it in our work, is that parents are concerned about different topics than their kids are, than their students are at any given time. And let me just give you a specific example of this, a sophomore in high school from the work that we’ve done, they’re not thinking about the affordability of their education in most cases, and so therefore, if you try to engage them with content on college costs, on affordability, on return on investment, it’s not really going to land right for the student.

0:09:51.2 MK: With the parent, affordability communications, cost communications are actually right on target for what they wanna hear about, what they wanna engage about because they are adults, they are planning across a longer time horizon, they’re thinking more about the big picture. And so we are thinking, as we think about effective parent communication about what the right topic is at the right time.

0:10:17.5 MR: I do think that’s really important. So I will say that one of my very favorite enrollment leaders would very occasionally start a message out to parents, where she actually would paste the message that she had sent to the student but it was always about finance, knowing that that’s a key question all the way through. And her opener was amazing, ’cause it would say, “Hey, I don’t know about you, but if your student is like my children, often they’re not sharing important information about the college search, and I thought this was so important I wanted to share with you what I have just said to them.” And the sort of the humanity of that and the opener got a lot of positive response from parents. So when you think about that, what other best practices are you seeing in the market, Michael, what would you recommend that people consider as effective tactics?

0:11:07.9 MK: Well, Mel, it’s so funny that you brought up that specific example, because to me that highlights one of the core principles of effective communication between colleges and students or family, which is being personal and authentic. The example you shared is such a nice reminder that power of being a human being, being warm, being empathetic, is going to make a really big difference on how effectively your communication is received, it’s something that we see in the work that we do with colleges and universities all the time, the power of personal communication, and I think the larger lesson that you can take away from that, is that most of the things about an effective parent communication plan, are true of almost any communication plan regardless of the audience.

0:11:55.2 MK: So you gotta be personal, you have to be authentic, you also need to be persistent. So it is a common fallacy on the part of people who are communicating for work that their recipients are just sitting around waiting for their email or their letter or their Instagram ad or what have you. Really your audience, they are busy people with many things going on in their lives and so you can’t assume they’re gonna read the first or the second or the third email. You can’t necessarily assume that they’re gonna look at that first post card, you need to think across the long term, you need to think about it across a broader time horizon, and realize you need to try a bunch of times to reach these parents, and don’t be discouraged by email performance metrics, they look kind of low because really, it’s all about staying in front of them, being where the parents are, when they’re engaged, when they’re looking.

0:12:46.4 MR: I really appreciate that. My own lived experience was, I’d like to think that I had a pretty spot-on parent communication flow, and although you don’t always get a lot of responses to any individual messages, people would write to me later in the year responding to a previous message that I’d sent. So you knew that it was still sitting out there, and for them it was a very convenient way to get back to you when they may have a question about something entirely different, and so again, just because you don’t hear from someone, doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not actually reading and potentially internalizing your message, and then gonna use that to get back to you later. But Michael, in the survey, parents shared some really interesting information about where they go to learn about colleges, and would you mind sharing that? We have this incredibly complicated bubble chart. Can you walk our listeners through it without them having the ability to see it?

0:13:43.1 MK: Yes, no. Everyone picture in your mind’s eye, many different bubbles. Almost like soap bubbles. No. I won’t make you visualize the graphical though. If you find our white paper, you will have the opportunity to see it for yourself, but let me try to summarize the findings of the survey with regard to the sources of information the parents turn to when they’re trying to understand about colleges. So we ask this question every time we do the survey, and we deliberately ask about a lot of different sources, because the reality is that there is no single place that parents turn when they’re trying to get information about colleges. In fact, there’s no even small group of sources there. The biggest takeaway is there are so many sources that parents and family members turn to. And so what we did is we found that there’s really three big categories of sources.

0:14:37.0 MK: One is, it’s self-service research sources, things like Google, websites, college websites, third parties, virtual tours and so forth. Also people, counselors, friends, family members, other parents, and so forth, and then also there are more traditional through marketing and communications sources, so emails from colleges, personal letters from colleges, social media ads and so forth. And while there were some strong patterns that emerged, so the fact that college websites were really important, search engines were really important.

