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Looking at the competition: A comparison of Net Price Calculators from student’s view. #admissions #emchat #highered #financialaid

Since the federally mandated introduction of the net price calculator (NPC) in October of 2011, I’ve been curious to know what kinds of results students would get if they completed our calculator and those from some of our competitors.

I’ve been curious to know if the NPC results in a clearer “apples to apples” comparison of cost.

I’ve been curious to see how other colleges present information to students.

I’ve been curious to better understand the impressions about affordability and value with which a student might be left after completing ours and a competitor’s.

I’ve been curious to know how we stack up against flagship universities and other private colleges.

Lots of curiosity on my part, but no action…until now.

Over the recent holiday break, I asked one of our student ambassadors, assisted by the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, to undertake a project to complete our net price calculator and NPCs from some of our top competitors. To initiate the project, I developed an archetype academic profile and worked with the Office of Financial Assistance to develop four different financial backgrounds to use in our experiment (these profiles are listed below). After developing the profiles for our students, we developed a list of competitor schools based on data from the National Clearinghouse and those schools with which we overlap most frequently.

My initial list included 10 colleges (Bradley University, DePaul University, Elmhurst College, University of Iowa, Illinois Wesleyan University, Loyola University, Marquette University, North Central College, Northern Illinois University, and University of Illinois–Champaign-Urbana). When I asked my colleagues in Institutional Research and Assessment to look at my initial findings, they thought it would be good to add Gustavus Adolphus College (peer), Loras College (regional competition), Luther College (peer), Monmouth College (regional competition) and Northwestern University (competition for highest-achieving students).


Academic Profile

ACT: 25; Class Rank: top 20%;

and, G.P.A. 3.2

Student 1: $75,000 household income, family of 3, 1 in college, assets $5,000

Parents’ marital status: Married

State of residence: CO

Family size: 3

Number in college: 1

Parents’ income: $69,662

Parents’ income taxes paid: $4,376

Parent 1 income earned: $56,800

Parent 2 does not work

Parents’ untaxed income: $5,000

Parents’ assets: $5,000

Student income: $2,850

Student income taxes paid: $0

Student untaxed income: $0

Student assets: 160


Student 2: $120,000 household income, family of 4, 1 in college, assets $10,000

Parents’ marital status: Married

State of Residence: IL

Family size: 4

Number in college: 1 

Parents’ income: $108,084

Parents’ income taxes paid: $10,041

Parent 1 income earned: $89,792

Parent 2 income earned: $7,154

Parents’ untaxed income: $9,855

Parents’ assets: $10,000

Student income: 1,340

Student income taxes paid: $0

Student untaxed income: $0

Student assets: $2,300


Student 3: $200,000 household income, family of 5, 2 in college, assets $20,000

Parents’ marital status: Married

State of Residence: IL

Family size: 5

Number in college: 2 

Parents’ income: $179,670

Parents’ income taxes paid: $23,676

Parent 1 income earned: $175,480

Parent 2 does not work

Parents’ untaxed income: $17,000

Parents’ assets: $20,000

Student income: $3,000

Student income taxes paid: $0

Student untaxed income: $0

Student assets: $8,000


Student 4: $45,000 household income, family of 4, 1 in college, assets $0

Parents’ marital status: Divorced/Single

State of Residence: IL

Family size: 4

Number in college: 1 

Parents’ income: $46,230

Parents’ income taxes paid: $183

Parents’ income earned: $47,900

Parents’ untaxed income: $0

Parents’ assets: $0

Student income: $1,000

Student income taxes paid: $0

Student untaxed income: $0

Student assets: $200 

* We also made the oldest parent 55, since it was a question asked by a couple of institutions.


So, what did we find?

Before I get to the results, and try to make some sense of it all, I thought the following observations might be of interest.

It will cost you nothing to attend: A couple of the college’s NPCs include the Parent PLUS loan in calculating the out-of-pocket cost for students. This is an interesting technique. The “estimated net price” is clearly outlined, but when the PLUS loan is included under the guise of “eligibility for other aid programs” it can make the out-of-pocket cost appear to be $0.

Indirect costs are wildly different: Indirect costs, which include things like books, personal expenses, and transportation, are considered in calculating the amount of financial need a family has, and therefore indirect costs have a direct relationship to demonstrated financial need. What I found surprising is the dramatic range in indirect costs, which varied on the high end from $4,600 (regional public) to the low end of $2,400 (private, national liberal arts college). The wild variation seemed odd to me.

Work Study is applied inconsistently and amounts vary: The amount of Work Study availability varied from $1,200 to $2,500 for the same student with the same need levels. Furthermore, there were a number of NPCs that include Work Study as a resource used to reduce the cost to attend. This is an interesting technique because it, of course, lowers the cost to attend. But, Work Study earnings are seldom used to pay a student’s bill.

Some colleges offer very broad ranges: A small number of colleges offer ranges of need-based grants, rather than a specific level of grant support. I certainly understand this from an enrollment management perspective (you don’t want to promise something you can’t deliver), but the practice makes the NPCs almost useless, given the range offered can vary from $2,000 to $8,000.

The results are damn confusing: NPCs are anything but clear in presentation and results. In fact, they are terribly confusing even for someone who knows his way around this stuff. One college’s results were so crazy that we sent an anonymous email seeking clarification. The response we received directed us to yet a different calculator housed on the business office’s website. A further complication is that there is no easy way to find NPCs on most college websites—some are hidden deep within the structure and others are right up front. We ended up Googling Net Price Calculator + (college name) to make it easy. I hope that’s what families are doing.

If you’ve made it this far, you may want to know what we found out about Augustana and whether there are any general tends to which I can point?

