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June 10

Communicating the Cost of Higher Education: Insights from Ken Sigler


by | Jun 10, 2024 | Featured, Strategies, Podcast

Communicating the cost of higher education is a tricky thing for any marketer. Yet, this is one of the first considerations that students and parents have.

That means as higher ed marketers, we can’t afford to ignore this critical question. 

Navigating the financial aspects of higher education can be overwhelming for students and their families. 

The cost of tuition, fees, and living expenses has gone up a lot over the years, making it harder for many to afford. 

Often, families find it difficult to understand the actual cost of attending college because schools aren’t always clear about their pricing and financial aid options. 

Unlike past generations, today’s students often rely more on loans, which can lead to long-term debt that impacts their future finances and career choices.

Understanding financial aid packages can be confusing as they involve a mix of loans, grants, scholarships, and work-study options. 

These financial pressures are much greater now than they were for previous generations, who often had more affordable education and didn’t need to borrow as much.

Besides the immediate financial challenges families face, there are also the larger economic concerns to think about.

The job market for new graduates can be uncertain, with many entry-level jobs requiring advanced degrees or offering lower wages than expected. 

This is different from past generations, where having a bachelor’s degree was often enough to secure a good job. 

As a result, students today are thinking twice about education costs and the long-term benefits and potential risks of taking on student debt.

With all of these challenges in mind, how should we go about communicating the cost of higher education?

Communicating the cost of higher education is never easy. Ken Sigler gives some incredible insights on how higher ed marketers can improve their messaging strategies around the costs of higher ed. To help us answer that question, we spoke with Ken Sigler, the Director of Enrollment Management at Mount Carmel College of Nursing on The Higher Ed Marketer podcast. 

In this episode, we spoke at length about communicating the cost of higher education to prospective students and their families. 

In this blog post, I want to share with you some of the highlights and insights that we learned from talking with Ken. 

With these best practices in hand, you’ll be better equipped to help prospective students navigate the difficult decisions ahead of them. 

Breaking Down Misconceptions About Higher Ed Costs

Ken begins by addressing the prevalent misconceptions about college affordability and admissions selectivity. 

He notes that the media often exacerbates stress and anxiety by portraying college admissions as overly exclusive. 

But the reality is that only a small percentage of students attend highly selective institutions. 

Thankfully, a majority of students are economically able to attend a wide range of schools with varying levels of selectivity.

The level of stress and anxiety surrounding the college search and the college application process seems to be at an all-time high. 

If you follow news stories and you follow what’s happening in social media and some of the messaging that’s surrounding this topic, you can understand why [there’s so much stress].

[According to the going understanding,] if you’re a senior and you haven’t already applied by November 1, you might as well not even worry about going to college. It’s just not an option for you anymore! You missed the early action or the early deadlines.

He emphasizes the importance of providing clear, transparent information to help families understand their options and alleviate unnecessary stress.

There’s a real need to educate and bring some peace and some calm to the [conversation]. [We should] bring it back to what we’re doing in the first place. [We’re] trying to develop young adults so that they can pursue their passions and be contributors to our society.

The Importance of Early Financial Conversations

One of the key takeaways from the conversation is the necessity of early and ongoing financial literacy education. 

Ken suggests that discussions about financial aid and affordability should begin well before a student is accepted into a college. 

I don’t think we need to wait until a student is accepted to start talking to them about financial aid. I think having the conversations earlier rather than later [is better]. 

[We should have these financial conversations with them] all the way through high school.

Early conversation is really helpful. 

This proactive approach helps demystify the financial aspects of college and empowers families to make informed decisions.

Transparency on Tuition Pages

There are practical steps we can take to better present affordability on our websites

Everyone in higher education understands tuition discounts and knows that the sticker price isn’t what students will actually pay. 

However, many prospective students and their families are not aware of this. 

I always advise my clients to review their tuition pages. 

If the information looks like it’s copied directly from a catalog or the business office, that’s a problem.

There’s often a disconnect between what families see on Google and the much higher sticker price listed on the tuition page. 

Google often portrays data from the IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System), which shows a much lower cost after financial aid than what is on your tuition page. 

Imagine a father standing over his daughter’s shoulder as she checks the tuition page. 

If he sees a figure of $39,500 for tuition when he was expecting something closer to $18,005 after aid, he might say, “Let’s move on to the next school.” 

This scenario likely plays out every day, and it’s something we need to address to prevent losing potential students. 

Ken underscored the need for colleges, especially private ones, to clearly communicate the average net price and the availability of financial aid. 

[It’s important to have] transparency on the website [so that] from the very beginning [the student will] understand [that] “This is what students, on average, actually pay to attend here. In addition to that, this is how many of our students rely on federal loans.”

[Higher ed marketers should get] rid of that sticker price and just go straight to the average of what students pay. 

But I also think that [early] financial literacy is a huge part of it.

This transparency can significantly impact a family’s perception of affordability.

Communicating the Cost of Higher Education by Talking Long-Term Value

Another critical aspect of the conversation is the long-term value of a college degree. 

As higher ed marketers, we need to communicate the lifetime return on investment (ROI) of higher education, not just the immediate post-graduation salary.

The richness of a college campus that comes with the [ethnic] diversity, different ideologies and different worldviews is a fantastic learning environment. That is completely in addition to what’s happening in the classroom! 

There’s so much value to [engagement with other students], as well as the engagement of faculty outside of the classroom. 

For whatever reason, we just really shy away from [those intangible benefits]. 

I agree with Ken on this. We have to broaden the conversation about ROI beyond just starting salaries.

Higher education offers substantial long-term benefits, including increased lifetime earnings and the development of critical thinking and learning skills.

One way you can show lifetime ROI is by sharing stories of recent graduates and their successes.

These stories resonate with prospective students and their families, showcasing the real-world impact of higher education.

Have the Difficult Conversation Sooner Rather than Later

In the end, it’s important to realize that we as higher education institutions can better communicate the cost and value of a college education. 

By addressing misconceptions, promoting early financial literacy, and highlighting the long-term benefits, colleges can help prospective students and their families make informed decisions.

Listen to the full conversation with Ken Sigler for more insights on:

  • The importance of early financial conversations
  • Transparency in communicating tuition costs
  • Highlighting the long-term value of a college degree
  • Overcoming barriers to access for students with varying academic backgrounds

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