There is no denying the importance of the parents’ role in college application process. Schools that find effective ways to communicate with parents will have an upper hand when it comes to college admissions. This guide will help you identify who you’re talking to and how to best earn parents’ trust.
- Who are today’s parents?
- Why communicate with parents?
- What are the most successful strategies for communicating with parents?
- When should you communicate with parents?
- How do you get contact information for parents?
- What should you be saying to parents?
- What mediums should you use?
- Conclusion and next steps.
Before you put together a plan for communicating with parents of prospective Gen-Z students, it’s important to know who they are. While parents differ by geographic region and socioeconomic factors, there are some generalizations and trends to keep in mind for your college admissions strategy.
They’re older than they were before
The average age for first-time moms increased from 21 years old to 25 between 1970 and 2006.1 For today’s incoming freshmen, that means mom is around 42 years old — and that’s for the first kid. For later kids, mom (and, presumably, dad) are even older.
More women are also waiting until 35 or later to have their first child, which means you’re seeing more and more parents in their 50s and even 60s2. It’s not an exaggeration to say that yesterday’s grandparents are today’s parents.
While this trend of parents having kids later in life started to level off after 2010, it is still on the rise, which means you will likely continue to see these older parents for years to come.
Many parents of incoming freshmen grew up in the 1980s, which means they watched “Cheers” on TV, played with G.I. Joe and Care Bears, and listened to Whitney Houston and Bon Jovi (and probably still do).
Parents’ role in the application process has grown
Hear that whirring sound? Those are the “helicopter” parents descending on your campus — always hovering and ready to swoop in at a moment’s notice to take care of whatever their kid might need.
Unlike parents of incoming students from Gen X and earlier generations, many of today’s parents are accustomed to handling every detail of their kid’s life — a habit that often continues through high school and college.
Communicating with overly involved parents is now commonplace. Parents are contacting colleges on behalf of their kids (90% admit to this) and are even completing applications for them (62% say they’ve done it).3
They’re anxious, worried, and nervous
Even if a parent already has a child in college, the college search process is a very emotional time for everyone involved. Parents have spent the past 15 – 17 years doing everything for their kid, from driving carpool to “just helping” with their science fair project. Now, parents feel that it’s time — finally — for all of the blood, sweat, and tears (and money!) they’ve invested to pay off.
The truth is that most students will still have a successful life even if they don’t get into their first-choice college. But parents still feel that the “right” college can make or break everything they (and their kids) have worked for up to this point. It’s a lot of pressure for kids and parents, not to mention the social pressure as neighbors, friends, and coworkers brag about where their kids are going to school.
How do you help alleviate this anxiety and make the process less intimidating? Start by telling parents what to expect and finding ways to help them gain some control over the process. For example, by communicating with parents of lower-income households (whether through email, text, or phone calls), you can help them navigate the controversial and often volatile verification process for federal aid.
As you talk with parents, keep reminding yourself that their child is leaving them, often for the first time. While you see this happening every day as part of your job, these parents are living it firsthand, often over the course of a year (or more). It really is a gut-wrenching experience.
Why communicate with parents?
Due to their crucial influence over a family’s decision-making process, parents can help you make your class. Here are a few things you may not know about parent involvement.
Parents are, by far, the most important influencers for prospective students — more than current students at your school, your admissions counselors, or any other group.4
Parents are especially important influencers at the beginning of the process, playing a major role in determining which schools a student should consider.5 However, they start to lose influence at the end of the process.
You can improve your academic profile by connecting with parents of prospective students, since they’re even more involved in choosing the right school. “As students’ academic ability goes up, so does parental involvement in the college search.”6
There is also a correlation between deposits and parent involvement. “Students who provide their parents’ email addresses when they inquire are 45% more likely to apply and persist through to deposit.”7
College parents have more influence in the beginning of the process, but many schools don’t collect their information until the application phase. Look for ways to get parent information as early as possible.
When we talk about “parents,” that often includes grandparents, high school counselors, coaches, and other trusted adults in a student’s life.
What are the most successful strategies for communicating with parents?
To paraphrase the late, great Aretha Franklin, all parents are asking for is a little respect. By speaking directly to them — and giving them the information they need — you can show that you understand and respect them.
Give parents their own space
Parents want communications and events that are targeted directly to them. These can include:
- Emails specifically for parents
- A parents’ section of your website
- A letter from the president to the parent when their student is admitted
- Parent-specific events (including financial aid appointments and parent sessions at experience days
If you’re not addressing parents directly, they may not feel like they’re welcome in the admissions process (and presumably future processes) at your institution. Give parents an experience that’s in line with the hands-on approach they’ve had raising their kids.
Be open about the fact that you’re talking directly to them
Most parents don’t want to pretend they’re a student, whether they’re on your website or talking with you on the phone. As a parent, they see it as their job to help their child. If you make them feel like they’re sneaking around to get information, you might make it seem like they’re not meant to be part of the process in the first place. Don’t try to hide the information you’re sharing with parents, or the fact that you’re communicating with them.
Remember that parents might also read everything sent directly to the student
“Always keep parents in mind, even for what you might presume to be student material.”8 While parents want their own emails, texts, and website pages, they may also want to know what you’re telling their kid — and if the stories match up. It’s perfectly fine (and often recommended) to have a different tone and style for your student versus parent communications, but make sure your messages are consistent across the board.
Because parents are more influential in the process, it’s important to start engaging with them early.
