Three things that the most successful net price calculators do to engage prospective college students

Todd Wilkins

Financial Aid Consultant/TrueCost Calculator Specialist

May 9, 2014

In the fall of 2010, as part of the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA), the federal government required every college and university to post net price calculators (NPCs) on their websites. The goal of the law was to provide financial aid and cost estimates to students and parents during their college search. Many admissions and financial aid directors expressed wariness of the new regulation for a simple and logical reason: the federal NPC would show cost of attendance figures with no context or explanation of the value of the educational experience at an institution. For this reason, many campus directors came to us to create a customizable NPC that could frame the cost conversations around the estimated financial aid awards students and parents were seeing.

Net price calculators need to communicate all the scholarships and financial aid students are eligible for, as well as provide context for the net cost of attendance.
Net price calculators need to communicate all the scholarships and financial aid students are eligible for, as well as provide context for the net cost of attendance.

Since then, third-party NPCs and homegrown calculators have become versatile campus marketing and student recruitment tools. Over that time period, I have seen a shift in ownership of NPCs on campus. Initially financial aid directors were tasked with updating and maintaining the information displayed on an institution’s NPC. Today, admissions and marketing staff have become more involved with NPC strategy, seeing the recruitment potential of these tools and trying to maximize the impact the cost figures and text within the NPC can have on potential students. The recruitment potential is so great that admissions departments are using various versions of NPCs to strategically recruit specific subsets and cohorts of their inquiry pool. These various NPC versions are being used to communicate and more accurately estimate awards for military and veteran students, transfer students, international students, and others.

Regardless of the audience, there are key elements every NPC should possess to push students through the enrollment funnel. These elements and the following strategies can increase the communication between a prospective student using an NPC and your institution.

Placement: Make it easy to start the conversation about cost and available aid

Cost is almost always a top concern for students and families. If you are not placing your NPC where they can find it, you are missing out on the ability to influence them. Yet, according to the 2014 E-Recruiting Practices Report, only 69 percent of four-year private and 53.8 percent of four-year public institutions place their net price calculators on their primary webpage for prospective students.

Institutions may think that burying their NPC somewhere deep on their website will limit the number of potential students who can use the NPC and therefore will be required to contact the school with cost of attendance questions. That is a misguided assumption.

With modern search engines and third-party websites, finding an institution’s NPC can be done with a few keystrokes or clicks. By placing your NPC in easy-to-find locations throughout your website (usually within three clicks of the homepage), you increase your ability to frame the cost conversation and provide additional information about the figures students are seeing in their estimated awards.

Scholarship estimates: Turn prospects into inquiries

Through the analysis of user trends and behavior for campuses using the Noel-Levitz net price calculator, we know that prospective students shop scholarships for various institutions between spring of junior year and fall of senior year, narrowing down their college choices before their parents fill out the full FAFSA estimate. Despite the very predictable behavior of students, only 66.9 percent of four-year private and 38.5 percent of four-year public institutions polled are showing early estimates of scholarships (see page 21 of the E-Recruiting report). If your NPC is not showing merit scholarships in a quick and easy fashion, you are missing out on the ability to turn prospects into inquiries for a large part of the recruitment cycle.

Along with the ability to show scholarships, it is pivotal to include marketing information around the scholarship estimates, as well as a way for students to capture or send themselves those estimates. Providing text about eligible merit scholarships, links to additional scholarship opportunities, or simply encouraging the student to continue on for a full financial aid estimate are all great ways to provide context for cost and increase traffic to other key recruitment areas of your website.

For our clients, we emphasize the fact that the scholarship estimate portion is the most important marketing page for a net price calculator. From this point in the NPC you can help direct a student down multiple paths towards becoming an inquiry by simply adding a few words or links.

Call to action: Give students the opportunity to interact with you

Despite your best attempts to educate, provide context, and inform students and parents about the information they are seeing in their NPC estimates, many will still have questions. If your NPC does not allow your institution to easily track and communicate with students who provide contact information or request additional follow up, you are likely missing enrollment opportunities.

We also advise clients to include call-to-action links in order to help drive students from the NPC into their inquiry database and communication flow. These links are often redirecting students to pages where they can schedule campus visits, contact the admissions department, or apply.

As student recruitment becomes increasingly competitive and institutions search for new ideas and ways to improve their efforts, do not forget to utilize tools already at your disposal. Net price calculators are an effective way to penetrate your inquiry pool, provide accurate award estimates, as well as gather key data about prospective students. The key question is if your current NPC is providing these benefits or getting in the way of them.

Find out more at a free webinar

I will discuss these and other strategies in greater detail during a free webinar, Moving Students Through Your Funnel With Net Price Calculators, on May 22. It is a great opportunity to learn about best practices for NPCs and also how Noel-Levitz can help you use an NPC more effectively as a student recruitment resource. I also welcome your questions and comments. Please email me or leave a comment below.

About the Author

Todd Wilkins consults with clients on the Ruffalo Noel Levitz TrueCost Calculator™, the firm's online net cost calculator. Mr. Wilkins works with campuses on the development and implementation on the TrueCost Calculator, helping them create, customize,...

Read more about Todd's experience and expertise

Reach Todd by e-mail at todd-wilkins@noellevitz.com.

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