HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

How Families Make PSE Choices

Over the last few months at HESA Towers we’ve been doing a lot of interviews of parents of grade 12 students, to help understand what it is that shapes and shifts their perceptions of higher education institutions.  I can’t give away much of the content here (that’s for paying customers), but one issue I do think is worth a mention is what we’re finding about how families make decisions about post-secondary education.

The way researchers conceive of decision-making in post-secondary is a pretty linear one, at least where traditional-aged students are concerned.  Parents and students, separately or in tandem, research possible career avenues and try to match them with educational pathways and students’ own interests.  They research programs and institutions, and try to judge quality.  They examine their finances – preferably jointly – and discuss what is affordable.  And on the basis of these various pieces of information, they winnow down the number of potential programs/institutions from a large number to a fairly small one, to which one might apply and finally down to a single institution.  Conceptually, it’s like a funnel, wide at the top and then narrowing gradually as students and parents seek and process information.

As a conceptual model, this suffers from just one problem: it’s mostly wrong.

Here’s what we’ve found instead.  The first is that the notion of parents and students “discussing” post-secondary options is valid only if you think of “discussions” as being asynchronous snatches of conversation that stretch over months or even years.  Parents do not really see their role as one of getting students to decide on choices.  In fact, most assume that the more direct they are about discussing or suggesting options, the more their kids will disengage or oppose them.  Instead, parents see their role as almost horticultural.  They “plant seeds” with their kids by suggesting ideas here and there, but more or less allow them to come to their own conclusions.

Another key set of assumptions about family decision making is that money is a central part of the discussion and money plays an important role in the eventual choice of institution.  And here the answer is basically “yes and no”.  Parents do talk to their kids about money in general terms.  A few don’t – they refuse to talk about it so as “not to distract them”, some save money but don’t tell them about it to “keep them motivated” – but for the most part parents let their kids know at least in general terms how much money is available.

But when it comes to choosing an institution, money plays an ambiguous role.  It’s pretty clear that most parents would prefer if their kid stayed home for financial reasons For the most part, kids are more than happy to study close to home, too, so for them the issue of money simply doesn’t impinge on choice.  Money (or lack of it) really only comes into play once a student starts coming close to making a decision that involves going away to school.

Not surprisingly, parents are reluctant to spend money on kids who they think are unlikely to benefit much by going away to school.  This isn’t just a preference for spending less money rather than more: many parents of grade 12 students simply don’t think their kids are mature enough or organized enough to go away.  But – and here’s where it gets interesting – parents don’t necessarily express this opinion by talking to their kids about money.  Another way they do it is to talk up local schools – or at least avoid talking up more distant ones – during their “planting seeds” discussions and hope the kid comes to the preferred conclusion on his or her own (though to some extent this also reflects greater parental familiarity with local as opposed to more distant institutions).

On the other hand, if the kid is perceived as actually having their act together – partially an issue of grades but also one of having goals and a sense of purpose – money becomes less of an issue for parents.  It’s not that the issue disappears or that they’ll let their kids do whatever they want, but if parents think their kid has their act together, they are more open to allow the student to drive the decision about where to go to school.

So in other words, much of the “discussion” occurs by way of kids spending hundreds of hours cracking the books (or not cracking then, as the case may be) and thus sending signals to parents about their talents and capacities.  Based on the presence/absence of said capacities, parents gradually, over a number of years, drop hints about institutional and program preferences, sometimes to kids who have a hopelessly short attention span about such things.  Sometime between mid-grade 11 and early grade-12, the students themselves become serious about searching for institutions.  When they start this process, they are doing so after having experienced years of subtle (or maybe not-so-subtle) hints from their parents about what kinds of programs and institutions are acceptable.  From that, they make a choice.  Then, and pretty much only then, do discussion about money explicitly come into the open.  But in many cases it does not need to because the student has already made the “correct” (form the parents’ point of view) choice which will unlock a contribution sufficient to get the student into school.

As noted above, this is quite different from how most college choice theories describe the decision-making process. And I think this has some serious consequences for the way we communicate to families and students issues of price and affordability.  There need to be some very simple, general messages about how aid makes education affordable, wherever one chooses to undertake it, that can be hammered over and over.   Communicating the specific details of aid programs is almost a total waste of time until very late in the final year of high school, after the institutional choice has already been made. It’s almost as if two different information products need to be created for two different audiences: a simple and general one for use during the choice process and a detailed one for afterwards.

There are also quite a lot of implications here for how institutions should sell themselves.  But those we keep for our institutional clients.  Drop us a line (info@higheredstrategy.com) if you’re interested in becoming one.

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One Response to How Families Make PSE Choices

  1. John O says:

    The Ontario Universities’ Fair (OUF) is a very large-scale information-providing event for prospective Ontario university students, held annually in Toronto. Universities put a lot of effort into participating.

    Does it have any particular impact or signficance in the sorts of processes you are describing, or is it mostly about convenience?

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