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1 SPRING 2012 Engage Parents for More Engaged Students: Three Engagement Building Blocks for Enrollment Managers University Research Partners (URP) is the research division of Royall & Company. URP designs, deploys, and analyzes national issue-oriented research that explores topics of interest to higher education leaders and policy makers East Parham Road Richmond, Virginia royall.com Since 2000, URP has surveyed more than 750,000 students on their beliefs and concerns about higher education and conducted institution-specific research for its 200+ nonprofit higher education clients Royall & Company

2 Engage Parents for More Engaged Students Executive Summary This report summarizes a national study surveying nearly 3,000 parents of college-bound high school students. The study s goal is to increase our understanding of how parents engage in their child s college choice process, what they want to learn from colleges and universities, and the preferred channels through which they wish to receive desired information. On the following pages, you ll discover: Why parental engagement is so important to enrollment managers The three key building blocks necessary for engaging parents, not only in their child s college choice, but also in the choice relative to your institution The influence touch points for parental involvement The actions engaged parents take during the college choice process The must have communication channels for parental engagement The must have information parents desire from colleges and universities The time parents prefer to receive information from colleges and universities Here s a quick summary of our primary findings: Parents overall are participating in the college choice process and doing so by searching for, sorting, interpreting, and sharing information with their child, discussing options and choice parameters, making plans, and visiting schools. Parents who attended college are more likely to actively weigh aspects of the college decision with their child. Parents feel they have the most influence over financial decisions but less influence over the specific school and major chosen. Parents may differ on demographic characteristics, but as a group, what they want is the best education available for their child within the resources they have available. Financial implications are a source of concern for many parents, and financial planning assistance is valued. Parents want information and they want information designed specifically for them on topics that are important to them. Those topics include general information about the school, degree programs and related careers, school location, financial planning and aid, student activities, campus facilities, and campus safety. Some of this information they will use during discussions with their child; some of it is for their own sense of comfort in the college choice their child will make. Parents rely on a subset of information sources and communication: , online search using institutional websites and search engines, and printed materials. Direct mail and , website design, and search engine optimization are therefore the most relevant tools for marketing. 1

3 Findings from a survey of Parents of College-bound students SPRING 2012 KEY FINDINGS Three Engagement Building Blocks for Enrollment Managers Engagement is perhaps the most desired, yet elusive, outcome pursued by organizations today. Engagement has become a strategic imperative for enhancing performance across a host of organizational objectives. For customers, engagement results in lower price sensitivity, higher word-of-mouth referral activity, and more. For employees, engagement is related to lower turnover, less absenteeism, and higher participation as a good citizen. In communities, we see the same type of benefits engaged residents show more civic responsibility and volunteerism than those who are not engaged. It s no wonder that engagement has become the holy grail for institutions of all types including colleges and universities. We can draw parallels between the benefits branded products see as a result of customer engagement and the benefits colleges see from parental engagement. Engaged parents are more influential in the college choice process. Parents are also our best source of influence. Though college-bound students may also find support for the college choice from friends, teachers, coaches, and other family members, parents have more access and greater influence. Given the role of parents as one of the key sources of social support for youth and parental influence on teen decision making from normative and financial perspectives, it s clear that engaging parents is a strategic approach for engaging prospective students. In this research report, we consider what engagement is, why it is important, and how it can be influenced by enrollment managers. A study by Rowan-Kenyon, Bell, and Perna (2008) explored different levels of parental involvement and their influence on college enrollment. They concluded that parental encouragement and involvement were important facilitators of college enrollment but that parental involvement was shaped by layers of context, including information provided by higher education institutions themselves. 1 Students with strong attachments to supportive parents who helped the child explore career options showed greater commitment to career choices than those without parental support (Hirschi, Niles, & Akos, 2011). 2 1 Rowan-Kenyon, H.T., Bell, A., & Perna, L.W. (2008). Contextual influences on parental involvement in college going: Variations by socioeconomic class. Journal of Higher Education, 79, Hirschi, A., Niles, S.G., & Akos, P. (2011). Engagement in adolescent career preparation: Social support, personality, and the development of choice decidedness and congruence. Journal of Adolescence, 34,