0:15:14.9 MK: Counselors are very influential. The biggest takeaway I get from this is if you wanna be effective reaching parents and family members, you can’t put your eggs in one basket. You can’t even be put your eggs in a couple of baskets. You really have to think broadly about what the message is that you want to reach families with, you wanna reach parents with, and all the places that you can potentially get it out, and so that requires a broad view of marketing campaigns, it requires you to really think about your website, other websites, and making sure that messaging is relevant and up to date. And also how you’re getting out in the community, how you’re working face-to-face with people to propagate your message.

0:15:55.9 MR: As I’m listening to you talk, I’m thinking maybe that’s one of the challenges of getting to the just do it part, because it’s complicated. I mean, you really need a multi-modal, multi-present in a lot of places, at a lot of different times, ’cause I think just like students, you never know what is the moment that a person’s mind will actually be open to receive the messages that you’re trying to share with them in a very crowded digital and email space. So when you think about that, you just kind of alluded to this a bit, Michael, are there groups of parents who indicated through our survey results, that they benefited more from in-person channels like college fairs, admission counselor outreach interactions with counselors than others. Were there some variations there?

0:16:43.0 MK: Yeah, so there were some fairly significant differences in the findings when you cut by race and ethnicity here, in particular, just like you’re alluding to, what we found is that the Latinx and Black parents were more likely to say that they valued the direct communications from college and counselors in college fairs, than the parents who were identified as Asian or identified as White, and conversely, we saw somewhat higher uptake from things like the college’s .edu website from Asian and White parents versus Black and Latinx. And I think, again, my biggest takeaway here is don’t put your eggs in a single basket, make sure that you are thinking not just about different marketing vehicles, but actually about different ways to get your message out. And this is not a surprise to those who work in enrollment, the counseling mission getting out into the community, getting out into the world is so core to what people who work in admissions offices do. So I’m not necessarily preaching anything that is going to be a surprise or dissonant to people who work in enrollment, but it’s a good reminder that there is value in thinking about a marketing communications plan that is going to make sure that it is effective, consistent, persistent, but also making sure that you’re continuing to get out into the world and also into the virtual world, with things like virtual college fairs and so forth.

0:18:16.7 MR: Got it. So let’s switch gears just for a moment to cost, because we normally ask parents in the survey about, “How is it you learn about colleges?” But then we asked them, what they were anxious about? Just like we always are asking students, “what are you anxious about as you’re thinking about college?” And obviously, one of the things that comes up all the time, so again, not new news to enrollment leaders, you’ve been talking about this forever is cost, but one of the things that I was really struck by in this survey, and I’m trying to decide, is this just a pandemic impact or what. But one in three parents actually said they weren’t sure that they could afford any college for their student and that just sort of struck at the heart of access and opportunity and creating a better future for young people, so… What’s your takeaway about communicating on cost, how would you advise knowing that people are pretty ramped up about it regardless of their financial circumstances?

0:19:15.0 MK: So glad you brought that up, Madeleine, because my first advice to colleges and universities about communicating with parents is just to do it, but my second piece of advice is talk about cost.

0:19:25.8 MK: The findings in the survey were so clear, that parents, no matter who they were, were concerned about cost. They wanted to hear from colleges and universities about cost. And that for them, their concerns about cost are actually about a whole constellation of topics. So about whether their child was going to have a fulfilling successful career afterwards, about how much debt their child was gonna have, about the overall affordability of the college experience. And colleges and universities can play a really important role in educating parents and families about this topic. In fact, when we surveyed about some very basic college financing topics, so the difference between sticker price and net cost for instance, we saw that nearly a quarter of parents who have a household income of $60000 or less, said that they hadn’t ever thought about sticker price versus net cost. And that is so striking, just because that is one of the first things that families in that income bracket ought to be thinking about, if they’re thinking about college at all, and it’s a real opportunity to start to put some of this information in front of families. Help them understand the options, help them understand the real affordability of college, and hopefully, potentially encourage families to encourage their kids to attend, in some cases, when they might not.