With the help of the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, and in an effort to try to compare apples to apples, rather than apples to basketballs, we “standardized” the results to determine net cost by looking at direct cost minus estimated grant aid and the Federal Stafford Loan. We left out PLUS, Work Study in order to try to assess how we stack up. Here’s what we found.


In short, here’s what was discovered:



Direct Cost

Student 1

Net Price

Student 2

Net Price

Student 3

Net Price

Student 4

Net Price















19, 338




Augie Difference from Median







Of the 16 schools we considered, Augustana’s direct cost is $1,692 above the mean and $1,777

above the median. However, after considering the scholarships and grants and $5,500 in

Stafford loans, Augustana is below both the mean and the median for each of the four students. 

Augie is more than $5,000 less than five other schools on the list for each student profile. 

The move from direct cost to net price is about a $3,500 jump for Augie.



Now I don’t know exactly what this means. My initial thought was; hey, that looks pretty good for us. I mean, our price is more than the mean, but our cost is less. And, in most cases, if we less expensive or perceived as a better value, I am perfectly comfortable making the case for the cost differential. However, I suspect the results are more nuanced.

Are we offering too much financial aid? Are we a better value? Do we make a more substantial investment in students?

I need to look deeper at all of these questions, but in the meantime, if you want to know how Augustana stacks up against these colleges for our archetype students, you will find the results below.



Student 1 – 75k CO

Student 1

Difference from Augie

Student 1

















Gustavus Adolphus












































U of I






Student 2 – 120k IL

Student 2

Difference from Augie Student 2

















Gustavus Adolphus












































U of I






Student 3 – 200k IL

Student 3

Difference from Augie Student 3

















Gustavus Adolphus












































U of I






Student 4  – 45k IL

Student 4

Difference from Augie Student 4

















Gustavus Adolphus












































U of I






*Archetype student unlikely to be admitted. This may be the case for other colleges in the comparison group, too.

#An average of the grant range provided by the NPC was used to come up with a grant value.

I am not sure that any of the results are earth-shattering, but they are interesting.

What do you think about all of this? Are you aware of other efforts to compare NPCs results?

If you are an enrollment professional, you might try this out on your own to see what a family might see at your institution and at your competition.

W. Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission

New blog post: Is social media is the new cocktail party for parents engaged in the college search? #emchat #admissions #highered

At Augustana College we use a number of tools to track what people are saying, writing and blogging about the college. It’s helpful to know what’s out there, to track trends and celebrate good news or prepare for bad news. These tools track all sorts of things, and an alert I received today really got me thinking.

Yesterday one of the alert services provided a link to a parent’s Facebook page on which Augustana was included. The parent had listed several other colleges and universities, too. The post, which I will paraphrase, includes a list of colleges this parent’s student is considering. Plus the post includes the academic and co-curricular interests of the student.

It’s a fascinating list of colleges—ranging from the super-selective to the local public university. The list includes 20 colleges in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky and Wisconsin. Colleges range in size from 800 to 5,000.

What is most interesting to me about the post, though, is that the parent asks for advice on how to decide, compare and even negotiate with colleges.

Presumably, this parent is asking for advice from people who he trusts to be informed and have the best interest of his student in mind. However, the replies are what you might expect – both biased and anecdotally based.

I am very tempted to follow the parent, so I could continue to monitor the post. I am curious to see if anyone makes a good case for Augie among those who post.

I guess this really shouldn’t surprise me at all, considering how people use social media. But, this particular post may suggest a new way to gather information about colleges and the college search.

It seems to me that discussions on comparing and negotiating with colleges were once reserved for the cocktail party circuit. These questions were reserved for close friends or those who one knew had recently navigated the process. These questions were held in reserve—somewhat like one’s voting preferences. However, this post suggests otherwise.

While I know plenty of people who have queried their Facebook friends for dating, dining, vacation and voting advice, what do you think? Are you ready to ask for advice via Facebook about important issues, like your student’s college choice?

Please complete the poll below:

Let me know what you think? Is social media the new cocktail party?

W. Kent Barnds aka @bowtieadmission

Blog post: College #admissions…for the rest of us: It’s not what you think it is. #emchat

I regret two things about my beloved profession of college admissions: First, the way college admissions is portrayed in the media; and, next, the limited understanding most people have about the profession.

Because there is so much focus on a very small number of institutions that are outrageously selective, far too many people (even some who are quite close to the profession, like some college counselors) believe that admissions professionals are cutthroats, sitting in the ultimate seat of judgment, looking for reasons to wait list or deny otherwise qualified students.  For most of us this is completely removed from the reality of college admissions. In fact, modern day admissions counseling, for the vast majority of admissions offices and counselors, is less about choosing than it is about being chosen.

It’s inarguable that college admissions is more complex than ever before. Admissions success or failure is probably more important to a college’s financial health than ever before, too.  For some, this certainly increases the stakes and has changed what was once a fairly folksy profession to one that is more professional and even occasionally corporate using terms like “demand, revenue, and data-driven.” Competition for students is fierce, marketing is overwhelming, application submission levels have increased to a rate well beyond what is necessary, and, admissions staffs have become a permanent and professional part of the higher education landscape. All of this is widely documented and much is made each year of reports about increasingly “selectivity” and how many “equally qualified” students are denied or wait listed at Ivy League or Flagship Public Universities. The attention to these outliers or fringe players, when considered within the universe of colleges and universities, completely distorts college admissions for the public and doesn’t even come close to representing the reality of college admissions for the rest of us.

Too many constituents on- and off-campus continue to believe most admissions offices are in the choosing business because of these overstated depictions, when reality suggests that the choosing (i.e. selecting and admitting students) part is a far more straightforward process than in decades past. Many admissions officers have perpetuated this by emphasizing larger applicant pools and increasing selectivity.  (I am guilty of this). However, increasing demand and larger applicant pools has enabled admissions offices to actually admit more students while providing the impression that it’s harder to get it. So, if we are in the choosing business; most of us are actually choosing more students than ever before.

