Did You Forget Parents in Your Enrollment Communications?

Andy Shaw

If you looked through your entire enrollment communications funnel, I’ll bet you have a tremendous amount of careful planning, research, and content centered around attracting bright young minds to your college.

You have email flows for underclassmen and seniors. You have a texting campaign to get them more engaged (because we all know they avoid your phone calls!). You probably even have digital ads that retarget anyone who has visited your site.

Good job! It’s a ton of coordination. And the payoff is huge — any one of those aspects could be a deciding factor in having a student enroll at your university. It’s mind-boggling what it takes to get a student to even notice your school, let alone enroll, when you’re not a big-name university with a massive budget.

Here’s a secret, though: the biggest influence on what colleges a student is considering might have nothing to do with you and all of that fancy marketing and branding.

It might not even be how much your tuition is or if you have the right major (although, of course, those are always a big factor).

A 2018 U.S. Department of Education study showed that “family members were most often reported as the main influence for students’ thinking about education after high school, followed by myself.”

That’s right. Mom and dad had more to do with what a student wanted to do after graduating than the student.

At my medium-sized private college, our own data backs that up, and I bet yours does, too. Parents and family members are a primary influence on whether a student applies, let alone deposits, at your university. Not your billboard. Not your seven-email marketing drip campaign. Not your open house.

So what are you doing about it?

Look at that enrollment funnel again. What do you have going directly to parents?

Parents are signing up for open houses on behalf of students. Are you inviting them?

Parents are talking students through filling out an application. Are you telling parents about what materials are needed?

Parents are sharing an email account with students so they can all see what a college sends over. Are you only sending them emails addressed to the student?

Get to know your full audience

Forget the buzzwords about “helicopter parent” and “lawnmower parent.” That’s just talking about stereotypes of involved parents. You aren’t marketing to stereotypes.

You are marketing to people.

Real people.

Parents who, more and more likely, did not attend college themselves. First-generation college-bound high schoolers are on the rise, and they may be browsing through your viewbook without a clue what it all means. It’s why I think you’re missing out each fall if you just starting blindly sending out open house invites without considering out who is receiving them.

Your enrollment funnel, at a minimum, should have this for parents:

    1. A flow to parents walking them through the application process. First off, make sure they know their student applied! It might be hard for them to keep up where their kid is in the process, so you can remind them that materials are needed, or give them deadlines. Let them know how they can help.
    2. A welcome letter from your team. Your dean or another official can pen a letter letting parents know you are here for them. I can guarantee you not many colleges are even taking this step! The key is getting info to parents early enough in the process so a welcome letter makes sense. If you send it to them after their kid has been accepted, it can still work, but that’s an entirely different stage.
    3. A parent-centric page on your website. I’ll be the first to admit this is a shortcoming for me and a thing I need to check off my list. For the time being, we rely on a parent-centric brochure that outlines useful information, contact numbers, and a glossary of terms. It’s a start, but having a parent page or portal for incoming families could be so helpful! Fill it with FAQs, checklists, highlights of what to do when they are visiting, and easy access to registration for events. Speaking of which…
    4. Parent-focused invites. Do you have parent emails in your CMS? If not, start there, because otherwise you are hoping an overwhelmed young adult is going to fulfill every step of your process without a family member there to help them. Once you do, build in some invites specifically highlighting what’s in it for the family. A high schooler may want to know you’ll have demonstrations; a parent may want to know you’ll have someone there who can walk them through a FAFSA.

At any campus admissions event, parents often seem to be the ones asking the most questions. You want your enrollment communications to reflect that reality; it’s not like parents stop being curious once they leave campus.

Treat parents like the important component to the decision-making process that they are, and they’ll be more likely to want to keep you on the top of the brochure pile.

I’m a dad with three little kids who constantly deals with businesses and schools taking care of or entertaining my kids. I am quick to cut out any business doesn’t feel an obligation to keep me in the loop or show me any value. I don’t have time for it!

Why would you leave parents out of one of the biggest decisions a young adult can make?

Andy Shaw is the director of enrollment communications and operations at York College of Pennslyvania, a private four-year residential school. He also is a speaker, columnist, comedian, and father of three toddlers.