0:20:54.4 MR: One of the things I’m wondering about, is we’ve seen two years of pretty dramatic declines in the number of FAFSAs filed in the country and I worry about this. I often worry. I worry about families in every way, both in my previous work as an enrolment leader, and now, certainly partnering up with schools at EAB. I wonder, I think sometimes parents thinking about paying for college, especially if you come from modest financial circumstances, it’s kind of scary because you’re actually worried, “Can my family… Can we afford anything for my son or daughter?” And I think sometimes it’s hard to actually even think about that, and what people would think is a rigorous and sort of logical way. Because if the end result is, you may not be able to pay for it, or you’re worried you can’t, no one wants to send that message to their son or daughter. “We’re not gonna be able to support you as you’re thinking about pursuing your life’s dream of going to college.” And I’m wondering, I really appreciate what you just said about communicating about not just price, but about net cost, and then of course, we’re gonna get to value in just a minute. But do you have any tips for reassuring messages that people can send to parents, because what I worry is, I think some people just shut down, ’cause it’s terrifying. And filing a FAFSA is not all that fun. And maybe it gets better in a simplified FAFSA, but we don’t know that.

0:22:17.5 MK: So reassuring might be a high bar, in terms of college financing, ’cause it’s, as a parent myself, I’ve personal experience that the cost of college is scary, and I know you have lived through it as well. What I will say though, is that there’s a lot of opportunity for demystification of college financing. And I think one of the things that is so scary about college class is not just that the sticker price is so high, but it’s so hard to understand all the elements of the process. Like you’re talking about for FAFSA filing, but the process of getting financial aid, the cost of how scholarships work, all this stuff. And I don’t know that colleges and universities are necessarily well-positioned to be truly reassuring, because it is a huge investment for every family yearly to send their kids to college, but I think they can help clarify what the options are and what the true cost is. And like you were saying about value, what the true return is and why it is so important. And I think that they have a credible position and a lot of standing to be able to articulate those messages and to clarify those points and those processes.

0:23:40.0 MR: Yeah, Michael, I really like your phrase reassurance, because I think reassurance and trying to minimize anxiety, one of the things that I often thought is, filing a FAFSA just isn’t that fun, if any of you have not had the privilege and opportunity.

0:23:56.3 MK: Nope.

0:23:56.8 MR: And it’s also, it feels monolithic. And I’m often thinking, I often think in terms of just in-time information like, “Don’t tell me what I need to know next month, ’cause I might forget. Tell me what I need to know today.” And so if you just sort of focus on financial aid for a minute, and you think about the agency that you’ve just described, that enrollment shops have to help families work through this process, is it like FAFSA 101A? “What do you need?” “An FSA ID, and then how do I get it? And then what, 101B. What documents do I need to know when I sit down to complete my FAFSA?” You could create these little snippets. Do you think advice like that is helpful for maybe many pieces of this, not just aid, but maybe the application process, and making a choice about college? Would that help parents?

0:24:47.5 MK: It would help parents probably help students too. Because one of our findings across many years, is that the more you’re able to lower barriers to exploration, admission, acceptance and matriculation, the more students are gonna do those things. It seems so obvious, but when you place something difficult in the way of a student or a family member, they might not do it. They might struggle with it, and that is true with things like essays, with test scores, with very complicated bureaucratic process steps for applications and so forth. If you remove those things, you see the rates of exploration, filing, admissions, acceptance, you see them go up, and I think the same is true with, in particular with the financial component, like what you’re talking about. If you can do what you can to make your part of the process transparent and simple and also help walk families and their students through what they need to do in a way that is simple and comprehensible, you’re gonna see better results. And better results in many cases, it’s not just for in the individual college you’re gonna get more applicants, or more students, it’s actually you’re gonna influence some families to get their kids to go to college at all. So it is very important work. I don’t wanna minimize the impact that this can actually make.

0:26:08.7 MR: Well, and I appreciate what you said about motivate their children to go to college at all, because obviously, with National Student Clearinghouse data, we’ve been observing a long-term trend, but really exacerbated by the pandemic about people stepping away from college and for families with constrained financial circumstances, my son or daughter can get a job making $35,000 with a high school diploma, that starts to look like a pretty good equation. So helping people work through processes and engaging parents as your allies to make sure that college kinda stays on the table as one of the options for them to consider seems really important, so let’s talk about… Let’s get past cost for a minute, because we actually asked in this survey, “so what are the things that matter to you as a parent or a supporter of a student applying to college? What is it that matters most to you that would actually help justify the college cost, whatever the individual cost is that the family is paying?” Would you talk through some of the things that they shared? Because I thought it was really interesting.