I don’t want to discount the choosing part of the job. I love reviewing application and consider application review to be the most important work we do. But, my review is always done with an eye toward what can I find that will allow me to admit this student. I continue to believe that the vast majority of college admissions offices and officers approach application review in the same exact way. (although you wouldn’t know that as a result of what is reported in the media or discussed on online discussion board, which frequently leave one with the impression that admissions offices and officers are doing everything they can to disadvantage students)

The work of the modern day admissions office and admissions counselor is really about getting chosen.  This is what admissions for the rest of us is all about; getting chosen. That’s right, working with students post-offer of admission to illustrate advantages, differences, hooks, etc. that might lead a prospective student to choose the college we represent.

I’ve often compared the work of the vast majority of today’s admissions officers to the work of a campaign manager; rather than a candidate to be elected on Election Day, we have a college we want students to choose. We have a certain number of prospective students who we need to choose our college by May 1. We’ve also taken notice that we need to expand the universe of students who are available to talk into choosing our college, which is why applicant pools have expanded and more students have more offers of admissions from which to choose than at any other time in history. Again, it’s about being chosen, rather than choosing.

There is plenty of evidence of this shift from choosing to being chosen, but too many people ignore it because they’d prefer to define college admissions by the actions of the fringe players. All one needs to understand admissions for the rest of us is consider what’s happened to yield rates (conversion of admitted students to enrolled students) over the course of the last ten years.


Source: IPEDS

You might be asking what exactly does this chart mean? Here’s what it means:

  • It’s not about who a college chooses, it’s all about who chooses a college.
  • Public universities used to be able to count on enrolling about 1 of every 2 students offered admission, but now enroll 1 out of 2.
  • Private universities used to be able to count on enrolling about 4 of every 10 students offered admission, but not enroll closer to 2 of every 10.
  • Admissions officers are in competition to be chosen, rather than doing the choosing. The real work for admissions officers is getting chosen, rather than choosing. And, it looks like that work is getting more difficult!

This is the dynamic (getting chosen) that defines modern day college admissions for the rest of us. It’s not about ridiculous selectivity rates, burgeoning demand, nit-picky assessment of a student’s application, evaluation of an applicant’s social media footprint or creating barriers for access to college.  In fact, most college admissions officers and counselors are going to do everything possible to create the conditions to be chosen, rather than create barriers to being chosen.

Finally, when I think about some of the depictions of admissions officers and admissions strategy, I am saddened.  Once again, these depictions bear no resemblance to what I see when I think about college admissions for the rest of us. Rather than the cold, calculating, institution-before-students caricatures one frequently encounters; the admissions professionals I know are some of the best people in the world. The people I know are warm, caring, empathetic professionals who want to balance what is best for the student with what’s best for the college. They show a deep respect for students and demonstrate a love for their institution. And, they work incredibly hard to get their institution chosen.

College admissions for the rest of us is the reality that the majority of prospective students and families encounter and should be what defines the profession, rather than what happens at the outliers.

W. Kent Barnds @bowtieadmission

Questions that really matter when making a final #college choice. #highered #admissions #emchat

For those students (high school or transfer) who have applied to colleges and await decision or have offers from which to choose, it’s crunch time. National Candidates Reply Date, May 1, will be here before you know it and you the question, “where are going to college” will increase in the coming weeks. While it is increasingly common for students and parents to explain, “financial aid and ‘bottom-line’ cost will be the determining factor.” And, while I don’t want to minimize the importance of affordability, I do think it is worth noting the many other things to consider, which ensure a great college choice; these are the harder, more elusive questions that must be asked.

While each college or university will do its very best to present a persuasive case to choose their institution, I think there are some important questions to guide students and parents through the nest few weeks. These questions focus on general attributes associated with the college experience.

Ask yourself these questions about these important areas in the coming weeks to ensure you pick well.


  • How will the location of the college I am considering benefit my learning?
  • Do students generally stay on campus, or do they often go off campus for class trips, internships, jobs and fun? Can the college I am considering provide meaningful and plentiful examples?
  • What is special about the area? What distinguishes it from other locations among my college choices?

Four great years on a campus

  • Do students live on campus or off? Will this matter? What are the housing options available? Specifically, what are the housing options available for first-year students? And, does that nifty residence hall I saw on my tour (where I really want to live) cost more?
  • How many student activities, fraternities and sororities are there? What are some examples of very active student groups?
  • Can I achieve the necessary balance of being a great student and a great athlete (or something else) at the college I am considering? How?
  • What are the chances that I will graduate in four years, not five or six? Will the college I am considering, guarantee it?

Hands-on, high-impact, valuable learning

  • How many students have internships? Are they local? How much guidance will I have in finding an internship if I want one? Does the college I am consider provide any data describing why an internship is valuable?
  • Will I be able to study abroad? How do I handle to additional expense of studying away from campus? What programs and services does the college I am consider provide to help me explore options and make study away a reality?
  • Does the college I am considering offer any special academic experiences that might help me stand out to gradate school or employers?

Putting me at the center or it all

  • Will smaller classes benefit me in the field I wish to study?
  • Do faculty member in every major fieldwork one-on-one with students? What are some examples that the college I am considering can provide?
  • Will faculty members make time to talk with students about their future goals and career plans? Who advises students to make sure they take all of the required courses to ensure on-time graduation?

These questions can be asked of all colleges a student is considering and are equally important (if not more so) than the “bottom-line.” 

What other questions might be useful?

