Imagine, if you will, the high school senior that creates a tournament bracket similar to college basketball and seeds each of his potential college suitors in accordance with his interest. Then, one by one he pits each school against one another using financial aid as the sole contributing factor to the decision on which college or university moves on to the next round. (I saw something similar to this in our student affairs office last year when a college senior created a bracket during March representing his law school choices.) As an enrollment management professional at a private, independent college and obviously not knowing explicitly who my institution is competing with, a process like this would make me cringe.
In the admission and financial aid office at Doane College, March 13th represents the date when we make our first official financial aid offers to prospective students. We will mail over 400 financial aid awards representing over half of the total number of awards we will make this recruiting cycle. And, when you consider that our first “wave” of financial aid awards accounts for roughly 60% of our anticipated class, it makes sense that this is a big deal.
March is maddening, particularly in this day and age in higher education and this would be true without college basketball! I’ve discussed in previous posts the challenges of merit aid, price, cost, and tuition. Financial aid is a beast and a blessing in enrollment management. No two schools develop their financial aid policy and strategy the same. As a result, all who want to make apples to apples comparisons with financial aid awards are easily frustrated. A consequence of this process is an increasing demand for financial aid negotiations between potential students (or the parents) and the college. At times it’s laughable because I often see those who have the greatest ability to pay for college lobbying for the greatest amount of aid. But, then I ask myself, “Who could blame them?” Just because people have wealth doesn’t mean they are any more interested in parting with it. Nevertheless, I often hear more appeals for families with the financial resources than I do for those that do not.
Those in enrollment management understand that financial aid can be very complicated and therefore isn’t always the easiest to explain to families. Even if you can articulate your institution’s philosophy and process, good luck helping a family understand why their Expected Family Contribution is $20,000 as defined by the FAFSA. Who hasn’t heard the comment, “I don’t have $20,000 in the bank to pay for Junior’s college each year!”? I suppose the saving grace is to share that the EFC is calculated the same for everyone and therefore each school is using the same information. Unfortunately, that doesn’t provide families with much comfort.
So, how does an admission counselor navigate the March Madness bracket with a prospective student in the event they focus largely on the financial aid award? As a private, independent college, how can we compete with the local community college on price? If you draw that match-up do you simply throw in the towel? How about if you draw the local state institution? Maybe you have a chance if the student isn’t getting any aid from the state school. But what if you draw another area competitor; similar college if you will? Slam dunk, right? Hmmm, not so fast. In the end, we must to talk about value. We cannot let it be only about cost even when we know that is a significant issue.
Let me share a brief story. A father visits Doane College with his son. During the visit they indicate that they have received an “offer” from another private, independent college in the state totaling more than our offer. When asked for the details of the offer in order to determine if we could find a way to be more competitive, the father indicated that he doesn’t work that way. He is a farmer and he likened his son’s college choice to a recent purchase of a tractor. He shared, “When I need a tractor, I go to two businesses and ask for the best price on a tractor. Whoever gives me the best offer gets my business.” I asked the father, “Sir, were both tractors John Deere?” He indicated that both were Case to which I replied, “Sir, in your example, what if you were comparing Case to John Deere? Would price be your only comparison point?” I would bet that John Deere and Case reps would work hard to argue the differences in their tractors if given the chance. That being said, if from the beginning this farmer knew that he wanted a Case, the fact that we are John Deere is irrelevant because it’s very possible that we don’t have what you want. Comparing Doane College to another school based only on financial aid is shortsighted and assumes that everything else is equal. A better financial offer from us may make your decision more difficult but it sounds like this farmer and his son had already decided what they wanted.
March Madness in higher education admissions seems to be all about financial aid and less the importance of fit and comfort in a college choice. As colleges, we create financial aid awarding strategies in order to provide enough financial aid to make enrollment possible for a target amount of prospective students while also anticipating resulting revenue. Ultimately, our awards will not be the best award for every student. It doesn’t (and can’t!) work that way. But, we want to be right for 350 first-year students for sure!