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Engaging Parents to Achieve Greater Enrollment-Management Success

In a guest post, Madeleine E. Rhyneer describes the importance of communicating effectively with the parents of college applicants. Ms. Rhyneer is vice president for enrollment management at Albion College, in Michigan.

Let’s start with the shared assumption that all parents want what’s best for their children. Repeat, all parents want what’s best for their children, regardless of their ability to appropriately demonstrate that desire during the admission process. If we take this as a given, and if we recognize that parent involvement isn’t defined by helicopter parents, attack-bomber parents, or whatever terms we might use for a certain segment of our parent population, then we are in a good place to take a look at some revealing research.

Students today are deeply connected to their parents, and choosing a college is truly a family decision. This trend was probably exacerbated by our continuing economic malaise. Last summer the Federal Reserve reported that 20 years of economic prosperity had been erased. Regardless of their income, families now have less money available in cash and assets to finance a college education. We are all seeing the impact as families are less optimistic about their financial future, and thus less willing to invest their available resources or borrow.

Late last spring Pam Kiecker Royall, who heads University Research Partners, a division of Royall & Company, surveyed the parents of college-bound students. Her research findings are summarized in a report entitled “Engage Parents for More Engaged Students.” Ms. Kiecker’s research focused on parental influence in the college-selection process. The results shed light on the kind of information parents seek and the ways they prefer colleges to communicate with them.

According to the survey, the primary areas of parental influence were financial—not surprising, given that the respondents all had dependent children. When parents were asked to identify which areas of their child’s college-related decisions they would have the most influence over, the top four issues that emerged all related to financial aspects of the college choice. These included how much is spent on the child’s college education and the amount of debt the parents and student will assume.

Parents surveyed primarily obtained information from four sources: institutional Web sites (85 percent), reading materials mailed to them and/or their child (84 percent), reading materials e-mailed to them and/or their child (81 percent), and search engines (75 percent). In addition to searching for and reading information, parents engaged with their children by talking about the schools being considered, helping compare options by weighing the pros and cons of different colleges, talking about college majors, and talking about financing college.

One important takeaway from the research is that parents want—and expect—to receive information directly, and to view the materials colleges send to their child. Respondents also provided insight into when they want to receive specific information, which may not correspond to when admission professionals plan to share it.

The research clarifies that, in this economic climate, many parents want information about cost, financing, financial aid, and scholarships during their child’s freshman year of high school. I interpret this to mean they want the facts early—and also some assurance that there are options to help them pay for college.

How should college deliver this information? Print communication is alive and necessary, according to the survey results. Parents prefer to receive general information about the college and costs/financing through the mail. But they want application-deadline reminders via e-mail, and information about other matters via the Web. Some digital channels that are popular among students are not so popular with parents—they are highly unlikely to follow a school on Twitter, or use an online chat or RSS feed, for instance.

Admissions officers must understand that parents want information, and their students want them to have that information. The research findings make clear that our choice isn’t whether or not we should develop a parent-communication plan; it’s about how effectively we are able to engage with parents and respond to their concerns. And regardless of the level of parental involvement and knowledge about how to meaningfully participate in the college-admission process, parents want to engage with us.

I encourage you to challenge conventional thinking about parents and their “appropriate” role in the process. Look beyond stereotypes based upon such things as race and socioeconomic status. Don’t make assumptions about how parents will behave or what kind of support they may need if they have high, middle, or low SES.

Also remember that there are some important parent surrogates out there including teachers, counselors, and ministers. Develop a strategy that will draw in parents and other influential people in students’ lives, and open the channel for future conversations, regardless of their circumstances. I believe that students and their parents and supporters will appreciate being invited into conversations about college. In an era when more and more mothers and fathers see themselves as co-purchasers of higher education, a good plan matters.

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