W. Kent Barnds a.k.a @bowtieadmission

The involvement of faculty members in college #admissions #recruitment must matter. Why? My blog told me so. #highered

On a lark, I used the analytic function on my WordPress blog to find out which of my 66 blog post had been accessed most frequently. For those loyal readers out there, you know that my blog is full of wonderful information and every single blog post is as compelling as the next. Right? But, what do you think I found when I looked at the analytics? Were readers captivated by my thoughts about NACAC? JC Penny? Contemporary admissions? Application strategies?


The analytics are clear. The blog post that has been accessed the most is a post I did related to involving faculty in recruitment. “Best practices for departmental/faculty involvement in student recruitment” has been view 653 times and enjoys more than 10% of the total views of @bowtieadmission. While this is an interesting tid-bit of information, what is even more interesting is a review of the search terms that bring someone to that particular blog post.

Along with cool terms like “kent barnds, kent barnds blog and bowtieadmission,” the following terms are among the top terms people have typed into Google or another search engine to found their way to this particular post:

“Faculty involvement in student recruitment”

“Faculty involved in student recruitment”

“Faculty in recruitment”

“Involving faculty in student recruitment”

“Using faculty in recruitment”

I get it, 653 views is not earth shattering; It’s pretty modest I suppose if one thinks about all of the information available. But, the relative popularity of the post combined with the search terms does suggest there is genuine interest in this topic.

I have a theory of why this is. As a professional in college admissions for the last 20+ years, I know the power of involving faculty in recruitment and I think others are trying to figure out how to get faculty more involved.

Here’s why faculty should be involved in recruitment (which incidentally is different from admissions):

 Faculty members are excellent salespeople–When given the chance to talk about the discipline in which a faculty member is trained, there is so more compelling and convincing salesperson. Faculty members frequently light up when they talk about the subject matter around which they’ve built their career and life’s work. Faculty members are the best people to sell the student experience because they can discuss what specifically will occur in the classroom and they are specially equipped to share stories about student who they’ve taught and mentored. Students and parents recognize the passion when they see and hear is and it’s exactly why admissions professionals want the faculty in front of deciding students.

Faculty members can be a big “difference maker” when they are willingly and genuinely involved in recruitment–When catalog offerings all look the same (which they do), every viewbook offers has the same messages (which they do), and most campus visits all feel the same (which they do) the involvement of a passionate faculty member can “seal the deal.” At many colleges the faculty seem elusive and distant during the recruitment process (and maybe in the first couple of years of college). Involving faculty upfront sends a clear message about what students will encounter once enrolled. Faculty members make a connection to the college and major in the same way a coach might. When all things are equal, I think a contact from a faculty member will make a big difference in enrollment decisions.

Faculty members know the curriculum and major better than anyone else–There is no better way for a prospective student to hear about the curriculum and how it was constructed than through the seasoned voice of a member of the faculty. Faculty members can more effectively convey how the major fits into other experiences and why the course sequence is the way it is. To leave these details to a piece of paper, a website, the Registrar or an admissions officer is a missed opportunity.

Faculty members bring a credibility to the process that no admissions officer will ever have–Got Gravitas? Faculty do! Admissions counselors are like a viewbook; Faculty are like a course catalog. The viewbook is a glossy overview, while the course catalog is an in-depth authoritative source of information. As an admissions officer I am confident in my colleagues (and myself) that we can say the same words that a faculty member would say about a program, but our words are not as effective and don’t garner the same respect. Faculty members reinforce messages heard.

Now, I should state clearly that not every faculty member is an effective recruiter and not every faculty member should be expected to be a great recruiter. Further, faculty member involvement in recruitment is probably more important at tuition driven, smaller college. Finally, I am reminded as I write this post that before there were admissions officers, there were faculty members who did admissions (granted a very different kettle of fish than what we see today, but…). They are good at this.

Faculty members are important to recruitment because they are effective.  And, based on the analytics I just reviewed, I think an increasing number of colleges are coming to this realization and trying to figure out the right level of involvement. Perhaps a future post will deal with the subject of striking the right balance for faculty involvement in student recruitment.

What are your thoughts about involving faculty in student recruitment?

W. Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission

Facing the gap in the financial award #admissions, #financialaid

This blog post also appears in Huff Po College on March 25, 2013. 

The coming weeks will bring gasps from students and families involved in the final phase of choosing a college—usually when they open the financial aid award letter and see their expected out-of-pocket cost. I am pretty sure these gasps are audible (like a dog whistle) to enrollment managers and deans of admissions across the country, as more and more families struggle to come to terms with the question, “How do they expect us to pay that much?”

The most frequent outrage is when a college’s financial assistance results in a “gap” between the family’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC)—an estimate provided after a family completes the FAFSA—and remaining cost to attend the college after financial assistance is considered. Often they’ve been left with the impression that through financial assistance, a college will make up the difference between EFC and cost of attendance. When this does not happen, they are confused and sometimes even angry. I understand the confusion and even the anger, and expect a family might ask, “Why do they call it an expected family contribution if they really want more?”

Generally speaking, colleges are not very good at explaining all of this to students and families. Truthfully, the EFC establishes a family’s eligibility for federal financial assistance, as opposed to what a family actually is expected to pay for college. Perhaps the following illustrations will address the issue more clearly.

Johnny Doe’s family has an EFC of $15,000, and demonstrated financial need of $30,000—to be more precise, he is eligible for financial aid up to $30,000. Johnny has been accepted to three colleges, all of which have a price of $45,000 annually. However, each college has a vastly different resource base, market position and approach to financial assistance.

