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financial student tuition

There was a time when students approached college primarily as a life experience – an opportunity to explore new concepts, broaden their understanding of the world, and perhaps at some point sharpen their focus long enough to settle on a major. Post-secondary education was an exploratory means to an indefinite end. It was just assumed that, with those letters after your name, a solid job couldn’t be far behind.

We don’t need to tell college recruiters that those days are gone. When it comes to education lead generation, never has the emphasis on market preparation, skill-building, and return on investment been as acute as it is now. A volatile and unforgiving economy has made students and parents increasingly wary of high tuition schools that promise little in the way of post-education employment.

According to the 2014 “College Hopes and Worries” Princeton Review survey, 79% of college applicants and their parents said the economy affected their decisions about applying to or choosing a college. 67% of families eliminated colleges based on cost at some stage during their research and admission process:

college cost consideration

It’s obvious that affordability is front and centre in the applicant’s mind. Program offerings, flexibility, campus resources, attentive instructors, reputation – for many prospects, they’re all outranked by your school’s price tag. So how can colleges ensure that prospective students make it past the fees and financial aid web pages? By creating affordability content that’s not afraid to meet the numbers head on.

Let The Numbers Do The Talking

At the 2014 ACT Enrollment Planners Conference, higher ed expert, Robert E. Johnson (President, Bob Johnson Consulting) identified substantial affordability content as one of the most powerful drivers of post-secondary student recruitment. What does he mean by substantial? Facts, figures, charts, graphs – actual data that demonstrates how your college stacks up against national standards and its toughest competitors. Johnson cites several apt examples, including this one from American University. AU begins by illustrating their commitment to reduced tuition, including a promise to hold hikes at 2.9% from 2013-2014:

AU affordability

Next, AU addresses the enormous problem of student loan default by showcasing a compelling comparison between its own graduates and the national average:

affordability student recruitment

Finally, AU meets the contentious issue of merit-based aid head on, by demonstrating a whopping 37% increase in need-based institutional funding over the last 4 years.

affordability financial aid student

Consider your own financial aid page. Does it grab leads’ attention with substantial data to back up claims of affordable education? Or does your school rely on conventional messaging that highlights student loans and lines of credit – debt today’s cost-counting student wants to avoid at all cost. Which leads us to our next tip:

Put Affordability First On Your School’s Website

Take a look at this example of a financial aid page from Sheridan College. It’s a fair representative of how many schools approach students’ concerns about tuition costs:

sheridan financial aid student recruitment

This page does what most financial aid pages do: it highlights government loans, scholarship opportunities, and application deadlines. And the information is not linked to the website homepage – it’s buried under the Admissions tab. By comparison, this affordability content from DeVry University is far more impactful, and it only takes one click from their homepage to get it:

budget conscious education marketing

DeVry’s focus is on affordability. Not financial aid. DeVry is upfront about their promise to lock in tuition rates, their special fees for US military personnel, and their bulk savings on extra classes. And this next example from Strayer University really takes the “front and centre” approach to the next level by placing substantial affordability content right on their homepage:

strayer homepage

Students are much more likely to click through Strayer’s homepage CTA because the school understands that the majority of their lead personas consider cost first, before looking into academic programs or campus culture. Colleges and universities for which cost is not a primary selling point need not make this information quite so prominent, but this type of transparency is instructive for communicating with students seeking reassurance that they are making the right decision with their substantial investment.

Address and Resolve Students’ Financial Fears

When prospective students do click through that Strayer CTA, they are not disappointed by a typical financial aid page that makes vague promises about affordability or provides links to government loan programs. Instead, Strayer seeks to sooth their fear that another school may offer lower tuition rates, and they’ll have to invest endless hours wading through web pages and performing detailed cost-comparisons. After seeing this graph, leads can feel much more confident about taking the next step with Strayer:

cost comparison education

If colleges understand that cost is king, why not provide affordability content like this, which situates you positively amongst your top competitors? In his review of how colleges are responding to cost-wary students in their content strategy and development, Robert Johnson also discusses this example from The University of Findlay – they too make a pre-emptive move to address students’ financial fears with “Affordability Myths” that tackle cost concerns head-on:

affordability myths college education

For each “myth” Findlay debunks, there are supporting graphs and charts to help put leads’ biggest financial fears to rest, which in turn increases confidence about clicking through for more information, or submitting an application.

Back Up Affordability Teasers With Solid Evidence

So far, what we’re identifying as substantial affordability content boils down to providing future students with solid evidence of your school’s commitment to making higher education accessible – without heavy debt. Colleges can’t just tell leads they offer the best deals on tuition, they have to prove it in meaningful, concrete ways. Empty promises of affordability are commonplace on college websites. They often look something like this example from Columbia College Calgary:

tuition income marketing

The title tells site visitors to expect a breakdown of how the college will save them money on tuition, but what they really get is a very vague description of an accelerated learning program that is “generally” less costly than competitors, or at best, “equal” to comparative institutions. It doesn’t do much to soothe student fears about taking on debt, paying too much for post-secondary, or failing to find the best deal out there.

And here’s another example from Robert Johnson’s comprehensive review – Lewis University teases visitors with a promise of affordability, but fails to follow through with factual evidence:

affordability education marketing

References to “affordability” occur a grand total of seven times on this page. And yet, other than promising students that Lewis is one of the most cost-effective schools in the Chicago area, there is little evidence to back up the claim, or sway leads away from competitors. Merely repeating that your college offers the best rates or will provide financial aid is not enough to convert prospective students.  We now understand that more than ever, site visitors are scanning school web pages for comparative information about pricing, special offers, and discounts on tuition. Quite often, it’s their first stop. If schools don’t want to get left behind at the starting line, marketing, admissions and recruitment teams must move beyond the mantra of affordability – and develop solid content that is as convincing as it is comforting.

Does your school stand up to the scrutiny of the cost-conscious student?

Additional Resources:

To learn more about substantial affordability content, take a look at Robert Johnson’s college financial aid review here.