Because it is so new, most colleges and universities are still exploring how to best use the online net price calculator they have recently added—or are just about to add—to their institutional Web site in order to meet the October 29 deadline given by the federal government.
The online calculators have been generating a lot of buzz among admissions, marketing, and financial aid officials, and rightly so. If used properly, the calculators have tremendous potential to stimulate conversations with families about costs and to help students and families overcome concerns regarding their ability to finance a college education. In addition, the calculators serve as “reality checks” for families to determine which schools are within their reach, challenging financial aid offices to demonstrate what they are willing to do to make it possible and desirable for a student to enroll.
So how can college staff make the best use of the calculators? And how will prospective students and their parents use these new tools in their college searches?
Our experience so far
Based on our early tracking information for the 200+ institutions using the Noel-Levitz TrueCost Calculator on their Web sites, we believe that the great majority of prospective students and families will not reveal their identities to campuses when using an online net price calculator. Instead, these students and families will prefer to remain anonymous. This behavior fits with the “secret shopper” trend we have observed over the past few years, as more and more prospective students and their parents—now one in four families—gather information online without directly identifying themselves before applying and without making direct contact with the college admissions office.
This finding in itself isn’t surprising, but it has significant implications for how admissions teams can use online cost calculators. In fact, the calculator is now being viewed by many institutions not as a federal mandate, but an opportunity to identify and pursue seriously interested students early in the college search process during this era of “stealth applications.” Importantly, this identification includes the ability to pursue students by geographical area, major, academic profile, talent, etc.
Three ways to get the most from your new online calculator
Among the many uses of the calculator are three that I urge you to consider:
1.) Target messages to students and families who use the calculators and who do not identify themselves to you. If you haven’t already done so, be sure that your calculator targets secret shoppers with messages such as:
- The fact that this is an estimate based upon the information provided.
- To not rule out an education at your institution before talking with a counselor or financial aid advisor.
- To not be intimidated by the financing process and forms required, and that help in completing those forms is available.
- Taking advantage of multiple payment options.
- Financial aid may be adjusted in future years if a student’s financial situation changes.
- Scholarship and merit-based awards continue in succeeding years if a student remains in good academic standing.
- Note other creative financing solutions that you may offer, such as true 12-month payment plans, level tuition programs, and four-year graduation guarantees.
In addition, be sure to:
- Provide links from the net price calculator to other financial information on the Web site and ways to contact the institution to discuss financing issues.
- Strongly promote the outcomes and values of an education at your institution, as these will need to be highlighted more than ever before.
Ultimately, your goal should be to try to engage these students and families in conversation and move them from focusing on their estimate to entering into a broader, continuing discussion about paying for college, which leads to my next point…
2. Capture as many names as possible and follow up with them. To encourage secret shoppers to identify themselves to you and to continue the conversation, review the reasons and/or offers that you included in your calculator for students and families to contact your institution. Are the reasons compelling? How many times are you asking students and families to make contact as they complete the calculator? Have you made it easy to make contact with links and/or short inquiry forms? Offering the availability of college advisors to chat or to discuss college financing may provide reasons to interact for some, while offering detailed scholarship information or additional attractions on your Web site may lead others to request information and identify themselves. Be sure to test, track, and compare the click-through rates on each opportunity you put forward and to make adjustments accordingly.
After a student uses a link on the calculator to request an offer or more information, be sure to forward the name of the interested student/family directly to a staff person for immediate follow up. In addition, develop a strong follow-up message and communication stream and modify it as needed using your net price calculator analytics.
3. Make sure you are doing the obvious. Your institution has likely implemented the following, but just in case, I’ll mention these points, too:
- Make sure your calculator is not only accurate, but easy and quick to use.
- Place the net price calculator in an easy-to-find, prominent position on your Web site.
- Through other communications, encourage students to use the net price calculator to qualify affordability.
- Use the net price calculator in one-on-one situations to help students and families better understand the amount and kind of assistance available and the estimated bottom-line cost to attend.
- Take advantage of the additional “behind the curtain” enrollment management analytics available on some calculators to learn and pursue students who are a “good fit.”
These are just a few among many possible ways to use a net price calculator. Colleges and universities that recognize the potential of this new initiative to assist students and families in understanding how to finance an education—and those that are pro-active in using the calculator to begin conversations—are likely to see the greatest rewards from this new tool.
If you have any questions about implementing a net price calculator or maximizing the enrollment benefits of one, please e-mail me or leave a comment below.
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