Cut the clutter in communicating cost

This is a time of year when many college-bound students and their families are having conversations and making decisions about where to attend college. Cost and financial aid are major factors in that decision. Inside Higher Ed and Gallop recently conducted a poll of parents of pre-college students that found a majority of those parents would restrict college options based upon published tuition. (Inside Higher Ed is hosting a webinar on this and other results of the survey on April 11, 2013.)

Marketers expect this. Price is one of the four Ps of the marketing mix, along with product, place, and promotion. For those that prefer the four Cs of the marketing mix, cost is included among customer, convenience, and communication. College administrators make strategic decisions about price that determine tuition, fees, and financial aid policy. Eventually, colleges communicate those decisions to students and families via websites, emails, publications, and eventually a financial aid offer.

In The New York Times today, Tanya Abrams wrote about interpreting financial aid offers and negotiating additional financial aid. In a blog post yesterday, Stephanie Geyer at Noel-Levitz advised college administrators about communicating college cost. Much has been written on this topic, and these two recent articles can help you stay current in the field.

My advice to colleges and universities is to cut the clutter in communicating cost. As Ms. Geyer notes, net cost calculators are frequently difficult to find or confusing to use. In an interview with Macalester College Director of Financial Aid Brian Lindeman, Ms. Abrams references the various forms of aid available and the questions that students and families should ask when comparing financial aid offers. These examples lead me to believe that the higher education industry does a poor job advising students and families about college expenses and how to pay them. (I am not familiar with Macalester College’s financial aid communications, which may be marvelous. However, comparing financial aid awards from multiple institutions can be very complicated.)

Step outside of higher education for a moment and consider what it is like to read medical insurance statements or sign papers to buy a house. These are the things that I imagine make sense to hospital administrators or bankers, but are daunting to anyone else. I imagine that students and families have similar impressions of higher education when they simply want to know what it costs and how to pay for it.

I’ve seen colleges communicate about financial aid with an abundance of legal information or disclaimers, or stuff packets with brochures and filers about every aspect of financial aid (plus a few unrelated programs). How does this help students and families understand college cost when they are sitting around the kitchen table making important decisions?

Cut the clutter. Ms. Geyer says, “keep the language…simple, direct, and engaging.” That is sound advice.

As you cut the clutter, you may find ways to segment your prospective student population and target messages at the right time using the right media. For example, prospective students might receive targeted communications depending on their affluence, academic preparation (and qualification for scholarships), and propensity to understand the value of a college degree. If they are used properly, online net cost calculators afford colleges the opportunity to provide very specific advice very fast. Of course, these messages should not wait until the financial aid offer. The process begins when students and families first see your published tuition.

Regardless of your approach, cut the clutter.

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