College One, a very prestigious college with a huge endowment, promises to meet 100% of a student’s demonstrated financial need in grant assistance. Johnny’s award might look something like:

$45,000 Cost

$30,000 in grant aid (likely a combination of scholarships, grants and other assistance that does not need to be paid back)

$5,500 Federal Stafford Loan

$9,500 Out-of-pocket cost to attend (with an EFC of $15,000)

College Two, a nationally recognized college with a moderate-sized endowment, promises to meet 100% of a student’s demonstrated financial need:

$45,000 Cost

$24,500 in grant aid (a combination of scholarships, grants and other assistance that does not need to paid back)

$5,500 Federal Stafford Loan

$15,000 Out-of-pocket cost

College Three, a regionally oriented college with a small endowment, does not have the resources to meet 100% of demonstrated financial need:

$45,000 Cost

$20,000 Grant

$5,500 Federal Stafford Loan

$19,500 Out-of-pocket cost

I know you might be thinking: “How can there be three different costs to attend a college that has the same price for the same student?” Simply put, the different approaches are largely related to financial resources and market position.

Colleges in group one can afford to provide large grants and meet 100% of demonstrated financial need for two reasons: 1.) large endowments, and 2.) reputations that attract a large number of students who are willing (and able) to pay the full cost of attendance. These colleges enjoy the strongest market position. There probably are fewer than 100 of these colleges nationwide, and they are pretty difficult to get into.

Group two can afford to be fairly generous because they also enjoy a sizable proportion of students willing to pay the full cost of attendance. They use financial aid to support needy students and expand their market share. These are likely to be small, fairly affluent liberal arts colleges, of which there may be 150-200. These colleges are increasingly difficult to get into, and also are beginning to explore whether or not they can continue to meet 100% of demonstrated financial need.

The third group is a more complex and much larger group constantly trying to balance being affordable with being attractive to students. This group does not have the financial resources of the first two, and must make judgments about the amount of financial aid needed to enroll a student. These colleges are more likely to use merit- or talent-based scholarships to attract students who are very desirable, and then (through the gap) may ask for a greater financial commitment from students who demonstrate a greater likelihood of enrolling.

This is a dramatically different calculation than meeting a student’s demonstrated financial need, as the other groups are committed to doing. Many students who apply to colleges in this larger group will see a gap between the EFC and the cost of attendance after financial aid is applied. This gap is due to the fact that these colleges cannot afford to offer more financial assistance and cover their cost structure. This is increasingly common, and has resulted in financial aid leveraging practices that help colleges determine how much aid they can (or should) offer to enroll a student. The formulas used are based on data from prior years, and difficult for families to understand.

I don’t know that this will prevent any forthcoming gasps, but I think it’s important for students and parents to better understand how it is possible that a student with an EFC of $15,000 considering three colleges with the same price would be expected to pay $19,500 at one and $9,500 at another. For some families, the cost difference may be acceptable because of the strong perceived value in a more expensive college—ranging from prestige to specific offerings and characteristics. In other cases, the family might make a decision based primarily on cost to attend rather than the overall value of attending a college.

I suspect that most reading this will want to know why the process can’t be more predictable, and out-of-pocket costs more comparable. I don’t have a good answer, but I do think it’s critically important for students and parents to realize that the differences are dependent upon market share, resources and mission. 

Is that “your best and final offer?” Yes, it is. #admissions #emcat #highered

For the first time in my enrollment career just days ago I had a father of a prospective student ask me “is this your best and final?” He was asking about his daughter’s financial aid package of course. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard countless contortions of this question over the past 20 years, but never as straightforward and never in the same language I hear used on Bravo’s Million Dollar Listing. (Yes, I’ve watched Million Dollar Listing).

I mean really, best and final offer!!!

Most frequently this question or similar questions are not from families with demonstrated financial need, but instead are from families that view this “negotiation” as part of the process. In fact, last year I even saw eerily similar letters/emails from families requesting additional financial assistance. (The requests were so similar, in fact, I thought I might need to consult our Honors Council to determine if academic integrity had been breached and plagiarism was at hand).

While I am at it, this conversation almost always includes a reference to “we know another student at XXXX college who got a better award.” The comment is so forced it feels a little like Anthony Michael Hall’s character in The Breakfast Club describing his Canadian girlfriend. This line about knowing another student is about as believable. If you’ve never seen the clip before you can watch it here. You might picture this clip the next time you hear a similar comment from a parent.

What I’ve concluded (and should come as no surprise) is that there are consultants and services that are making a business of coaching and advising parents and students about how to go about the process of asking for more aid. (I suspect it’s all pitched at the level of “How to negotiate the best possible financial aid package”).

I understand it and have become increasingly comfortable with all of this.

But, I know it’s not good for higher education.

Over the years, I’ve responded to a number of the requests “for more aid” or for “a best and final offer.” I put a few of the responses together into one and offer it below. I’ve done everything I can to protect the innocent, but have used various “no” responses is the model below and tried to keep the tone. (My file folder on this one is titled “Mean no more money responses).


Your recent e-mail regarding your daughter was sent to me as a member of the scholarship committee at XXXX College. Your daughter is a very qualified candidate and we are very pleased that she is still considering XXXX College.  I am writing to address your e-mail concerning our offer of financial aid.  

First, there is nothing further that can be done in the area of merit scholarship–XXXX has earned a very fair award and in comparison to the rest of our admitted pool we cannot and will not make any further adjustment.  If my memory serves me correctly we discussed your daughter’s award previously and I explained the context for the financial assistance package that we offered. That context has not changed.

I know that this letter will come as a disappointment to you and to your daughter; however, there is nothing more that we can do unless there has been a dramatic change in your family’s financial circumstance. We do not “negotiate” a financial aid offer or package and it is my understanding that our merit scholarship offer has exceeded any demonstrated financial need.

As mentioned in your e-mail, I am aware that two of our coaches have expressed interest in your daughter, and I have no doubt that she can contribute much to our athletic program. However, her athletic ability is not factored into any equation since we abide by all guidelines governing Division III athletics. Our awards are based on need and merit and that is all.

