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Now Is the Time to Talk to Parents

By Sarah Parrott
Executive Vice President, Higher Education

The holidays are almost upon us and parents are deciding where their son or daughter will apply to college. They are actively seeking information on your institution’s website, comparing the email and mail that is sent to their child, narrowing down short lists, and choosing colleges to visit.

According to 17,000 of the 210,000 parents we queried this past spring in partnership with the National Catholic College Admission Association,1 parents are more involved than ever before in the college recruitment process. And according to many of them, most institutions are not actively reaching out to them or making the value argument about why their child should apply. For colleges, this is a huge missed opportunity.

The information we share below comes from a survey Whiteboard conducted in partnership with the National Catholic College Admission Association. We heard from parents of students admitted to over 50 of the organization’s member colleges and universities. Thousands of parents shared how they participated in the college recruitment of their children and how colleges can improve their outreach to them.

Here’s what they told us.

Parents heavily influence application short lists.

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 statistic 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 request parent contact information before applications are received.

This has real implications for college recruitment because it suggests that institutions need to get their messages in front of parents a lot earlier than before.

Parents choose where to visit.

According to the survey results, six out of 10 parents (62%) will choose the colleges that their child will visit. This is another indication why engaging parents before their child’s senior year of high school is so critical. In many cases, Mom and Dad sounded like professional guidance counselors. One said, “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.”

Parents are the new gatekeepers.

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, “We helped with research either through the school websites or the brochures and pamphlets that arrived in the mail; we would flag things in particular for my daughter to read.”

Not surprisingly, parents said they use college websites as a primary source of information to narrow down 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.”

Parents read your mail — and emails, too.

Prospective parents are also reading your admissions email. Over half of parents in the survey (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. Does your email content provide enough rich and compelling information to engage both prospective students and parents?

And yes, parents also manage 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.

Parents see themselves as college recruits.

Combing through thousands of parent comments, it was difficult at times to distinguish who was the one actually being recruited by the colleges. One parent described her experience like this: “My daughter used my email for all correspondence. I reviewed everything. She told me where she wanted to apply, 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 is indeed a “family decision.” When parents described the college process, “we” was used much more frequently than 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.”

Parents want to hear from colleges — and earlier.

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 about 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 college. Parents want to hear from colleges, and they want specific information that will help them determine if the institution should remain on their application 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 CC parents on correspondence and outline financial options earlier in the process. And not one parent out of the 17,000 asked for more letters from presidents or enrollment officers.

The trend is clear: College recruitment has entered a new age in which it’s about engaging parents and families as much as it’s about engaging the prospective student. The lines between parents and students are now blurred, and smart admission offices will continue to recruit parents as actively as they recruit students.


1The parents in this survey were not representative of the majority of U.S. parents who will send their children to college this year. These parents’ 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 a third could afford to send their child to a private high school.

Whiteboard is using innovative recruitment practices to engage with prospective parents right now. To learn more, please contact us at info@gowhiteboard.net or (215) 282-0852.