0:27:15.5 MK: Yeah, it is consistent with what you hear in the overall discussion in America today about higher education, which is that overwhelmingly, parents are concerned about the career outcomes and the real world success of their kid as a result of attending college, so a generation or two ago it was much more about the college experience itself, about the intellectual journey the student will go on, things like quality of the professors, that’s not what’s on the top of the minds of parents right now, it’s is my kid gonna have a fulfilling career? Will they successfully get a job? Will they have overwhelming debt? Are they gonna get the kinds of experiences that allow them allow them to actually get that job? It’s really these very practical considerations that are front and center, and so that is also telling colleges and universities, those are the topics that you also need to highlight in your communication, so there is the practical supportive part of demystifying college financing, but there’s also the convincing part of explaining how attending your college, your university will actually lead to these positive outcomes for students.

0:28:36.9 MR: I was fascinated that in the rank, the hierarchy of responses, four of the top five that parents said would validate whatever costs the family would be paying were job and career-related. It’s the elephant in the room. And so I think everyone on this podcast believes in the transformational impact of a college education, no doubt about it. We’re changing lives, we’re opening those doors of opportunity every day, but that’s almost like when you’re talking to your teenager and asking them to clean their room, they see your lips moving, but they don’t really hear you, because that’s not the message that moves the needle for parents, you actually have to be talking to them about career prospects and outcomes, and I think for some they feel like that sort of, in some ways, diminishes the whole, the totality of the college experience, and I appreciate that feeling, but what are your thoughts? Do we need to serve up to pragmatism, because that’s where parents minds are, to be successful in enrollment?

0:29:43.5 MK: In a word, absolutely.

0:29:45.8 MR: Okay [chuckle]

0:29:48.7 MK: To successfully engage parents and family members in believing that college is worth the investment, you need to speak directly to these concerns, and I furthermore will tell anybody in the college and university world that by talking about the specific things that happen on your campus to support these outcomes, the career services work, the career counseling, which many, many college and universities actually do amazingly well, but by talking it does not diminish the overall value of your institution, quite the contrary, illustrating something specific that is supporting the overall value. And so I would not hesitate to get very specific and very concrete, both in describing the process by which you help students achieve these outcomes and also the outcomes themselves.

0:30:44.6 MR: That’s super powerful. So I wanna just circle back, you use the word empathy earlier in our conversation and I talk about empathy a lot, I think empathy has always mattered, I think many people that do enrolment work have very high empathy, they care deeply about each student and family that they work with in their recruiting process, how do you think our listeners can bring empathy to bear in their communications, not just with parents, but with their students as well?

0:31:13.2 MK: That’s a good question. I think one way is actually by paying attention to the human beings who are on the other side of your communications, be that your emails, your letters, your phone calls, and by pay attention, I don’t just mean literally noticing them, but when you are crafting a communication, actually think about who the parents are, who are receiving this and what their concerns are, these survey findings, in fact, offer a bit of a road map for how to develop that empathy because they are a window into the psyche and the subconscious of the people who are getting your communications. They are telling you what you want to hear about, they’re giving you the opportunity to practice empathy, and so if you craft your communications, your outreach, your plan to conform to what these parents are telling you, you are going to be more empathetic.

0:32:12.2 MR: Thanks, Michael. That’s super good advice. It’s like the big take away from the parent survey is look at all the information that families are sharing with you about what makes them anxious and then what makes them feel positive about just justifying the cost of an individual institution. They’re telling you exactly what they need. Well, this has been amazingly helpful, I’m so grateful to you as always for your insights and the passion that you bring, not just as a marketing professional but as a parent who also has been through this with family members, helping them find the very best place for them to pursue their college dreams, so I wanna thank every one of you for being on the line today and for joining us for office hours at EAB.

0:33:01.1 S1: Thank you for listening. Office Hours is taking a brief end-of-summer hiatus next week, but please join us the following week when we’ll be, if not tanned, at least rested and ready to bring you a fresh new episode. Until then, thank you for your time.

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