Talking with parents sooner rather than later lets you:
- Build connections at a time when parents are typically most excited about the process
- Gain the undivided attention of parents at a time when there is less noise, which makes it a good time to share information about costs and other parent priorities9
There are still plenty of opportunities to talk with parents of seniors. For example, when it’s deposit time, ask parents of admitted students if their child is likely to submit a deposit, and then help them take the next step. At Xavier University, if a parent said “yes” to depositing, they received instructions for submitting a deposit; if a parent said “maybe,” Xavier asked them what additional information they needed to support their child.10
In order to have an effective communications strategy for parents, you have to be able to differentiate between a student’s information and their parents’ information. Step 1? Make sure you’re collecting parents’ information separately.
Make sure your RFI form is mobile-friendly
Parents may not be as tech-savvy as their kids, but many of them (up to one third) are still completing a Request For Information form on a mobile device.11
Train your staff to collect parent information at every touchpoint
You’re probably already collecting parent information at campus visits. But what about if a parent calls your school or sends you an email? Look for every opportunity to capture their email address and phone number.
Don’t rely on students to give out parent information
“If you’re looking to get parent information, you need to ask the parents.”12 Students are often hesitant to give out their parents’ personal email and phone number, so make sure you give them a good reason if you’re asking for it. For example, tell students that you can share timely information about financial aid, which is something most students understand will be valuable to their parents.
Parents want the facts about your school. But they’re also looking for reassurance. Will their child fit in? Can they really afford it? Will their child succeed at your school — and in life?
When determining ways for your school to communicate with parents, start with the facts. Most parents want information about these four topics:
Keep in mind that parents’ questions and concerns will change throughout the process.
- In the beginning, parents want to see if a school is a good fit academically and get general information about affordability
- As students get closer to making a decision, parents focus more on the exact costs as well as practical considerations, such as where their student would live
You want parents to be engaged, but ultimately you want students to lead the application process — especially since the student’s influence is strongest at decision time. It’s a fine balance, but look for ways to encourage parents to let their child take the lead, perhaps by telling parents where their child can find student-focused information.
This sample wireframe shows how the Parents & Family section of your website can include information about academics, upcoming deadlines, financial aid, and other topics that appeal to parents.
Kudos to Bradley University for the wireframe inspiration: https://www.bradley.edu/admissions/freshman/parents/
Effective ways to communicate with parents
Address cost directly, and let them know financial assistance is available
“Students and parents take a college’s published tuition at face value,” according to one study, which found that approximately 40% of students and parents “rejected colleges on the basis of their published sticker price alone.”13 Many parents simply do not know about the availability or magnitude of discounts available. Let parents know — repeatedly — about all of the financial aid options available to them.
Most parents would likely reconsider a school that’s too expensive if the school can “demonstrate greater value.”14 Lowering the cost of your school (through financial aid) is one way to raise the value. Another way — which doesn’t cost you anything — is to demonstrate the higher quality of your education, career services, and other factors that provide a return on investment.
Show the real student experience
Parents can’t take your school for a test drive. But they still want to know what day-to-day life is really like, especially given the trend toward greater transparency from companies and brands. You don’t have to tell parents everything, but being open and honest — even if it doesn’t always show the most flattering side of your school — can build trust with parents and make your school more approachable.
Use parents to get students excited
Students who are excited about your school are more likely to enroll (the correlation is twice as strong as the correlation between enrollment and cost).15 Be enthusiastic when you’re communicating with parents, and share content that will help them get their kid excited.
Share your most popular content for prospective students with parents early in the process, and ask them to share it with their kid.
When communicating with parents, it’s important to have a multichannel approach that incorporates both active (texting, email, phone) and passive (web, print) communications. Use the chart below as a reference for determining the most effective ways to use each medium.
Conclusion and next steps
Creating an effective parent communication strategy takes time, but it’s an investment that can pay off with improved yield and deposit numbers. Here are some steps that you can take — starting today — to improve your metrics.
STEP 1: Audit your past and current communications for parents.
- How are you communicating with parents?
- Which mediums are most effective?
- What content gets the best response?
STEP 2: Determine which content you should be sharing with parents, and which mediums to invest in.
- What do parents want to know?
- What do you want parents to know?
- Which mediums get ignored?
- Which mediums help parents get engaged and feel informed?
STEP 3: Start with simple, small steps.
Update your RFI form to capture parent information. Talk with your staff about the top handful of questions you get from parents. Ensure you have consistent (and effective) ways to answer them in person and/or on your parents’ website.
STEP 4: Go deeper, and find ways to proactively help parents throughout the admissions process.
Make sure your website has a separate, comprehensive section for parents. Consider utilizing texting for communication with parents.
STEP 5: Measure and re-evaluate.
Your audience changes every year. Just because something worked in the past, doesn’t mean it will work in the future. As parents get more tech-savvy, watch for changes in the effectiveness of your communications channels. For example, while most parents today aren’t very receptive to getting messages through social media apps such as Facebook Messenger, that’s likely to change in the future as social apps become more widespread and a new generation starts preparing to send their children off to your school.
1-2 Mathews TJ, Hamilton BE. Delayed childbearing: More women are having their first child later in life. NCHS data brief, no 21. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2009.
3, 8-9, 11-12 Ruffalo Noel Levitz, NRCCUA, OmniUpdate, CollegeWeekLive (2017). 2017 e-expectations trend report. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Ruffalo Noel Levitz. Available at www.RuffaloNL.com/Eexpectations
4 Influencing the Influencer: Connecting with the Parents of Prospective Students. Higher Education Marketing. Available at: http://www.higher-education-marketing.com/blog/influencing-influencer-connecting-prospective-student-parent
5-7, 10 Ball J, Cheney L, Nelson J. Engaging Parents in the College Choice Process: Effective Parent Communication Strategies. IACAC conference 2014
13-15 Longmire and Company, Inc. Your Value Proposition: How prospective students and parents perceive value and select colleges. Available at: https://www.longmire-co.com/documents/studies/Value_Proposition_Study_Report.pdf