Perceptions of the Parents of College Students After COVID-19

Anne MonroeSenior Vice President, Client Experience and EngagementAugust 13, 2020

This post was co-authored by Anne Monroe, Kim Myrick, and Dan Preston

In May 2020, RNL conducted a joint research project with Campus ESP and the NAIA to learn more about the perceptions of parents or family members of current college students. The study surveyed 14,805 parent or family members representing 28 four-year institutions across the United States (69 percent public, 31 percent private). The respondents included the college graduating classes of 2020-2023.

Understanding parent and family perceptions is important to the success of campus communications with current students moving into fall 2020 and beyond. The COVID-19 pandemic and related changes in higher education have amplified the need for information among families. The survey results reflect a need for increased communication focused in three areas—academic experience, campus experience and safety, and paying for college. Parents of student athletes share these concerns along with uneasiness related to athletic experiences in the midst of COVID-19.

  • Overall, 53 percent of respondents wanted to hear from the college at least once per month. Nearly half (46 percent) want to hear as often as needed or when the campus has important updates to share.
  • Parents most want to hear about plans for reopening campuses, deadlines related to enrollment, and changes to costs, financial aid or scholarships.

Keep in mind that most parents have not attended class online. Providing opportunities for the family to experience online learning may reduce uncertainty. Use an online learning experience to walk through these questions:

  • What will the online classroom experience be like?
  • How will students interact with faculty?
  • How can students access campus services such as career services, writing or math centers, and library resources?

Recommendations for communication with families

  • Families want regular updates on campus planning and progress toward decisions. Campuses can reduce uncertainty by providing information. Even when plans are not finalized, communicate regularly with families.
  • The campus website materials related to COVID-19 should be reviewed and updated regularly.
  • Campus communication should reflect institutional identity even in times of crisis.
  • Establish a plan for communication throughout the 2020-2021 school year. Be sure families know how to connect with your campus to receive updates. Include plans for mitigation, masking, management of physical distance in classrooms, residential and dining facilities, and potential options for online learning.

Paying for college in the pandemic

The higher education sector has never faced anything like the COVID-19 pandemic. Institutions are trying to move forward, most with plans to provide in-person educational services starting in August.

Parents and students are also trying to move forward as well, but affordability and costs are significant factors in their decisions. Two-thirds (67 percent) of families of current college students in the survey said that COVID-19 is affecting them personally or financially. Families across the nation feel the impact of the pandemic.

Affordability and costs

  • A majority of parents (57 percent) answered they are Moderately Concerned, Concerned, or Very Concerned about the ability to afford tuition, fees and living expenses.
  • The concerns are similar regardless of whether students are attending public or private institutions, and also similar across regions of the country.

There are notable differences in levels of concern based on the race of the family/student, as well as by families of first-generation college students.

  • Parents of Black (56 percent), Hispanic (51 percent), and multi-racial students (49 percent) are much more likely to be Concerned or Very Concerned than parents of white students (30 percent).
  • Half of parents of first-generation college students are much more likely to be Concerned or Very Concerned about their ability to afford college, compared to 32 percent of parents whose students are not first generation.

Importance of financial aid

Only 14 percent of families stated that financial aid is not at all important in deciding about fall 2020 plans, with unsurprising differences between private (6 percent) and public (18 percent) college attendees. Eighty-six percent of families put some importance on financial aid, with 59 percent considering it Very Important. Variations in responses include:

  • The vast majority of parents consider financial aid to be Very or Somewhat Important regardless of ethnicity.
    • Black: 97 percent
    • Hispanic: 93 percent
    • Asian: 90 percent
    • Multi-racial: 90 percent
    • White: 84 percent
  • Among first-generation families, 73 percent consider financial aid Very Important.
  • For non-first-generation families, 57 percent rate aid as Very Important.
  • When looking at results by family income, 92 percent of families below $50K income consider aid to be Very or Somewhat Important; this drops to 76 percent for families above $100K.

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Will paying for college in fall 2020 be difficult?

As important as aid is deemed to be, most families view paying for college to be something less than Very Difficult. Only 22 percent of families responded in this way, where 78 percent of families view paying as Somewhat or Not Difficult. There is very little difference between private and public institutions, and no discernable differences across the regions of the US.

Black and Hispanic families, along with families with first-generation students, think paying for college will be more difficult than their counterparts, with 34% of both Black families and first-generation families marking Very Difficult, the highest measures across all categories.

Expectations for funding

Parents have mixed expectations about how much they expect college will cost in 2020:

  • Will cost the same: 53 percent
  • Will cost more: 23 percent
  • Will cost less than in the past: 24 percent

One notable difference when examining subpopulations is that families of greater financial means are more likely to expect that college will cost less in 2020.

  • Of those earning $100K+, 27 percent expect college to cost less.
  • Of those earning less than $50K, 20 percent expect college to cost less.

Recommendations for communication with families about financial aid and costs

  • Make information about costs and financial aid easy to access.
  • If your institution considers aid appeals based on changing financial circumstances, be upfront about how to apply. If your institution doesn’t consider aid appeals, now may be the time to start.
  • Most families expect to borrow—help them through the process.
  • Many families (43 percent) need to borrow more than planned, help them consider all options.

Parents of athletes

While families of athletes share general parental concerns around the academic experience, the plans for reopening, and how they will pay for college, they also report concerns specifically related to their student’s athletic experience. Following abbreviated or cancelled spring sport seasons and championships, along with changes for fall sports that are being announced by some institutions, families are eager to know the future sport seasons will take shape.

Sixty-three percent of athlete families responding to the survey were considering options to move to another institution or were undecided. Taking classes online at the student’s current institution was the top choice for 37 percent of responding families. Additionally, students of color are even more likely to make alternate choices in their current enrollment intentions. These responses reinforce the importance of communicating plans for the coming academic year at the earliest opportunity.

With early reports of positive cases among teams practicing in recent weeks and recent announcements on fall sports, families want to know what the campus plan will be, by sport, if positive cases are found among the team. Families are looking for information related to continuing eligibility if a season is cancelled, safety and health, management of practices and training facilities, and how physical distancing will be managed if required.

Communicating with parents/family of athletes on a regular basis to reinforce details is vital at this time. Consider these factors when answering key questions:

  • Will the sport remain or be cut from the institution?
  • What will be the timing of sport season—fall, winter, spring—and length of season?
  • How will students travel for contests?
  • Are there any updates related to eligibility?
  • Are there changes in athletic scholarship eligibility or awards?
  • What are the plans to maintain health and safety of athletes during contests, practice, and training?
  • Can parents and other fans watch their children compete?
  • Where can families find campus-wide details related to academics, residential life, and services for students?

Talk with our experts about how you can engage parents during the enrollment process

Our RNL enrollment experts can discuss how you can engage students, parents, and other influencers such as high school counselors. Schedule a time to talk and we can discuss what you want to accomplish.

About the Author

Dr. Anne Monroe has been with RNL for more than 10 years, now serving as the senior vice president for client experience and engagement at RNL. She previously led the recruitment consulting division at RNL, and...

Read more about Anne's experience and expertise

Reach Anne by e-mail at Anne.Monroe@RuffaloNL.com.

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