As you and your daughter weigh final choice, I would urge you both to very carefully consider the opportunity that she has been presented with by being offered admission to XXXXXX College.  There are many things to consider when choosing a college–and cost is one. But, we sincerely hope that you will consider the qualities of and QUALITY of each of the colleges your daughter has as potential options. 

Not all colleges are equal–in cost or in quality–and it is my belief that your daughter’s financial aid offer is more than fair for the value of the educational and co-curricular options she will have if she chooses XXXXX College.  

In closing, I want to note that I don’t think the comparisons you and your daughter are making are particularly comparative when it comes down to results and outcomes, which are the aspect that are most meaningful in the end when it comes time to make a wise college choice.  Each of the colleges that your daughter has as options are very different places and offer decidedly different experiences. Please keep this in mind in the coming weeks. College is like with any other product or service; it is typical to pay more for a better product, experience or service.

If you have further questions please feel free to contact me directly. I sincerely do hope that your daughter will be a part of our student body–she has much to offer.

Yours very sincerely,

W. Kent Barnds

It’s probably not all that mean really, but I am interested in your impressions and whether or not you have or have seen similar response. I’ve become more courageous over the years in sending letters like this, but I am sure I still don’t send it enough.

What are your thoughts and experiences?

Thanks for reading.

W. Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission

Is there even more colleges can learn from JC Penney’s real price plan? I think so

In a recent blog post I discussed JC Penney and it’s effort to introduce “real pricing” by eliminating discounting and sales.  My analysis drew heavily from an excellent article written by Jonathan Salem Baskin that appeared in Forbes in January of 2013. My post was pretty suspicious about the possibilities for higher education to learn anything positive from JC Penney’s failed venture. A reader of last week’s blog post would likely arrive at the conclusion that my thoughts about the JC Penney mess suggests real pricing in higher education is impossible.

Notwithstanding the JC Penney debacle, I am not completely dismissive of a new pricing structure in higher education. In fact, there is a part of me that would like to believe that a new pricing structure is possible in higher education.

I know what you are thinking…hope springs eternal. (Right, that is what you were thinking? Or, perhaps, hope is not a strategy?).

Let me explain a little further. There was a very interesting portion of Baskin’s article that I did not reference last week. In this portion of his article, he offers two very important critiques and then describes a couple of missed opportunities for JC Penney (all of which I am paraphrasing).


  • They didn’t take time to explain the pricing plan
  • The pricing plan appeared to be simply a marketing ploy

Missed opportunities

  • They could have established new rules for buyers that could point to as proof of its claims.
  • They could have created new financing and lay-away policies that communicated value.
  • They could have recruited employees to offer a new customer experience based on the new price strategy.
  • They could have leveraged social networks to do a more effective job of tracking and discussing real price.

Baskin maintains that JC Penney did not see the real price promise as an opportunity to change operationally and chose a marketing strategy over transformation.

I think this sentiment could probably be applied to most higher education pricing schemes, which often appear to be gimmicky and ill-explained. In fact, there is little evidence of fundamental change within an organization when price is frozen or cut.

However, there could be.

What if a college was serious about reducing their price and then perhaps providing predictable price increases tied to specific experiences in the subsequent years?

Could it work?

I don’t know, but here are some thoughts about how it might work.

Step 1—Come clean about how the college will reduce its price. Confess that college pricing is largely arbitrary and unsophisticated; it’s more an effort to see what everyone else does and then don’t do anything too crazy in comparison. Confess that reducing the price of the college will be largely a function of reducing the huge amount of unfunded financial aid offered to students annually. Confess that much of the unfunded financial aid offered to students is in the form of merit- and talent-based scholarships and that it’s critical to reduce the amount of unfunded aid offered in order to arrive at a fair price. If reducing the price results in cuts to the faculty or services or facilities explain the circumstances very clearly and describe the potential impact on the student experience. If cutting price will not adversely impact the experience, SHOUT IT FROM THE MOUNTAINTOP, and explain how price relates to your business model.

Step 2—Be candid about your business model. Revenue for most colleges comes either from new students (growth in enrollment) or the annual increases to the comprehensive fee. Increases in revenue go to pay people and bills and fix things and are critical for the sustainability of a college. Colleges really do need to pay people, bills and fix things. For many colleges, particularly those that enjoy full enrollment, most of the growth in revenues annually comes from the increased comprehensive since much of the overall increase is given back to first-year students in the form of financial aid (and, remember that financial aid is largely unfunded). The increased revenue from annual increase comes largely from continuing students. Colleges that are serious about reducing price will be candid that they need a predictable stream of new revenues annually to pay people, bill and fix things and as a result they must increase the cost on annual basis and this cost will largely be on currently enrolled students (as it is already).

Step 3—Clearly describe how the college arrived at the “fair price” for the first year. A college interested in a fair price with predictable increases would most likely have to freeze or reduce its base price at some level and then justify why and how. They would also have to rely less on non-need-based aid to lure students to their institution. This step involves the fun part…a little transparency. This is the part where a college would need to disclose what amount of price they actually net with their current model and then justify charging more to get to their fair price. Fair price is very different from real cost since no college ever covers its real cost. Fair price is going to be somewhat subjective, but in order to establish a fair base price for the first year a college will need to pretty clear in describing what occurs in the first-year and why they can change $35,000, $40,000 or $50,000 for the experience. If a college can arrive at a fair price for the first year and slowly net more revenue annually on the fair price their revenues can grow, too.

