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Is That Your Final Offer?
Four Recommendations for Finishing the Enrollment Race Strong

Colleges and universities across the country have now placed most of their acceptance letters and financial aid packages in the hands of students and families. While this is certainly a nerve-wracking time for many enrollment professionals, it also presents a great opportunity as these students and families inquire about their financial aid packages. The tone and tactics of the response to families over the next few weeks may make or break incoming classes at many institutions across the country.

Dialing for Dollars

We've all seen that students and families are taking longer to make their college choices this year than in the past. Many institutions, especially private ones, report that enrollment deposits have been trickling in at a significantly slower pace than in recent years. It is important to remember that, unless you notice a sharp increase in the number of students who have informed you that they will not be enrolling at your institution, you still have a viable and active pool of potential enrollees. We’re noting that many institutions are experiencing a lag in deposits, but that is not necessarily a decrease in deposits. It’s essential to distinguish between the two because date-to-date comparisons between 2008 and 2009 can be disconcerting if not interpreted in context. That means, however, that there is critical work remaining between the time that admission letters are mailed and deposits are received.

This year in particular, families are being encouraged by college counselors and the media to negotiate, bargain, and try to encourage bidding among institutions for their sons and daughters. Their goals range from working diligently to find ways to afford a college education to simply seeking out every last financial aid dollar that an institution can be convinced to provide. And many families believe they must be first (or loudest) in line at the bargaining table to have any chance of success for fear that the money will run out. Not surprisingly, we hear that many institutions are fielding more “financial aid reconsideration” calls than ever before. To that, we say, “fantastic!”

Opportunity On The Line

Financial aid reconsideration calls are an opportunity, not an imposition. When an admitted student or parent calls your institution to discuss their financial aid package, it usually means they have genuine interest in enrolling. You’re probably on their short-list. How your front-line admissions and financial aid staffs handle those calls and navigate those conversations can either encourage an enrollment deposit or send students running to your competition.

It’s true that conversations about financial aid can be tense, tricky, and sometimes emotional for the families on the other end of the line. At the same time, these important moments are wonderful opportunities to engage families in candid dialogues about net cost, institutional value, and financing options. Additionally, it allows you another chance to make those families feel wanted and welcomed.

These next few weeks are among the most important in the marathon of the recruitment cycle. Here are four recommendations to increase your chances of finishing strong:

  1. Execute an internal financial aid reconsideration plan. While some institutions handle financial aid reconsideration calls from families ad hoc, others have explicit strategies executed by dedicated committees that review reconsideration cases in an organized way – most often on a weekly or twice-a-week basis. The ability to say that the case will be discussed at the next committee meeting reduces the pressure to provide families immediate answers and affords the institution additional time to monitor progress of enrollment deposits, which can inform the desired level of aggressiveness with respect to enhancing (or not enhancing) financial aid offers.

    While families certainly feel – and very frequently express – a great deal of urgency for receiving a response as quickly as possible, it is best for both the family and the institution to allow some time after the emotion of an anxiety-producing phone call or meeting. If increased aid is truly the deciding factor in the student’s enrollment decision, most families will appreciate your thoughtful review of their situation and formal consideration of their request.

  2. Train family-facing staff members with customer service phone skills. We cannot over-emphasize the importance of effective customer service. When admitted students or parents call your admissions or financial aid office to discuss their financial aid package, do they receive a warm greeting and prompt service? Over the years, our research has indicated that students and parents continue to evaluate institutions based on each and every interaction with staff members, especially as they approach their final decision on where to enroll.

    Communicating with both your financial aid and admissions offices should always be a positive experience. It is not merely the first or the best interactions that stand out in families’ minds, but also the worst and the most recent. Institutions that seize this opportunity to provide stellar customer service are positioned best to capture the positive emotion and reduce the anxiety that many students and families feel.

  3. Remember it’s not only about the money. Many families who call institutions now are hoping for an increase in their financial aid. Yet many also feel valued and appreciated if their concerns are heard and respected, whether or not a single additional dollar is offered. Our experience has shown that, on the whole, families who take the time to request financial reconsideration tend to yield at significantly higher rates—regardless of whether they receive more money from the institution. While this is obviously not true for every single family – genuine need varies so widely – it is important to keep this point in mind when you are not able or willing to grant an increase in aid. Such families are interested potential customers. If their experiences with your institution are positive and satisfying, there remains a good chance that you’ll receive their enrollment deposit.

  4. Don’t lose sight of the big picture. Institutional budgets have been a huge national topic as investment values have declined and ancillary revenue sources have been more difficult to secure. Although it might seem to be counterintuitive in this financial climate, it is more important than ever to spend what is necessary on financial aid to achieve enrollment goals when budgets are tight across the institution. Falling short of enrollment targets nearly always results in lost revenue. In the aggregate, offering sufficient financial aid awards to enroll the desired class size rather than holding back to adhere to a rigid discount rate usually results in healthier classes and healthier budgets.

    In offering this reminder we are not advocating that institutions abandon their budget goals and simply throw money at each student who asks for more. Rather, we suggest that you consider – on a case-by-case basis – the revenue a student would bring to your institution if they enroll and not just the additional “cost” of granting a moderate increase in gift aid. In the end, your discount rate may increase slightly in exchange for achieving long-term enrollment and revenue targets. This small concession will ensure that you avoid the unappealing prospect of too many empty seats come September.

The Last Mile

At this stressful moment in the enrollment cycle, as institutions manage dollars and enrollment very closely, there remains a very expensive “elephant in the room:” Prior to admitting a single student, a significant amount of money has already been spent to recruit the class, and those costs are constantly rising amid increasing competitive pressures. Student recruitment is a lengthy and complex process.

The point is that you have already committed an enormous amount of money, time, and institutional resources to reach the final mile of this race with the very students and families that are on the other end of those phone lines. Don’t forget the commitments you’ve made to come this far when deciding how much farther you are willing to go. You are armed with knowledge, information, and experience that extend well beyond the emotion of the moment, all of which will guide you through these critical weeks. Just allow yourself to keep the entire race in mind as you approach the finish line – and you will make not only your best evidence-based decisions, but reach your enrollment goals as well.

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