Boosting Yield at Private Colleges: Making the Case for Value

There is no question that this is a tough economy. Many colleges are having to consider steep tuition hikes. Two prestigious schools that had adopted no-loan policies have recently canceled them (Williams and Dartmouth), finding them no longer financially tenable. And with the rapid rise in demand for need-based aid and a decline in the ability of many student applicants and their families to pay the costs of college tuition, we are seeing many students who would normally attend private colleges opt for a regional state institution instead.

Robert Massa, vice president for communications at Lafayette College, and W. Kent Barnds, vice president of enrollment and communication at Augustana College, offer advice on how private colleges looking to increase yield can make the case for their value to accepted students.

Start the Conversation with Value, Not Price

Historically, colleges have not made a good case for the value they offer.

Barnds cites a 2007 study by Peter Hart Research Associates that identified what businesses are looking for in college graduates -- including critical thinking, problem-solving, communications skills, and strong work habits. "For many small private colleges in the $40-50,000 price range," Barnds notes, "our mission is to develop precisely these attributes." Focus your message on how the education your college provides prepares students for life after graduation, and make a compelling and specific case for value.

"If you make the case for value first, then the following conversations about price and financial aid packaging are fairly straightforward, as long as you approach them in a straightforward and ethical way."
W. Kent Barnds, Augustana College

"It's not about price," Massa remarks, "it's about value. The challenge is conveying that."

Here are a few places to start.

Strategies for Talking with Parents

Right now Massa has a sticky-note on his desk that says, "Write advice to parents." One very effective strategy for increasing yield is to write to parents of accepted students and talk with them about the value proposition -- what it is and why it is important. If you are yourself the parent of a student or recent alum at your institution or one similar, you can talk about the transformation that has occurred in your son or daughter and how the school uniquely prepared your child for what he or she is doing today.

If you are not such a parent, Massa advises finding someone who is.

"Parent-to-parent communication is very powerful. Colleges think about student-to-student communication all the time; more colleges should think about parent-to-parent communication."
Robert Massa, Lafayette College

Examples of parent-to-parent communication could include:

  • A short video with a parent telling other parents about the value of the education and the experiences of his or her child
  • Parent-to-parent letters
  • An "Ask a Parent" feature on your website

For the "Ask a Parent" feature, find 6-8 parent volunteers who are willing to have their email addresses on your website. Massa advises keeping the number few, but diverse in terms of the majors their children are pursuing. Focus on the especially popular majors at your institution.

Massa notes that you can also write to parents at the prospect stage, sending a letter with an enclosed copy of the financial aid brochure and a career outcomes brochure that outlines where your students go after graduation and what services you have (career services, advising, etc.) to help get them there.

"Use parents as champions of your worth. Parents are writing your checks. Also, considering that this generation of students in particular often have close relationships with parents, if you have proven your worth early on to parents, you've gone a long way to convincing the students as well."
W. Kent Barnds, Augustana College

Strategies for Talking with Students

"Students don't want to hear from parents, but don't assume that they only want to hear from your students. They need to hear from relatively young alumni who are doing great things after graduation."
Robert Massa, Lafayette College

Massa suggests finding graduates from your past 10-15 years who can write to your accepted students. They could also write to your prospects, but these letters prove especially powerful at the yield stage. Barnds adds that whether you use letters or video testimonials, you need to ensure that you find stories that are accessible to a 17- or 18-year-old. A letter from a CEO nearing retirement will be less effective than a letter from a recent alum who has had a powerful start.

Massa cites the case of a young man who double-majored in economics and engineering, graduated in 2004, went on to get a master's in real estate from MIT, and has now started an urban redevelopment firm along with an MIT classmate. "He is only 10 years older than our applicants," Massa remarks. "10 years ago he was applying to colleges, and now he has a successful firm. That's a powerful message."

"That's where the transparency in value is, when someone can reflect on how your college changed their life."
W. Kent Barnds, Augustana College

You Can't Decide the Value for Them

Massa emphasizes the importance of keeping your perspective. "If the main ingredient in the value equation is price for a particular family," he remarks, "then it will be very difficult for any of us to convince that family that a particular institution is worth it. They're looking at the bottom line."

"We can't decide for families what the value our institution provides is. All we can do is relay the experiences of our students and what we think we do very well. Then it is up to the family to decide."
Robert Massa, Lafayette College

What you can do, Massa suggests, is "inspire parents to seek the best for their children." That means speaking very directly about the connection at your institution between value and price, so that they can make an informed decision.

Learn More

Communicating Your Institution's Value in This Economy
Example From Dickinson College: Parent-to-Parent Video Testimonials