Why your prospective students get off track with their applications—and how to help

Communicate with students via texts and targeted email, expert suggests

For many prospective students, the college application process—especially the FAFSA—can cause doubt and confusion. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Lindsay Page shares low-cost strategies schools can use to keep students on track throughout the college admissions season. 

According to Page, an assistant professor of research methodology and a research scientist at the University of Pittsburgh's Learning Research and Development Center, prospective students often feel confusion and doubt during the application process. She writes that many prospective students struggle with barriers such as:

  • Perceived idea of college affordability;
  • Unfamiliarity with the college landscape;
  • Failure to apply to a sufficient number of schools;
  • Haphazard engagement in the college application process;
  • Difficulty finding a college that fits their goals and qualifications; and
  • Tendency to procrastinate on forms, essays, and standardized tests.

Reduce the burden of application and test fees

Relatively small fees for applications and tests, which Page calls "procedural microbarriers," often stand in the way of low-income students. The costs of score reports for SAT or ACT admissions tests can add up, especially alongside application fees.

Some colleges and universities are already making an effort to alleviate the burden of fees on low-income students. Officials at Georgia State University (GSU), for example, estimate that their microgrant program helped 400 students graduate who otherwise would have dropped out—generating a 200% return on the university's investment in the program. 

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"Alleviating the small fee barriers can have significant positive effects on both college access and completion," Page writes.

In her own research, Page concluded that when low-income SAT takers were offered four extra score reports free of cost, their college attendance and completion rate increased by two percentage points. On a nationwide level, this rate of increase would translate to 3,000 additional bachelor's degrees earned each year.

Nudge students with proactive outreach and support

Page suggests communicating directly with prospective students throughout the application process. For example, she proposes sending nudges through text messages and personalized emails reminding students about deadlines and important forms such as the FAFSA.

"Educational systems at both the secondary and postsecondary levels are likely sitting on a lot of data that could [be] used for targeting such outreach," writes Page. She suggests institutions could use this data to send specialized communication to students who haven't completed their FAFSA, for instance.

And keep the nudges going once students commit to attending your institution—Page notes that even after students are accepted and commit to a college, they still face a long road to enrollment and graduation.

Don't overlook the design of the application

A well-crafted communication strategy can help students get over barriers to applying, agrees Peter Farrell, managing director and senior principal at Royall & Company, a division of EAB.

But, he says, getting the student to open an application is only half the battle.

"How students enter the application, how it renders on a mobile device, how high school counselors and parents are engaged to facilitate submission of supporting credentials are all important strategic elements of an application experience that have to be calibrated for success," Farrell says.

He cautions campus leaders not to overlook the application itself.

"All too often, colleges spend all their effort on the communication plan without careful thought to the application itself and see little return for their effort," Farrell says, adding, "An unwelcoming application will defeat even the best marketing campaign every time."

He acknowledges that getting both the communication plan and the application right "takes an enormous amount of diligence and testing."

"Students are changing all the time and staying ahead of the market isn't easy," Farrell says (Page, Harvard Business Review, 11/29).

Ensure your students never miss a fee or a form

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