This spring, Whiteboard Higher Education had the privilege of partnering with the National Catholic College Admission Association to survey parents of students admitted to over 50 of the organization’s member colleges and universities. The purpose of the national survey was to find out how involved parents were in shepherding their children through the college recruitment process.
As we found out, the helicopter parents have landed. They’re no longer hovering but are firmly on the ground and fully committed to paving the way for their college-bound daughters and sons.
Over 17,000 parents told us how they participate in the college recruitment of their children and how colleges can improve their outreach to them. To be candid, the parents in this study were not representative of the majority of U.S. parents who will send their children to college this year. These were parents whose children were admitted to one or more private Catholic college or universities this past spring. Most were college-educated themselves (78% had a bachelor’s or graduate degree), and over one-third could afford to send their child to a private high school.
These are the families that produce the most “admittable” students in the U.S. — students who are likely to be academically prepared for college-level work and whose parents can afford a private college education. They are among the thousands of students who compete for admission to the most prestigious institutions in the country, including (but not limited to) Catholic colleges and universities.
Here’s what their parents told us.
Almost eight of 10 parents (79%) reported that they “often” or “always” research colleges for their child. They act as college information filters. As one parent commented on the survey, “We helped with research either through the school websites or the brochures and pamphlets that arrived in the mail. We would flag things for my daughter to read.”
Not surprisingly, parents said they use college websites as a primary source of information to narrow college choices. This means that your institution’s website is a critical conduit of information and clarity is key. Many parents remarked on the difficulty of finding the information they sought on college websites. “College websites are overloaded with information and it can be confusing and hard to navigate,” said a mom. Another mentioned, “I found some of the application and financial aid processes to be daunting. Clear and concise instructions concerning processes would help.”
Prospective parents are also reading your admissions email. Over half of parents in the study (61%) revealed that they use their own email and/or share an email with their child for college communications, and 52% regularly review emails received from colleges. This means that the emails you think are being sent to students are, in a majority of cases, being sent to their parents — and read by parents. Is your institution making a strong enough value argument in outbound email communications to engage prospective moms and dads, too?
And yes, parents also deal with the stacks of college mail that land at their homes. Over half (56%) report that they “often” or “always” read and review the college mail that comes to their home, and 41% sort it for their child. In these cases, if the parent is not impressed with the marketing piece, it will end up at the bottom of the stack or in the trash before the prospective student even sees it.
Over half of parents (53%) told us that they “often” or “always” determine their child’s application “short list” (colleges where their child will send applications). What’s interesting about this is that most colleges wait until after applications are received to begin the conversation with mom and dad. We find that many institutions don’t even collect parent contact information before applications are received. This is a missed opportunity.
According to the survey results, six out of 10 parents (62%) will choose the colleges that their child will visit. This is another indication that engaging parents before their child’s senior year of high school is so critical. In many cases, the parents sounded like professional guidance counselors. One replied, “I made sure to review pros and cons of certain colleges, alerting my son to certain things that we would hear on the tours or that I would find out through research or word of mouth. I helped him to narrow down his choices.”
At times, it was it was difficult to distinguish who was the one actually being recruited by the colleges by combing through thousands of parent comments. One parent described her experience. “My daughter used my email for all correspondence. I reviewed everything. She told me where she wanted to apply, and we discussed it and made the short list together. I read all emails that came to my email account and shared them with her. I independently emailed college admissions representatives when I had questions.”
And our survey results confirmed that choosing a college in 2016 was indeed a “family decision.” When parents described the college process, “we” was used much more frequently that the student’s name when discussing the final college decision. This comment from a mom typifies that family-centric considerations that are at play. “We, as a family, struggled with the option of early decision or regular decision. We weighed options regarding programs, internships, study abroad opportunities and overall feel of the campus when visiting.”
It is our experience that many colleges wait until a prospective student’s senior year of high school to begin communicating with parents. For most parents, the first messaging that they receive is the “Dear parent of” letters that appear in their mailboxes, typically extolling the virtues of the institution in three long paragraphs and signed by the college president or chief enrollment officer.
When asked what colleges could do better to include them in the college recruitment process, by far the most common words used by parents were “more” and “earlier,” particularly regarding information about financing. Parents want to hear from colleges, and they want specific information that will help them determine if the institution should remain on their short list.
As one parent noted, “I don't recall receiving but one or two emails from the university. Most were directed to the student. More parent-related information earlier in the process would be nice.” Another commented, “More and frequent communication is always better, especially with deadlines.” A number of parents wished that colleges would carbon copy parents on correspondence and outline financial options earlier in the process. Not one parent out of the 17,000 asked for more letters from presidents or enrollment officers.
While the results of the National Catholic College Admission Association Parent Study are not applicable across all colleges and universities, the trend is clear: College recruitment has entered a new age where it’s about engaging parents and families as much as it’s about engaging the prospective student. The helicopter parents have landed, and the colleges and universities that ignore them do so at their own peril.