Hiding your cost is not fooling your students

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The insane cost of college is maybe the worst-kept secret in the world. One university’s market research showed cost topics were the first, second and third thing on their prospects’ minds. I don’t care who you are: That’s stress.

And yet almost every admissions counselor I’ve talked to admits they struggle during financial aid conversations with their prospects. Schools bury their tuition on their website. 

Why are we so afraid to talk about cost? Often it’s because our team isn’t trained to discuss it.

What silence costs you

Fall is prime time for financial aid message prep.

The FAFSA opens in October. This one form shapes recruiting classes more than anything else in your communications flow. 

The FAFSA presents many challenges for students. For many it may be the first budget conversation they’ve ever had with their parents. For adult learners it is a lifeline to their dreams.

But the FAFSA process is trap-filled. About one-quarter of students selected for verification melt. FAFSA myths are everywhere. Students believe they make too much – or not enough! – to qualify for Federal Aid. Rumors whirl around your institution, too – about your cost, your scholarships and your outcomes.

If you don’t control your cost message, the audience will. 

Schools don’t make it easier. Award letters often come with limited explanation, and most of our online cost resources amount to a Net Price Calculator and vague “you can do it” aphorisms. Want to know what it costs to attend? Good luck!

These tactics never work. Gen Z is more sophisticated about cost than Millennials (like me) and expects transparency.

So, what’s the impact of financial aid confusion for your recruiting pool? Let’s forget all other forms of financial aid melt (of which there are many) and just focus on those verification numbers. 

Let’s say that from 1,000 accepted students, 250 are selected for verification. Of those 250, 22 percent melt – that’s 55 students. What do those 55 students represent to your admissions office in terms of time and resources spent that late in the game? 

When you don’t have a financial aid message, everyone pays. 

You have to have a message

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If you’re a marketing executive or an enrollment manager, those numbers ought to stop you dead in your tracks. 

We owe it to prospective students to have transparent conversations with them about college costs. We know many of them are struggling through this process already and may even be educating their parents while they do it

If you haven’t developed specific financial aid messages and trained for them, your admissions team is making up financial aid conversations as they go. Imagine that – everyone you talk to in the department says something different. Frustrating, right?

Texas Wesleyan felt the same way. They take their financial aid message seriously, and they contracted us to work with their admissions, marketing and financial aid teams to develop a consistent financial aid message for students and parents. We built a framework they can use to grow and shape their message.

Deliver on your promise

Your financial aid message must be consistent, transparent and student-focused. If it’s not, it isn’t a message – it’s an opinion. 

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The process is directly tied to your ability to provide outstanding student service. When should an admissions counselor transfer a conversation to a financial aid counselor? That’s just one of the questions a well-led training workshop can help answer

Build your message network

Most of us are too busy reporting to committees and trying to staff the office to plan and train our team on our financial aid message. And many financial aid offices are reticent to let go of that control. 

But we aren’t talking about Federally-regulated loan discussions or a student’s personal information. We’re talking about the service we provide to our students. 

Making affordability messaging central to your fall curriculum is essential to stop the melt flow in spring. 

What are you doing to make paying for college more transparent for your students? Let us know in the comments.


D. White & Company builds marketing momentum for small, private universities with research, training and creative. Want to talk? Schedule a call today.