Step 4—Clearly describe how much price and cost will increase and what experiences make the increase worth it. The term cost is introduced her because as the price increases in subsequent years the cost to the students will increase, too. Financial aid would not increase except in the case of very unusual circumstances (this is where that whole predictable revenue comes in).  Colleges that pursue and fair price with predictable increases model will need to be far more direct in explaining what a student gets when the price increases annually. And, for many, they will need to change operationally to deliver on a net set of meaningful experiences.

Examples of this are included below:

What if a college told everyone that the comprehensive fee would increase by $2,000 in the sophomore year—increasing total price to attend by an additional $2,000?

And, they went on to say, here’s what you get:

  • You will declare a major;
  • You will choose a mentor/advisor in the major you’ve chose and this advisor/mentor is going to meet with at least three times each term to discuss your progress toward your academic and personal goals;
  • You will be assigned a career counselor who is familiar with the career field you’d like to pursue.

Could what is described above change operational behavior and be adequately valued at $2,000?

What if a college told everyone that the comprehensive fee would increase by an additional $2,000 in the junior year—increasing total price by an additional $2,000?

And, they went on to say, here’s what you get:

  • You are well into your major with full-time faculty teaching your courses;
  • You are really getting to know your advisor and mentor and this year you will begin discussing you senior capstone project;
  • You are very likely to take advantage of one our high-impact and life-changing experiences like study abroad, and internship or research;
  • You will be meeting or communicating regularly with your assigned career counselor to discuss like after college;
  • You will be living is premium apartment-style housing

What if a college told everyone that the comprehensive fee would increase by an additional $2,000 in the senior year—increasing total price by an additional $2,000?

Could what is described above change operational behavior and be adequately valued at $2,000?

And, they went on to say, here’s what you get:

  • You will complete a capstone project in an area about which you are passionate and during this project you will work one-on-one with you advisor;
  • You will work one-on-one with your assigned career counselor to explore graduate school or career options;
  • You will be able to take a one-credit personal finance course to prepare you for life beyond college;
  • You will be inducted into the alumni career network;

Could what is described above change operational behavior and be adequately valued at $2,000?

  • What if colleges offered a predictable price increase annually that was tied to specific (hopefully meaningful) experiences?
  • Is it possible for a college to establish a “base price” for the first year and increase costs based on experiences for the subsequent years?
  • Could colleges be successful in meeting enrollment and revenue targets with this kind of a model?
  • Would the steps described above help a college avoid the mistakes and oversights JC Penney made in conceptualizing price?

I don’t know the answers to these questions and I am sure there are many flaws, but it’s worth discussing.

I should note that one reader of last week’s blog remind me that I need to pay close attention to Concordia College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, which received some attention this fall for their efforts related to price. You can read more about that here. Maybe they will prove JC Penney wrong? But, let’s keep in mind that one year of success is like one quarter of success. Success of a pricing strategy must have longevity and must consider the steps described above.

Let me know your thoughts about fair price and predictable increases.

W. Kent Barnds @bowtieadmission

JC Penney, college costs and real pricing: Are there lessons? #highered #admission #emchat

I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the price and cost of higher education. In my 20+ year of working in enrollment I’ve listened to hundreds, if not thousands, of people sound the alarm about “spiraling costs” and politely (more appropriately, naively) recommend that in order to slow discount rates (a phrase I just hate), colleges must reduce their price to be more aligned with what the cost to attend really is after financial aid is applied.

If I’ve heard it once I’ve heard it one thousand times, “if you just charge what you actually net,” all of the college’s problem will be solved and families will be more inclined to enroll.”

I mean isn’t this exactly why the feds pushed for the Net Price Calculator? If families just know what the real cost is… And, with increased chatter about “affordability” and The College Scorecard the calls for real pricing are likely to stronger than ever before. And, the urges to study it further will be attractive.

I, myself, spent time recently contemplating what real pricing might look like in higher ed and at my institution and have some ideas about how it might work. (I will share that in a future post).

For now, though, for all of those who want real pricing in higher education, I hope you are paying attention to what has and is happening to JC Penney.

JC Penney’s multiyear turnaround, which heretofore has revolved around an ill-defined (and probably ill-conceived) plan to charge real prices for the goods they sell looks like it is a disaster. JC Penney’s “no sale” strategy, which was built around dropping prices does not appear to be working within a marketplace that values bargains and really likes sales.

Could JC Penney experience shed any light on why more colleges and universities have not followed a similar path to offer a real price?

I think it does.

I think the JC Penney’s mess forces important questions about a stakeholder’s interest in and understanding of real price.

JC Penney believed that real pricing would be welcomed by their customers. However, early evidence suggests otherwise and as of late-January of 2013 they’ve abandoned the “no sale” approach.

I recently read a wonderful piece in Forbes written by Jonathan Salem Baskin, which dissects the JC Penney debacle and offer some things for the real price advocate in higher education to consider. You can read the full article here.

Baskin identifies the following problems, which I believe would be similar problems for colleges that adopt a real price strategy:

  • The pricing plan was never explained or substantiated.
  • Nobody knows what the real price should be at any store, not just Penney’s, which means there’s always going to be a suspicion or expectation that they can (or should) go lower.
  • The no sale strategy was opaque on its fundamental issue when it could have established a new approach…

(The phrases above  are taken directly from Baskin’s piece)

Baskin nails it! He offers some excellent cautions for colleges that might be seriously considering some sort of real price strategy. I fear college would struggle mightily with explaining a new pricing plan. I am skeptical about the public’s understanding of true costs.  And, higher ed. and opaque are too comfortable with one another. Are there ways colleges could avoid the same mistakes and move beyond the gimmickry that defines most price adjustments or freezes?

Baskin does not get into why people want a bargain, but there are plenty of behavioral economists who can opine on this matter. And, nearly every enrollment manager I know can tell you that students and families really value a scholarship or grant—otherwise knows as a “discount.” For more on this, pick up Robert Reich’sThe future of success” in which he has an excellent chapter on “The age of the terrific deal.” It become pretty apparent, quickly, why we’ve been conditioned to value a deal, a discount and a door-busting sale…and, why when we don’t find one, we jump ship.