4 Engage Parents for More Engaged Students KEY FINDINGS 1. What is parental engagement? Engagement is a tricky word. It often is associated with an action or interaction. It also may refer to a positive state. And, importantly, one must have something or someone as the target of engagement. In other words, engagement is about relationships. Parents Institution Student There are three key building blocks necessary for developing communications that will effectively engage parents: 1) understanding the audience, 2) action-oriented messaging, and 3) delivering messages via effective and preferred channels. Does this sound familiar? It should. Engaging parents is about persuasion; it is ultimately based on targeting and positioning, and message and media strategy. Building block 1: For enrollment managers, readying the foundation for engagement means understanding parents (and their children). Understanding what, specifically? For engagement, nuances such as the parents readiness, inclination, and barriers to participate in the college choice process are relevant. Some parents are highly motivated to participate, perhaps even driving the college choice process for their child. Others may be limited in the extent to which they are prepared to participate, either due to their own lack of experience, time scarcity, fear (especially financial fears), or perceived inaccessibility to the necessary resources. Parents may be playing roles ranging between the extremes of helicopter (hovering over their child) to ostrich (with their heads in the sand). Understanding the parents of prospective students is the first step to building engagement. We ll address this building block by sharing insights into the areas of college choice parents feel they have the most influence and how parents are engaging in the process. Building block 2: When it comes to building engagement, messages to parents should offer value and inspire action. Messages offer value in the form of relevance, a reward, an invitation, recognition, access, or simply information. Think of the message as a catalyst for what you d like to see happen between your institution and the parent, and between the parent and the child. Building block 3: Today we are faced with a myriad of channels, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Through which channels do parents welcome college choice communications? Which channels establish credibility? Which channels best provide for interactive responses? The chosen channels must inspire trust and credibility, provide for interactivity and response, and avoid or overcome barriers such as clutter, irritation, or simple lack of use. We ll share parental perceptions of the most and least necessary channels for communications about college. 3

5 Findings from a survey of Parents of College-bound students SPRING 2012 What is parental engagement? Continued Engagement is a psychological state that occurs in the context of an interaction with a focal object in the confines of a focal relationship (adapted from Brodie, Hollebeek, Juric, and Ilic, 2011). The key components of this definition are state and interaction, in the context of a relationship. That is, engagement involves both a psychological dimension and a behavioral interaction between the target and the institution. 3 In a recent Harvard Business Review blog post, Ray Wang (2012) described how to use a set of three building blocks to develop engagement. He described these three building blocks as 1) people-centric values, 2) right-time drivers, and 3) delivery and communication styles. What are people-centric values? They are the foundation for the relationship between the institution and the parent. The foundation for a relationship is built on mutual understanding and trust. Right-time drivers are about choosing the right message to deliver at the right time to the right person. The third building block is delivery and communication styles, the how and when preferences people have for communication What Are the Key Areas of Parental Influence? Ideally we want parents to be engaged in interactions with our institution and with their child s college choice process. But what aspects of that decision are really being influenced by parents? Parents feel they have the most influence on the financial aspects of college choice: how much will be spent and how much debt is acceptable for the family and the child. Parents indicate less influence over choices such as the characteristics of specific schools considered, living arrangements, and academic major. You can provide value to parents by offering information that helps them make sense of financial decisions. Whether it s Net Price Calculators, financial aid discussion points, or information on evaluating the price-to-value ratio for different colleges, providing information on affordability and financial strategies shows you understand a core issue for parents. 3 Brodie, R., Hollebeek, L., Juric, B., & Ilic, A. (2011). Customer engagement: Conceptual domain, fundamental propositions, and implications for research. Journal of Service Research, 14 (3), Wang, R. (May 9, 2012). How to Engage Your Customers and Employees, Harvard Business Review Blog Network, Available online: 4

6 Engage Parents for More Engaged Students What Are the Key Areas of parental Influence? Continued Q. As you think about your child s college-related decisions, how much influence would you say you have over each of the following? Full Sample Sophs Juniors Seniors Mean Mean Mean Mean How much you will spend on your child's college education The amount of debt your family will incur for your child's education The amount of personal debt your child will incur Whether your child contributes personal funds to pay for college Whether your child lives on or off campus The specific school(s) your child visits Whether your child works while going to college The specific school(s) your child considers The number of schools your child will apply to The specific school(s) your child will apply to The type of school, public or private, your child attends The distance from home to the school your child attends The environment (urban, rural, suburban) of the school your child attends The size of the school your child attends What academic major your child pursues Mean scores are based on a 5-point scale, where 1 = little influence and 5 = significant influence. Highlights denote significant differences by student s high school class year. 5

