Demystifying the College-Going Process

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Parents want to hear directly from colleges about the true cost of attendance. If institutions can improve their communication with families, they can help to close equity gaps in higher education.

Pexels Vantha Thang 2513989That’s the conclusion of EAB’s latest report on student parents, Engaging Students’ #1 Influencer in Recruitment. For over a decade, EAB, an educational consulting firm, has surveyed parents and found the rate of parental influence on college decision has steadily increased. This year’s report surveyed over 2,000 parents and guardians of high school students and found that while all parents are concerned about affordability, Black and Latinx families are the most concerned about finances.

“What we saw from this data is that family members who have students of color have even more intense concerns about things like costs, safety, culture, as all parents do,” said Michael Koppenheffer, vice president of marketing programs at EAB and contributing consultant for the report. “If [institutions] did a better job addressing these concerns, they’re going to influence college going rates and support greater equity within individual institutions and overall.”

EAB found that Generation X parents have less wealth, more debt, are increasingly anxious, less trusting, and more transactional than parents of the past. For these reasons, parents are hyper-cautious about whether or not college is a good investment for their child.

Communicating with families is even more important as high schools may not have enough counselors or resources to guide all of their students. Experts urge institutions to be creative in reaching out to parents, through virtual meetings or guidance from experienced students, to share information with minoritized communities and walk parents through the trickier parts of a college application process, including filling out the FAFSA form each year.

“There’s a big opportunity for colleges and universities to communicate that they are not, by and large, taking advantage of. There is a willing audience here, [parents] are hungry for information, and institutions can do way more to fulfill it,” said Koppenheffer. “A distinct minority [of institutions] said, ‘We have a comprehensive plan of talking to parents, from sophomore year and beyond,’ a typically recognized point when students start engaging with colleges in a very preliminary way.”

Dr. Zoë B. Corwin, a research professor at the University of Southern California (USC) and director of the Digital Equity in Education project at the Pullias Center of Higher Education.Dr. Zoë B. Corwin, a research professor at the University of Southern California (USC) and director of the Digital Equity in Education project at the Pullias Center of Higher Education.Demographic breakdowns in the report found that, when it comes to considering where to send their child for an education, families of color are more likely to prioritize the proximity of their child’s college or university. Black parents are the most concerned about a universities’ efforts towards diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice, far more than any other studied demographic.

Dr. Zoë B. Corwin, a research professor at the University of Southern California (USC) and director of the Digital Equity in Education project at the Pullias Center of Higher Education, said she appreciated that the report focused on families, typically overlooked as crucial players in a student’s college-going decision.

“Oftentimes the focus is on students, and if you’re at a low-resource high school, generally the parent piece lacks in priority,” said Corwin. But, she added, sharing information isn’t enough. Institutions need to “help people decipher [the language] and understand, follow through on requesting financial aid and loans.”

Corwin said that a lot of potential students will drop off after they receive their financial award letter, because families do not know how to interpret the information received. Corwin’s colleague at USC, Dr. Adrian Huerta, an assistant professor of education, said that many parents don’t even know that financial aid decisions can be appealed, much less know how to go through the appeal process.

“There’s an increased need for communication to help parents be a little more at ease at what the real cost of college is,” said Huerta. “Parents want to know from the get-go, the earliest moments, what’s affordable, will my child graduate, and will they get the skills they need to move forward?”

The report found that the majority of parents use online search engines or college websites to research their options, but Black, Latinx, and Asian families indicated they also rely on college fairs or high school counselors for information. Huerta and Corwin offered different ways institutions could directly connect with parents. Corwin said virtual campus tours open up access for many families who cannot afford to travel to different universities. Some institutions, Corwin said, offered Zoom meetings focused on the process of completing FAFSA, with counselors waiting to answer any questions that may arise.

Huerta suggested that university systems could create college ambassadors, first-generation students from the local community who successfully navigated the college application process, to travel with recruiters to area high schools.

“My suggestion would be for colleges and universities to have a physical presence in as many schools as possible to demystify the process for families. Be creative, build relationships with schools from that community to help parents feel at ease,” said Huerta. “College affordability is the deal breaker for families on whether their children will go to higher education or not. It’s important to stress that we know a degree or certification is the most stable pathway to the middle class and a stable income.”

Liann Herder can be reached at lherder@diverseeducation.com.