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Marketing to undergraduate applicant parents

by Rachel Killian | Sep 13, 2019 | Strategy & Transformation

The student recruitment cycle for 2020 has already started. Universities are holding their Autumn open days and schools and colleges will be encouraging their Year 13s to think about their personal statements and UCAS choices. But what about parents of these future undergraduates? What’s their role in the application journey, and what does this mean for marketing?

Earlier this year we researched the views of parents of university applicants. We wanted to understand their role in the decisions that their children were making and the points in the cycle in which they had the most influence. Our findings are based on a relatively small sample and so we aren’t pretending these insights are equally applicable to every family or every applicant. But our results gave a very clear picture of parents who want to be involved in the process.

Some of the key findings include:

Parents do want influence

Two-thirds of our parents admitted that they had tried to influence their child’s choice of university, but the majority know they failed; almost 60% said they were ‘not at all’ successful in doing so.

Parents are most involved at the start

Our parents believe that their child largely took the lead in searching for universities and courses, submitting their application and responding to offers. But parents were more likely to be involved in researching and booking open days or visits, with 40% saying they were most proactive in this area. This is probably not surprising, as open days are often used at the start of the process when the applicant is less likely to be familiar with the concept of an open day, but they may also be dependent on parents for the practicalities and finances of open day visits.

Parents are the first to think about funding

Around 60% of our parents said they took the lead in finding out about the different funding options for university. The applicants might be focused on researching courses, but the financial practicalities are apparently less of a priority for them. Despite this interest in finance, parents were the least involved when the applicant later applies for accommodation, even though there is an obvious link with finance and budgets.

Parents remain protective – and proud

When asked for their highlight of the application process, almost all our parents mentioned their child getting university offers. To them, this is seen as its own achievement. To be offered a place, whether unconditional or conditional, can feel like the main goal of the process. This is understandable; not only it is an endorsement of the child’s academic abilities, it is also the point at which control switches back to their child. However, parents are more likely to protest at anything which they consider to be ‘unfair’; this could be the exam system, the admissions process, the way their child is treated or the extent to which they believe the personal statement is taken into account.

Parents want information too

Although our parents were grateful for helpful admissions staff and honest presentations at open days, a few would have welcomed more information, tailored for them. These parents are only just beginning their journey of adjusting to being less involved in their children’s lives and, especially if they are contributing financially, still want to be included.

So what have we learnt? At the very least, universities should have communication plans in place for parents of undergraduate applicants. They have a key role to play in encouraging and guiding their child through the process, especially at the start. Secondly, they are generally more confident and critical consumers than their children, so they have high expectations for transparency and authenticity. And finally, they want to feel involved; so time spent in understanding their attitudes and behaviours is likely to bring dividends.

If you’d like an informal discussion about how we could carry out research into your applicants’ parents, or any other stakeholder group, get in touch. Rachel Killian is a Senior Consultant at Halpin, the home of experts in higher education marketing and stuent recruitment.