7 Findings from a survey of Parents of College-bound students SPRING How Are Parents Engaging in College Choice? Parents can interact with the institution and/or directly with their own child. Parental engagement may flow from parent to institution as well as from parent to child. Parents may engage in the college choice process with their child by discussing college and education-related topics, discussing careers, sharing information, and participating in college search activities such as campus visits. Parents can engage with the college by searching and requesting information, talking with counselors and faculty, and visiting the institution. The following table illustrates the percentage of parents who have participated in each college search and choice activity. Most parents are discussing options with their child and consuming information both in print and online. A much lower percentage of parents engage by interacting with a college representative. You should ensure that parents have the right information in hand when they sit down to discuss college with their child. Q. We realize family situations differ and parents face circumstances that make different levels of involvement with their children possible and/or desirable. We are interested in understanding your specific situation including what you are and are not doing with respect to your child s college search. For the items listed, please check each one you have done. Activities reported by more than half of the parents responding Count Percent Talked with your child about schools being considered 2, Searched for information on a college s website 2, Read printed materials a college sent to your child 2, Read messages sent directly to you 2, Helped your child compare options by weighing the pros and cons of different schools 2, Talked with your child about different college majors 2, Talked with your child about financing college 2, Discussed colleges with other parents 2, Visited campus(es) with your child 2, Encouraged your child to do things to enhance his/her college resume and/or application 2, Read printed materials a college sent directly to you 1, Arranged campus visit(s) for your child 1, Encouraged your child to visit a specific school 1, Helped your child complete scholarship/financial aid application(s) 1, Consulted with a school s guidance counselor 1, Read messages sent to your child 1, Researched online resources for college search process 1,

8 Engage Parents for More Engaged Students How Are Parents Engaging in College Choice? Continued Activities reported by less than half of the parents responding Count Percent Helped your child complete college application(s) 1, Encouraged your child to consider a specific school 1, Consulted with teacher/coach 1, Encouraged your child to consider a specific major 1, Called an admission office to ask questions/gather information ed an admission office to ask questions/gather information Called college office(s) other than admission to ask questions/gather information ed college office(s) other than admission to ask questions/gather information Consulted with an independent counselor None of the activities What Are the Must Have Communication Channels for Parents? The sheer number of communication channels available today makes choosing the best delivery mechanism challenging. And the stakes may seem even higher when considering the rapid pace of change in the adoption of smartphones and tablets and the use of text, instant, and network messaging. Despite the prevalence of digital channels other than , parents still rely heavily on and print mail in the form of letters and printed brochures. Institutional websites also are relevant, with parents regularly using websites to gather college information. 86.3% of parents indicated is a necessary communication channel for reaching them. 70.6% of parents indicated institutional websites are necessary. 46.8% of parents indicated printed viewbooks are necessary. What about social networks? Just 10.5% of parents felt information delivered via social networks was relevant (though the percentage among students was 36.4%), and only 8.4% had liked or followed a college on a social network. 75% of parents had searched for a school using a search engine such as Google or Yahoo! The most popular strategies are 1) searches by a specific school s name (82.7%), 2) searches by academic majors of interest (55.8%), and 3) using college-related search engines such as College Finder and College Board (29.6%). Only a small percentage of parents rely on specialized digital channels including blogs, wikis, videos, and related tools. Just 1.7% had followed a school on Twitter; 2.6% had used an online chat option with a school representative; 4.9% had used RSS to subscribe to school updates. Even among the most popular social media content, engagement was weak among parents. For instance, about one in five (21.4%) had viewed a YouTube video about a school of interest to their child. 7

9 Findings from a survey of Parents of College-bound students SPRING What Information Do Parents Want to Receive from Colleges? Channels deliver information, but that information must be relevant, valuable, and (for engagement) inspire action. What information is most relevant to parents? What information do parents most wish to receive? The most popular topic for parents is cost-related information, with 94.5% of parents indicating a desire for information sent directly to them. Other popular topics are related to the financial implications of college, including scholarships and financial aid. Parents also want to see the information sent to their child, and the highest percentages prefer that their child receive information on the college, including its facilities, location, activities, housing options, and so on. Q. What specific information do you want to receive from the colleges and universities your child is considering? Sent to Sent to Parent Sent to Parent Child Sent to Child Count Percent Count Percent Costs (e.g., tuition, housing, fees) 2, , Financial aid 2, , Scholarships 1, , Financing college 1, , Application dates/deadline reminders 1, , Room and board options 1, , Housing options 1, , Campus safety 1, , General information about the college 1, , Preparedness for on-campus emergencies 1, , Location of the school and area around it 1, , Degree programs 1, , Majors/minors 1, , Facilities on campus 1, , Size of school 1, , On-campus jobs 1, , Career opportunities related to specific majors , Student activities ,

