By now, it’s a well-known problem: rising college costs have increasingly become a barrier to college enrollment. Since 2003, U.S. News reports that tuition and fees have risen by 134% at private universities and 175% at in-state public universities.
Inflation of course has contributed, but that index has only increased by 65% in the same timeframe, accounting for half (or less) of the jump in college costs. Students are struggling to find out how to pay for college. Therefore, it’s no wonder rising high school seniors are second-guessing the decision to plunk down many thousands of dollars for a four-year degree.
In the face of declining enrollments, colleges are recognizing this problem and taking measures to help students and families as best they can. According to data from the National Association of College and University Business Officers, the average tuition discount rate for first-time undergraduates at private universities hit a record high of 54.5% in 2020.
Grants, fellowships, and scholarships are all vehicles to improve access and affordability, and they are effective. Yet if a student and their family don’t know about these opportunities or understand how they affect the “sticker price,” they may forgo your institution. Therefore, it’s essential that you communicate effectively, efficiently, and often.
Here are three ways to show students how to pay for college and afford it.
1. Help them fully understand the financial aid they’re getting.
Financial aid letters are too often written “from the university” rather than “to the student.” They tend to foreground the message “here is your package, here’s how we calculated it” rather than “this is what your financial aid means, so here’s how you’re going to pay for college.” Few students have the financial literacy necessary to understand the differences between grants, scholarships, work-study, and loans.
By breaking down these financial aid options and explaining what each means for what the student will owe both now and later, you can help ease some of the fear and uncertainty that come with “money talk.” Then, once they see that paying for an education at your institution is feasible, you can get them excited by including a little preview of what’s coming next (e.g., housing selection)!
2. Create more opportunities for them to ask questions.
Every financial aid letter should include contact information for financial aid officers and a message encouraging students and their families to reach out with any questions they have. However, that shouldn’t be the only opportunity they have to ask questions. Hosting financial aid/scholarship “open house” days on your campus is another way to demonstrate that you really want accepted students to understand the implications of their financial aid options. Invite students to come learn more and ask whatever questions they might have, and you’ll reap the added benefit of gaining a reasonable enrollment benchmark; a high percentage of students who attend on-campus financial aid events ultimately choose to attend that university.
3. Customize communications as much as possible.
Communications around financial aid are often written as one-size-fits-all—which, while efficient, is not necessarily the most effective. The amount of support a first-generation college student and their family need to understand a financial aid package is far greater than a student who is the third child of college-education parents to attend college. Furthermore, it can go a long way to acknowledge the student separately from their family, and vice versa.
After all, the decision to attend a given college is typically a joint decision, so acknowledging the agency and even interests of the students separately from their parents or caretakers can make an even more favorable impression. After all, every touchpoint with a prospective student is an opportunity to recruit! Financial aid communications are no exception.