So-called real pricing in higher education, while on the surface sounds really good, is likely to go the way the “no sale” strategy that JC Penney just abandoned.

Please let me know if you have feedback or ideas about real pricing in higher education.

W. Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission

New blog post: Should traditional #liberalarts #colleges experiment with the learning model? #humanities #highered

For the past several weeks I’ve been gathering materials for a forthcoming retreat of Augustana College’s Board of Trustees. It’s been my job to identify and review background readings that are appropriate for our Board and other campus stakeholders to discuss as we think about our future.

My list of “interesting articles” has grown to monumental proportions!

Some articles inspired and some depressed.

Two particular articles caught my attention because they seemed to suggest very different strategies for colleges. This article from Wilson Quarterly seems to suggest colleges need to be aware of what’s happening, but should hold on to what has historically worked well (and benefited society). The other article The End of the University as we Know It, from The American Interest, paints a very scary picture for traditional colleges–going so far as to suggest the doors will close if there are not significant changes.

Honestly, I don’t yet know how to react.

What is it?

Stick to what you’ve done and just try to do it better?

Scrap what we’ve done (and know works) to adopt something entirely new (and scary)?

I wonder if there is another way? Is there something in between?

I wonder if there are ways those in the humanities at traditional liberal arts can lead the way. Can the humanities and liberal arts take greater control of their future by paying heed to both of these articles?

In my view, there may be some benefit to all programs, but especially those in the liberal art and humanities to think about some experimenting.

While I will always be an advocate for “seat time” for learning because of the many benefits of such an experience beyond the simple accumulation of knowledge, I acknowledge the world is changing and think we need to examine ways of doing what we do at traditional residential liberal arts college in new ways. I think it is prudent to experiment and try to find new modes for instruction and learning.  New methods must be consistent with our values, expectation for students and rigor and they need leverage the many new ways students gather information and learn. We need to experiment with various models to find ways that new modes of learning can reflect our values, expectations for students and maintain the rigor we expect. It would be a shame for us to conclude that this is an impossible challenge. Yet, it will take some time for us to get it right.

Because I believe the “currency” of higher education is the major or minor (we would not have them if they were not important), I think experimentation should focus on solidifying or expanding the “currency” of a department and it’s major or minor.

If I were advising a smaller department about its future, during this time of disruption in higher education, I would recommend a department begin experimenting immediately with online and limited seat time learning with the intent of expanding (or perhaps maintaining) currency and its footprint.

My rationale for suggesting that smaller programs, in particular, explore online and limited seat time learning is focused on the following:

1. Flexibility has its advantages: The flexibility offered by an online or limited seat time course could expand the footprint and potentially expose students to the department/program/major/minor. For example, given the busyness of our students today, convenience matters and perhaps those departments that offer greater flexibility—particularly within a traditional learning environment—might have an advantage attracting students. At some level, this is about selling your program and everyone should be seeking some advantage. Perhaps online or limited seat time course will be your advantage (with the added plus that you get to expose students to a subject you care about and have committed your life to).

2. Use your smallness to surprise everyone: Small departments/programs/majors/minor are probably the last areas that people would think would do something like this. This may be even more so when considering interdisciplinary programs/majors/minors or those that have three or fewer faculty members. Many are likely to think, “They are too small—and overworked to do something like that.” Small, in this case, may mean nimble and provide an advantage over larger, more complex and bureaucratic programs.

3. Make completing a minor or second major more convenient: Offering online or limited seat time courses might make completing a minor or second major more convenient for some students, which in itself is a great outcome. The lure of online or limited seat time courses may be especially attractive for students who have a primary major is more credit or lab intensive program.

4. Expand your footprint–maybe even to another like-minded college: Smaller departments at traditional liberal arts colleges that consider experimenting with online or limited seat time classes may also be able to expand their footprint beyond their own campus. If the experimental offering is attractive enough, perhaps colleges with similar values will seek to partner? I think this could be especially beneficial for small departments that because of a sabbatical, administrative duties or load limitation face the challenges of ensuring regular offering of key courses.

5. Make an economic and student engagement case: For some departments online or limited seat time courses that are regularly offered could also assure the availability of courses that reflect an institution’s rigor and values during study abroad and summer study (this is especially true at a place like Augustana College, where I work). This is a potentially proactive way to keep students engaged in the life and rigor of a campus even when they are not there. For some college, especially those which self-sponsor international programs and send full-time faculty with students for study away, a cadre of online or limited seat time courses may reduce the added expense of study away because there is no longer a need to send as many full-time faculty with students. The CFO might really like this rationale for online or limited seat time courses.

It would not surprise me to have these ideas dismissed as crazy or blasphemous.  I might receive a litany about why this is impossible and how naïve I am about rigor, expectation and pedagogy (all criticism might be accurate, too).


But, I continue to believe that some experimentation in this area is useful and desirable as we prepare for an uncertain future.

What do you think? Should traditional colleges hunker down? Should traditional colleges throw it all out and start anew?

I fear if we don’t experiment, we will be left behind. I fear the experience we value most will be marginalized. And, I fear  we will not preparing our students with the broad-based education they need.

Don’t you think we should begin experimenting and create something that reflects our values, meets our expectation and maintains our rigor?  Don’t you think we need to begin trying to shape this conversation, rather than being shaped by it. Don’t you think we can shape this conversation? I think we can and I think we can be creative enough to develop an experience that is reflective of our values, maintains expectations and is rigorous.

Let’s try. Let’s see if we can, rather than simply conclude we can’t.

W. Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission