Perception isn’t always reality. But an individual's perception does shape their reality. Take, for example, a recent conversation I had with my thirteen-year-old. My daughter, Ava, said I always yell at her. I informed her that, no, in fact, I don’t always yell at her, at which point she rolled her eyes— unconvinced. It dawned on me that she may have thought I was yelling at her because she doesn’t always hear me calling her name, thanks to her headphones. And the only reason she could eventually hear me was because I needed to raise my voice.
Perception isn’t reality, but it does inform it.
Ava's perception shaped her view of the reality of our communication: She was not aware I had called her, so she perceived me as always yelling. The reality is that she had a blind spot to the fact that I had called her name several times before she could hear me. In the future, I can change her perception by making a slight change to the way I communicate.
The problem with perception and reality is not limited to this little vignette in my life. Colleges face a similar challenge every day when communicating with prospective and current students about the cost, affordability and funding of attending school. A recent survey by Third Way and New America found that:
- Nearly two-thirds of college students say higher education is not worth the cost
- Three-fourths said they were worried about finding a job
- Nearly two-thirds are concerned about paying tuition and non-academic expenses
All of these are perceptions that students hold about college. Perceptions that you can change through timely, personalized and actionable engagements.
Consumers want information and immediate answers. We have trained generations to expect information to be available to them on-demand, even before they know they want it.
Take Netflix as an example. Their algorithm’s accuracy is on the verge of scary. It’s so good, it can serve up recommended content to its subscribers—with upwards of 80 percent of viewed content coming from their own recommendations. Viewers don’t need to think. They just need to log in and are guided to their next binge-watch.
Complex communications? Meet proactive engagements.
Your students are Netflix consumers and want the same experience when you engage with them. Mapping the student journey and understanding the most common questions that arise at different points allows you to reach out and educate them on questions you know will soon occur. Consider a FAFSA completion engagement that educates students in late September about FAFSA availability on October 1. You could include a video overview of the process, encourage immediate action to create the FSA ID and provide a checklist of the documents that students will need. Follow up this communication with a text reminder on September 30 that drives students to fill out the FAFSA in the coming week.
This proactive, deliberate approach to communications—and the understanding that perception impacts reality is crucial in any strategic communications planning. We understand the excessive complexity of the funding journey—and we know there is a broad perception that college is financially out of reach or does not provide a return—so our engagement plans should address that perception and show students a clear financial path to your school.
Deliberate engagements deliver actionable results.
Your engagement plan needs to be extremely deliberate. Ensure that your communications are informative and straightforward to students and their college buying committee. Do more than tell them you provide value – show them with each engagement. Almost every student is sensitive to price and has some perceptions about affordability. Use your engagements to shift that perception early in your relationship. Consider an engagement that highlights the true cost of your school where you educate on sticker vs. net price. Include a video from students from similar economic backgrounds who found a financial fit at your institution.
The next steps should include applying for federal and state aid as well as scholarships. Links to budgeting resources and an intelligent virtual assistant should be available to answer routine questions and escalate unique concerns to a counselor in real-time. Proactive, personalized and deliberate.
Institutions send similar messages. Rise above with a powerful call to action (CTA).
Deliberate and proactive engagements are critical, but if they’re not weaved into a strategy that also utilizes a powerful call to action, they won’t be enough on their own, because students face an absolute tidal wave of communications. Prospects and students aren’t just hearing from you. Dozens (if not more) of emails hit their inbox each week, creating a set of competing priorities in already hectic lives. How do you rise above the rest? Give them a reason to act and use a CTA that provides a clear, personalized path forward. If you’re looking for some expert tips on powerful CTAs and follow-ups, consider reading: Effective Student Communication Begins at the End: With a Strong Call to Action, next.
The only way to change perception is to address students’ concerns head-on, with clear, proactive and deliberate language and an action-oriented CTA at the end. Perceptions about cost, value and affordability are forcing students to consider leaving college—or not attend at all. Colleges are uniquely positioned to positively impact the financial standing of current and future generations by delivering on the promise of higher education, but this can only be done if we overcome the perceptions that are blocking students from starting and completing this journey.