When you think about the most influential factors in a student’s college decision process, elements like cost, location and academic reputation undoubtedly come to mind. That’s why enrollment materials are often chock full of language related to affordability, campus culture and program rankings.
But one influential force that can have a sizable impact on a student’s higher education decisions resides much closer to home – the student’s parents.
“A student’s parents – or whomever fulfills that guardian role – are typically there to provide emotional and/or financial support,” explains Paul Kramer, director of student experience at Collegis Education. “Students often look to their parents for advice and for confirmation that they’re making the right decisions.”
While the end goal of earning a college degree may be the same for both students and their parents, general priorities, concerns and questions may vary when you’re speaking to someone about their child. Join us as we explore the complex role today’s parents play in the college decision process and uncover what’s most important to them.
What role do parents play today?
Every prospective student will have their own checklist of things they’re looking for in a college. And while it may not be a conventional list item, many are seeking the approval of their parents or guardians throughout the process. “Students look to their ‘decision committee’ before choosing a school,” Kramer says. “If they don’t have that support, it can get tricky.”
In general, students tend to see their parents as positive influences when it comes to things like navigating financial aid resources, selecting college majors and even narrowing down the schools to which they’ll eventually apply. However, a recent study from American Student Assistance (ASA) found that just 33 percent of surveyed parents believed they had the knowledge they needed to guide their child through the college application and decision-making process.
The ASA report also found that a substantial amount of parents also doubted their abilities to adequately counsel their children on career planning or financial responsibility. As students look to their parents for guidance, the schools that stand out the most will be the ones offering continual support and parent-specific resources.
Addressing parents directly can help them feel more welcome in the admissions process. And the more engaged they are, the more likely they’ll be to help get their students excited about a particular school or program. By establishing lines of communication, resources and events that are targeted directly to parents, they’ll feel properly informed and better prepared to help their children take charge of the application process.
“There should be a dedicated messaging track just for parents,” Kramer suggests. This can help keep parents engaged with the school, while also ensuring they’re updated on all the necessary process elements – things like application timelines, due dates for deposits and other key enrollment steps.
“Students are savvier today than in the past, however they still lack experience,” he adds. “Parents are often more organized than their kids, and they’ll typically help manage the steps required to start school.”
In practice, this can be done in a number of different ways. Here are some tactics to consider:
- Dedicating a section of your school’s website to providing resources for parents and guardians.
- Hosting in-person or virtual or information sessions designed specifically for parents of prospective students.
- Including parents in student communications (with the student’s permission).
- Deploying parent-specific email campaigns that will address elements you know they want to know more about.
These ideas and others can help ensure the parents and guardians of your prospective students feel important, informed and more confident in their ability to help guide their aspiring graduate.
What do today’s parents care about?
According to the ASA report, most parents view higher education as a means of gaining skills for future employment. As such, they see college as a launching pad for their children’s eventual career success. Generally speaking, parents’ goals for their kids’ post-high school education focus more on career preparation and earning capacity to become self-sufficient than academic exploration.
When asked why their children should attend college, survey respondents provided the following as their top three answers:
- To gain skills needed for future employment
- To get a good paying job
- To earn credentials needed to achieve career goals
With that in mind, parents are often focused on career-based outcomes – likely to ensure their return on investment will be worth it in the end. Because ultimately, most parents’ primary concern when it comes to college is cost.
“Financing is often top of mind for parents,” Kramer ensures. “Having a parent feel comfortable about the affordability and value of their child’s education is important.”
The 2018 College Savings Indicator study from Fidelity Investments revealed that parents in general plan to cover an average of 62 percent of the total cost of college for their children. In fact, parents are so mindful of tuition costs these days that an increasing number are starting to save for college before their child’s first day of preschool.
Their ability to provide financially can lead to overwhelming insecurity for parents of some students. More than half of surveyed parents reported concerns over having to narrow their child’s college choices due to the steep cost of tuition. It’s clear that when it comes time to have admissions conversations with parents and guardians, calming concerns over cost can be a great way to lead.
Kramer points out that other topics parents tend to focus on are safety (most recently relating to COVID-19), housing, the value of online classes and general logistics related to the process. It’s also true that some parents are in need of a bit of education surrounding the various options available in higher education today because it’s evolved so much since their own college experience.
According to the ASA report, when most parents think of college, they picture the traditional undergraduate experience. In fact, 72 percent of survey respondents said they associated college with a four-year bachelor’s degree program. In many cases, they’re simply unaware of the vast range of college opportunities that exist in today’s higher education landscape – from the on-campus four-year degree programs they’ve come to expect, to two-year, accelerated, competency-based or even hybrid programs.
With that in mind, admissions conversations with parents may at times center on broadening their definition of college. “Even if the parents are very supportive, they may lack the experience needed to know all the possibilities,” Kramer shares.
Be smart about the college decision process
The best thing schools can do to ensure they see success with their enrollment efforts is to become experts in the college decision process. This starts by knowing what prospective students need – and we now know that obtaining the approval of their parents and guardians can play a pivotal role in students’ decision-making processes.
Do you know what else students need and when? You can better inform your efforts by learning more about the prospective student journey with our infographic, “8 Stages of the College Decision Process.”