October 16

Higher Ed Marketers, Let’s Talk About College Affordability

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As mounting loan debt for American students continues to be a hot-button issue, college affordability should be at the forefront of higher ed marketing efforts for your school.

According to a national survey by Discover Student Loans, 70 percent of American families worry they can’t afford to send their kids to college.

And it’s not just traditional students. A 2022 Strada Education Network and Gallup poll found that working adults who are contemplating a return to school weigh the cost of tuition just as heavily as a potential wage increase.

It’s clear that tuition affordability is a huge talking point for prospective students and their families. So it’s high time that marketing teams gave it the attention it deserves.

Why College Affordability Is a Critical Marketing Issue

As higher ed professionals, we know that over $6 billion in free financial aid is awarded to college students each year.

But here’s the crux of the matter — even though scholarships and grants are readily available to prospective students, only about 60 percent of families pursue them. Why?

The problem isn’t that a college education isn’t affordable but that many prospective students worry the value doesn’t justify the cost.  

If students and their families can’t easily find value in your school’s brand storytelling, then guess what? They’re going to move on.

So here are some things you can do to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Reinforce Your Unique Selling Proposition

Pitching the affordability of your school isn’t just a race to the bottom of the tuition barrel. If that were the case, every student would simply pick the cheapest school on their radar and be done with it.

Students and their families want to know they’re getting the most bang for their buck.

Therefore, you need to align your college’s affordability with your unique selling proposition.

So you need to profile your target personas and consider other motives they have for picking your school.

Identify unique selling points that distinguish your school from your competitors, such as:

  • Local culture and community engagement
  • Eco-friendly sustainability initiatives
  • Networking and mentorship opportunities
  • Student entrepreneurial startup programs

I’m a father to multiple college students myself. I can tell you that parents are much more likely to open up their wallets if they feel the benefits of their child’s school outweigh the costs.

If you can pitch a powerful unique selling proposition, you’ll reinforce the idea that the services your school provides aren’t just affordable but invaluable.

Leverage Testimonials Around College Affordability

Real stories from current families resonate with prospective families.

A story pipeline is essential to any great content marketing strategy, but it’s especially important for connecting with people who ask, “Can I really afford this?”

Share stories from students who believed they couldn’t afford to attend your school but, with the resources and guidance you provided, made it work.

Here’s a great example from Washington State University in a video profiling Marissa, who was a sophomore at the time:

WSU’s Financial Aid Office does a great job of painting a picture of Marissa’s situation and how they helped address her needs. And then, they nail the landing by ending it with a clear call to action for other prospective students in similar straits.

When your target audience can put themselves in your students’ shoes, they move one step closer to feeling a sense of belonging at your school.

Parent Testimonials Are Great, Too!

According to EAB’s 2022 New College Freshman Survey, nearly half of incoming college students said parental influence was one of their top 5 reasons for choosing their school.

And just like their kids, parents empathize with the other families who are asking similar questions.

For example, check out this testimonial from Marika on the website for Bard College in New York:

Source: Bard College

Notice how Marika highlights the Q&A session with the school’s president as the highlight of their family’s visit?

Today’s parents are just as engaged as their children when it comes to the college search, so ensure that you address their questions as well.

Clarify Financial Aid Opportunities

This was one of the three pillars in my piece about why student-centric content is essential to answering your prospects’ questions. And the reason is simple…

Every school should have its affordability options front and center on its financial aid or tuition page because parents and students need to see them in context.

It is important to provide clear, accurate context for families as they approach the investment that they will be making in your institution.

Presenting them with information such as the percentage of students receiving aid, an average aid package, and social proof and testimonials on your tuition page can go a long way in presenting affordability.

According to the latest IPEDS data, the average cost of attendance for full-time, first-time undergrads from low-income families was $44,000 at nonprofit institutions in the 2019-20 school year. However, the average net price after financial aid was accounted for was $18,000.

I’d argue most people would think a nearly 60 percent discount on anything is pretty awesome.

You can find numbers like these for most colleges and universities in a 5-second Google search, so why not explain them on your website?

Ensure the distinction between upfront costs and your students’ average discount cost after financial aid is discoverable and clear to your target audience.

And be transparent. Parents don’t want to see a confusing list of credit hours. They want to know how much they’ll be paying for housing, food, parking, and everything in between — but don’t nickel and dime them.

By breaking your costs down into a simple presentation that your target audience can easily digest, you’ll gain their trust and, hopefully, their engagement.

College Affordability Is About Creating a Story Beyond the Cost Conversation

Higher ed marketing teams, if you want to survive the Enrollment Cliff, then it’s time to dust up the conversation around affordability.

Ultimately, your messaging around college affordability needs to answer parents’ and students’ questions in plain and simple language:

  • How much are they paying?
  • What are they paying for?
  • Why are they paying for it?

If you feel like your aid-related content doesn’t answer those questions, we’re here to help! I’d love to have a conversation about how we can communicate your school’s value to your prospective students.


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Featured image by Adriana via Adobe Stock

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