Enrollment Blog

To engage parents of first generation students: Start early and tailor your events

by Michael Koppenheffer

Our research and testing continues to reinforce how important it is to engage parents when recruiting students. As a parent of two teenagers myself, I sometimes have trouble believing it, but parents are consistently rated as among the most influential sources of information and advice for students considering colleges by the students themselves.

Some of our latest enrollment work in Enrollment Services has been focused on marketing techniques to engage parents and bring them into the college consideration and evaluation process for a particular school, such as our “parent-first” targeting approaches.

But a recent EAB study found that the most effective strategies for engaging the parents of first-generation students are distinct to this population.

Distinct challenges for parents of first-generation students

By definition, the parents of prospective first-generation students have little to no experience with higher education. Therefore, they lack the knowledge and perspective that would let them advise their children on how to prepare for college and how to navigate the admissions process. Our research has even found that in some cases, these parents may be skeptical of their children’s college aspirations.

Often when parents of first-generation students try to support their children’s college enrollment, participating in the process can be hard. The timing and location of recruitment events, such as campus tours and orientation sessions, do not accommodate families who may be unable to miss work or travel long distances. And while most colleges and universities offer a foreign language translation service, it is often available in only one language, typically Spanish.

Research reveals best practices

As part of a larger research initiative looking at ways to strengthen the pipeline of underrepresented students, a team from EAB's Enrollment Management Forum did dozens of in-depth interviews to understand the most effective practices for engaging parents of prospective first-generation students.

The successful and replicable practices we identified fell into two categories. First, there are specific practices for involving parents in K-12 college access programs to create a college-going culture for first-generation students and demystify the application process for families. Second, there are a handful of broadly applicable approaches for tailoring campus events for the families of first-generation students, which allows families to engage in the process and to assess the college's fit.

Parent-focused college access programs

In general, college access programs support enrollment diversity strategies by increasing college preparedness and enrollment-rates for underrepresented populations. The key attributes of successful college access programs are profiled in a separate white paper published by the Enrollment Management Forum.

What the parent engagement research team found in this study, however, was that certain college access programs created special features designed to engage parents in the college preparation and consideration process.

For example, the University of Southern California Neighborhood Academic Initiative has a dedicated Family Development Institute, which includes 12 Saturday seminars related to college enrollment topics, such as financial literacy. Similarly, the Road to College program in Wichita Falls, Texas, run by a local non-profit Café Con Leche and supported by Midwestern State University, asks parents to sign a contract that commits them to build a "culture of high expectations" for students.

Make events more accessible to working parents

We also found a range of ideas to make on-campus events more accessible to parents from underrepresented populations, by being creative about date, location, and format.

Point Loma Nazarene University began offering a monthly campus tour scheduled in the evening, dubbed the "Sunset Tour." The tour includes an informal dinner that allows for open conversations and discussions. Point Loma reports that students who attend the evening apply at significantly higher rates than students who attend the regular tour.

Augustana College recognized that for some parents, making the drive to their Rock Island campus, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Chicago, to attend orientation wasn’t possible. So Augustana began offering a targeted orientation on Saturdays in Chicago as an alternative.

And the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, which already had an admitted-student event focused on underrepresented students, radically redesigned that event to allow for more networking and one-on-one conversation with UMass staff members who can address family concerns. The yield rate of underrepresented minority students increased three percentage points following the redesign.

Learn how to perfect parent engagement at our enrollment roundtable

You're invited to join senior enrollment leaders from across the country in Chicago on April 17-18, as we explore tested and proven solutions to some of higher education’s most pressing enrollment challenges. Our "Perfecting Parent Engagement" session offers key insights from our survey of parents of college-bound students.

Learn More and Save Your Spot


*Please note: This roundtable is reserved for senior enrollment leaders.

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