Higher education is an investment, it’s worth it, and here’s why. That’s the story we’re trying to get across. Here’s why it is important at the University of Findlay. ~ Rebecca Butler, VP of Enrollment Management
Located in Hancock County, Ohio, is the city of Findlay – better known to you and me as Flag City, USA. But something else has called Findlay, Ohio, home for 133 years. What started out as Findlay College in 1882 is now the University of Findlay, home of the Oilers and 4,186 undergraduate and graduate students. Known best for its animal science and equestrian studies programs, Findlay has made a name for itself with leading programs such as pharmacy, physical therapy, and pre-veterinarian studies.
A classy private institution that boasts some impressive undergraduate research opportunities and experiential learning internship opportunities, Findlay is an ideal display of liberal arts quality. And yet, they impress further. Rebecca Butler, Vice President of Enrollment Management, recently hired by President Katherine Fell, remarks, “We’re about grounding students in all of their competencies to learn about our world.” And “grounding” is working well, because it’s keeping students coming back semester after semester. In fact, Findlay has seen excellent enrollment gains, with a growth rate of 8.4% since 2013. The fall 2015 class should be the largest new-student class in the history of the school.
So what’s Findlay doing? Where’s the magic dust? Are recruiting and admissions strategies being invented at Findlay that no one else has ever thought of in the history of higher ed? No, not really. Actually, their success is seemingly rooted in just one word … TRANSPARENCY.
Transparency is one of those nervous words. It’s not that we don’t all want to be transparent with our students, their parents, prospects, alumni, administration and so forth. It’s just that transparency brings with it a greater responsibility of stewardship and accountability.
Findlay has taken up this flag of accountability and has truly invested in their students’ financial future related to their education by provding financial transparency. And who more appropriate to talk to about this wave of transparency but Rebecca Butler, quite the spokesperson for what Findlay calls a “Comprehensive Affordability Plan and Real-Cost Transparency.” Before becoming Findlay’s VP of Enrollment Management, Butler worked in sales and marketing before starting her higher ed work at Sinclair Community College as Chief Marketing Officer. Now, in her role at Findlay, she oversees the marketing communications for the entire university, as well as all enrollment operations.
Recently, Findlay developed its Total Degree Cost Calculator (TDCC) in-house; it is designed to guide students through the process of creating a personalized plan for affording a UF degree, and it has turned some heads. At the 2014 NACAC conference, Findlay presented their cost calculator concept to attendees and at the conclusion, representatives from Cegment, Inc. approached the college interested in talking about future plans. Findlay knew it didn’t have the bandwidth to continually innovate around the calculator, and Cegment helped them realize their vision of a personal affordability plan for new and continuing students.
During our conversation, I wanted to dig right into this concept of financial transparency and affordability as it relates to the student’s and parent’s “investment” in a college education. We all know it costs a lot of money to go to college today, typically even more so for private institutions. That’s nothing new. But handling costs and financial aid with prospective and current students in very much the same way a financial advisor might work with you and your investment portfolio is new.
Butler shared her concern regarding the current rhetoric in higher ed circles with strong media and legislative conversations occurring, highlighting moreso the rare instances of crippling debt that college students today were amassing only to end up working at a coffee shop. It is this perception that higher ed institutions are battling. There are some students facing such high college debt with jobs that won’t make a dent in their loan repayment amounts, but the majority of college students graduate with manageable debt and acquire jobs in their fields of interest.
“Private schools start looking and sounding completely unaffordable. How do we educate students and parents as to what’s really going on?”.
Butler continues, “Being transparent and authentic is part of who we are. We don’t want to bring in students and then look a different way when they get here. We are being asked for more accountability by the government, by accrediting agencies, and that is a good thing. And this is just the right thing for us to do, ethically. We are doing our students and families a disservice if all we are trying to do is get them to cobble up enough money for their first year. We help students think of their financial responsibility in totality.”
A full launch of the program should occur in 2016 and begin the communication with students and families. Findlay is promoting the bold statement, “We recruit graduates.” as the foundational theme of the campaign. New students and families will go through the online financial aid utility; the admissions and financial aid offices will work in tandem; and the admissions team is trained to work with families from the start to consult with them about the affordability program. I guess you could think of these counselors as “Certified Findlay Planners.” Students and families will receive a customized affordability plan for a Findlay education, enhanced award letters, a financial success guide, and continued monitoring and communication during their time at Findlay to keep them aware of their current financial situation.
So what’s the marketing initiative behind all of this? Findlay plans to promote this to the industry through conferences and media promotions; they will include details in each communication through their CRM (customer relationship management) system to students and parents; and admissions counselors and financial aid staff will guide parents and students through the total degree cost calculator together. Social media will be another avenue for Findlay to promote the plan, which may turn out to be one of Findlay’s greatest portals for customer service. Counselors will also be promoting this plan of financial transparency and affordability with high school counselors and prospects while out on the road recruiting.
“There is trepidation with some, but that’s to be expected when you’re transparent and vulnerable. We’re all fabulous institutions, those of us that are similar in size, scope, or approach, and we all offer great things to our students academically. But what happens when we do nothing about the financial literacy and education of our students and families?”
Rebecca Butler and the leadership at the University of Findlay have a fine point. In my experience, if you don’t arm your students and parents with every possible tool and resource you can offer for a successful college journey, you could be setting them up to fail. It’s not hard to sell a student on a college during a campus visit and with helpful customer service, customized tours and overnight stays. But misleading a student up front by not being clear and transparent about the one thing that stresses most parents and students out – financial aid and cost – is folly. Yes, you may be able to get their money for the first year, helping your college reach an enrollment goal, but you’ll likely lose a third of those because they weren’t prepared and didn’t need to come their first year. Retention will suffer and graduation rates will plummet.
Because Findlay has stood up as a pillar, a leader in this fight for financial aid transparency, the institution can say to families: Private universities are not what you think they are, with regards to being unaffordable. They are affordable, and we’re going to show you why and how. And then we’re going to partner with you to show you that investment and how to remain educated about your financial responsibility during and after college.
Now that sounds like a college who cares for a student’s academic and financial future. Sounds like a recipe for success to me, and it’s exactly what Findlay is experiencing. And most importantly, it’s likely to continue.
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