10 Engage Parents for More Engaged Students 6. WHAT is THE BEST TIME FOR PARENTS TO RECEIVE INFORMATION FROM COLLEGES? Due to the typical tuition-setting approval processes on campuses across the country, college and university officials have been unable to provide concrete financial information to families before the prospective students senior year. Despite this reality, enrollment managers and other institutional leaders know that details regarding college costs are essential for family planning in earlier stages of the college search process. Parents clearly indicate their interest in learning about college costs, scholarships, and financial aid, and how to finance higher education for their child. And for many, the earlier the better. Q. Considering the information you are interested in schools sending directly to you, please indicate when you would prefer to get it. When parents prefer to receive specific information Freshman Year Soph Year Junior Year Senior Year Costs (e.g., tuition, housing, fees) Financing college Financial aid Scholarships General information about the college Application dates/deadline reminders Room and board options Housing options Location of the school and area around it Degree programs Majors/minors Career opportunities related to specific majors Despite the fact that few colleges and universities have communication campaigns for high school freshmen, it is worth noting that many parents (all with children who are high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors) indicated an interest in receiving information during their child s freshman year. Parents also indicated the greatest interest in receiving general information about the college and information about the school location and surrounding area in their child s freshman year, while their interest in application dates/deadline reminders and housing, room, and board options was high in both the freshman and senior years. In the junior year, parents were interested in receiving details regarding degree programs, majors and minors, and careers related to specific areas of study. These timing preferences for specific content reveal how parents assist their children in the college choice process. It is most noteworthy that parents financial concerns remain relevant throughout their child s high school years. 9

11 Findings from a survey of Parents of College-bound students SPRING 2012 Insights and Action Points Engaging parents adds value by providing relevant information to an influential person in your prospective students lives. Engaging parents requires understanding their needs and characteristics, designing effective messages, and delivering messages with the most effective channels. As more people adopt digital devices, channels, and tools, what is perceived as necessary may shift. Stay abreast of research on the adoption of digital channels and their uses. Parents are influencing their child s college choice process by searching for information, reading content, and talking with their child. Ensure that parents have the right information in hand when they sit down to discuss college with their child. Parents may appreciate other ways to participate beyond searching for information, reading, and talking with others. Consider suggesting ways parents can be engaged in the process other than providing resources and a sounding board for the child. Today s youth have largely had their experiences programmed throughout their school and extracurricular activities. Preparing for the different stages of the college choice process together will help the child take ownership of the choice while providing a bonding opportunity for the family. Parents need and want information related to the financial implications of their child s college choice more than anything else. Provide tools to help them understand, prepare, and discuss these issues with their child. Offer information that helps families make sense of financial decisions. Whether it s Net Price Calculators, financial aid discussion points, or information on evaluating the price-to-value ratio for different colleges, providing information on affordability and financial strategies shows you understand a core issue for families. Though parents are concerned about costs and resources, they want their child to have information about the college experience. Focus student-targeted information on general information, location, facilities, activities, and the overall experience of attending your school. Parents want their child to be able to evaluate fit with your institution beyond the worries of money. Parents still rely most heavily on a few modes of communication: direct mail, , and online websites and search. The most effective marketing tools, therefore, will be direct marketing, website design (possibly including user experience), and search engine optimization (SEO). As websites become increasingly interactive, understanding how people prospective students and their parents, among others experience the site s features will aid in optimizing site design. The website also offers an opportunity to engage parents in multi-media content about the institution. While most parents are not visiting YouTube for video tours, they are visiting your website. Thus, website design provides an opportunity for multi-channel delivery of some of your most persuasive content. While sites can be optimized for search engine rankings, another way to improve search engine optimization is the use of social media. That s right even though parents are not using these channels for communication, they do affect search rankings. 10

12 About the Study Royall & Company s University Research Partners surveyed 2,832 parents of college-bound high school students in the late spring of The study focused on learning the latest preferences and behaviors of these parents. The parents were geographically diverse, with all 50 states and the District of Columbia represented. The parents were qualified participants in the college choice process, representing the parents of students currently engaged in the college search process. A demographic overview of the participants: 58.1% are parents of seniors, 31.5% of juniors, and 10.4% of sophomores. 76.7% are mothers/female guardians and 23.3% are fathers/male guardians. 55.2% have a daughter going to college and 44.8% have a son. 76.4% are Caucasian and 23.6% are parents of color. 75.5% have a four-year degree or higher. 28.7% are from the West, 23.0% from the Midwest, 17.8% from the Middle States, 12.6% from the South, 8.0% from New England, and 7.0% from the Southwest; 2.9% are from outside the U.S. 77.8% are in a traditional family (married with children in same household). A study of college-bound students was conducted at the same time as the study of parents reported here. A total of 6,372 prospective students participated, including some from the same households as the parents included in this study. Together, the surveys of parents and students provide a comprehensive view of communication preferences and the family dynamic that is an essential part of the college search process. For additional information about this study or other research on higher education, please contact Pamela Kiecker Royall, Ph.D., Head of Research, at or

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