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Augustana's Barnds discusses changes in 'money talk'

September  27, 2011

(Editor's note: W. Kent Barnds, Augustana vice president of enrollment, communication and planning, contributed the following editorial to Strategic Enrollment Management, a publication of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, where it originally appeared in August 2011. )

COMMENTARY: Money Talk Should Arrive Earlier to the Admission Conversation

W. Kent Barnds

By W. Kent Barnds

Early analysis of the impact of the Net Price Calculator (NPC) is in, and the results are mixed. While there are differing rationales as to why, it's time to be clear: The Net Price Calculator is not some magic potion that will suddenly eliminate confusion about a complex process and automatically lead to greater access and affordability. In fact, the NPC masks the greater problem, which is that college officials are not comfortable talking about price and real cost and have not adjusted to the demands of the families we serve.

As the October 1 implementation deadline approaches, admissions training about price, cost and value must improve. How do I know? Well, just last week, I heard from a faculty colleague who eliminated two fantastic colleges from his son's shortlist after completing their Net Price Calculators. Eliminated ... without a single conversation with representatives from those schools about the worth of the experience and degree they offer.

Granted, this parent never pursued the conversation that could have changed the course of his son's college education. But if he could have had that conversation early in the college search process, he at least should have been able to hear information that presented the larger picture — beyond the restrictive information provided by the NPC.

Over the course of the last decade, I've observed a shifting pattern in when and how college costs are discussed. No longer are students and parents content with the typical admissions response, which has been to pass the buck and redirect all cost questions to the Office of Financial Assistance (as I was instructed to do by both admissions and financial aid professionals when I started enrollment work in the early 1990s). Lately, the shift has intensified to the point where it's time to re-examine the roles of the admissions counselor and the financial aid officer in discussing cost, financial aid and value. It's no longer possible, practical or even advisable to delay discussion of real cost and net cost until after a student has progressed through the application process to the point of being offered a financial aid package. It's high time we took another look at the relationship between admissions and financial aid offices and at the skill sets needed to communicate more effectively about cost and value in a marketplace that expects more from us than ever before.

Circumstances contributing to the shift include but are not limited to: an increased interest in transparency about real cost; the federal mandate for colleges to introduce a Net Price Calculator; and increased media criticism of the backwards, bottle-necking, apply-and-then-wait-to-see-how-much model. One consequence is the dramatic shift "up the funnel," such that cost as well as the value of the experience are discussed and reinforced much earlier in the process (i.e., before a student applies or is accepted).

Some will applaud this acceleration of the money talk and will celebrate it as a victory for transparency. Yet while some enrollment operations have begun to adapt, most have not yet recognized the fundamental shift or considered its implications for their staffing, programming and training.

In the coming years, admissions and financial aid counselors will need to develop a new edge to respond to these market forces and serve students and families more effectively. In short, admissions counselors will need to become far more fluent in the language of financial assistance and financing a college education. Gone are the days of the empathetic face and the aaw-shucks "you'll have to ask financial aid about that." Likewise, financial aid counselors will need to be more effective "closers" by improving their marketing messaging and reinforcing the value talk occurring throughout the funnel. Some in both professions will find this uncomfortable.

Both sets of professionals will need to maintain technical expertise in their areas while expanding a new skill set. But of the two professions, I am more concerned about our ability to train admissions officers for this new work.

Quite apart from the fact that admissions counselors have been hired for a different skill set — and trained to believe that conversations about college costs are the responsibility of the financial aid office (my chief concern) — many admissions counselors have insufficient knowledge of the financial assistance process. Combine this with their general aversion to "the cost conversation" and a particular fear of giving wrong information and we have a formula for disaster.

By introducing the Net Price Calculator, we are leading families to believe that they will have real answers about college costs earlier in the admissions process. We'd better have those answers. Without increased attention at every level, we are bound to disappoint the families we serve.

To prepare admissions counselors to meet their new job requirements, we need to train for and expect a new set of competencies. At a minimum, each admissions counselor should know his or her institution's major cost drivers, complete the FAFSA online, and work with a financial aid counselor to calculate a financial aid package. Eventually, we should expect our admissions counselors to demonstrate an understanding of:

  • the FAFSA process;
  • the differences among talent-, merit- and need-based financial aid;
  • the percentages of students who receive need-based and merit-based awards;
  • the EFC: what it represents and how it affects financial aid;
  • loans and the loan application process;
  • the financing options available to students and their parents;
  • the eligibility criteria for major federal, state and institutional financial assistance programs;
  • the policies for renewing awards;
  • the federal verification process and why it matters to accuracy; and
  • the college's Net Price Calculator.

Our admissions counselors also must have the ability to:

  • explain which items are required to apply for financial aid and why;
  • quickly and accurately calculate out-of-pocket costs;
  • identify "real cost" differences between institutions; and
  • fully explain a financial award letter.

Building these new competencies in our admissions counselors should be every bit as important as training related to application review, traveling, the high school visit and the essentials of NACAC's "Statement of Principles and Good Practices." It is essential that financial aid officers take a leading role in outlining the training needed for today's admissions counselor. Expecting these new competencies and incorporating related expectations into training will go a long way toward changing admissions counselors' skill set — but there is more we will need to do.

We also must equip counselors with the proper tools for discussing cost, value and affordability much earlier in the admissions process. At my institution, each admissions counselor is given two pie charts: one shows how people nationally pay for college (see "How America Pays for College 2010"); the other shows how Augustana families pay for college. (I see the charts on the walls of most offices, so I know they are used. Families can't miss them!) We will include the charts on our web site when we introduce our NPC.

We also have developed a set of questions admissions counselors can use to start "the money talk":

  • Have you and your parents discussed how you will pay for college?
  • Have you and your family been saving for college?
  • Does your family have any special financial circumstances?
  • Do you plan to complete the FAFSA?
  • Do you plan to take out student loans to help meet the cost associated with your education?
  • Are you aware that many students receive financial assistance and don't pay the full "sticker price?"
  • Do you understand the difference between "tuition" and the "cost of attendance?"
  • Do you believe (your college) meets your goals?
  • Do you believe (your college) meets your goals more effectively than any other institution?

The conversation that results from posing these questions reinforces trust and transparency for all involved and reassures families that we have their needs in mind.

Admissions professionals should identify steps toward making this transition, and they should do so quickly. Defining this new edge to our counselors' skill sets will result in better service to students and families; will prevent students who are a good fit from eliminating a college based on price concerns; will promote more proactive counsel about options when students are not realistic about cost; and will strengthen the partnership among families, admissions staff and financial aid professionals.

W. Kent Barnds is vice president of enrollment, communication and planning at Augustana College. He served previously at Elizabethtown College.

(See also "Net Price vs. Net Worth" in Inside Higher Ed, July 19, 2010)

Keri Rursch
Executive Director of Public Relations, Communication and Marketing
(309) 794-7721