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Helicopter Parents Take Flight in College Recruitment Process

Market research finds modern-day parents hover directly over teens' college decision.
University Business, Sep 2006

Today's high school juniors and seniors likely grew up surrounded by "Baby on Board" stickers, bicycle helmets, television v-chips, and nanny cams. Since birth these children have felt the intense focus of parents who are some of the most well-informed worriers on the planet.

So-called helicopter parents, named for the way they hover over their children's lives, are here to stay. As their Millennial Generation teens get ready for college, these parents are going to have an enduring presence in the college selection process. Higher education must adapt its marketing strategies to address a teen demographic that casts a parental shadow.

Two recent studies by Stamats Educational Group focus on key traits of college-bound teens and their parents. Called TeensTALK and ParentsTALK, they provide quantitative data and analysis to help colleges and universities hone marketing, recruitment, and fundraising material. Both are studded with marketing tips that reflect current trends.

"The way we do it is to invest our own resources in conducting strong research," said Becky Morehouse, Stamats vice president of research and marketing. "Not only do the findings from that research support our strategic consultation with higher education contracts, but we make the research available to colleges and universities at no cost."

The two qualities that define ParentsTALK respondents' parenting styles are protective and involved. Teens, far from using college as an opportunity to distance themselves from their protective parents, are trending subtly toward attending colleges closer to home.

Many parents don't seem to mind the proximity. When asked to describe the ideal college from a list of 33 choices, parent respondents ranked "close to home" number seven.

Students with Asian ethnicity are much more likely to choose colleges within four hours of home. Eighty-three percent of them reported planning to live at home or travel up to four hours for college, compared with 66 percent for African-Americans, 71 percent for Caucasians and 72 percent for Hispanics/Latinos.

After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, parents understandably were fearful about their teens traveling long distances to college, especially when travel involved flying. A spike in parent concerns about safety in an earlier study reflected those fears.

New definitions of family safety meant parents were more likely to reject a student's choice of certain schools for their perceived safety issues such as being in a potentially targeted big city. Should terrorists again attack the United States, colleges and universities can expect those fears to resurface.

Staying emotionally close to parents also concerns teen respondents. Seventy-seven percent said "a good relationship with parents" is their "objective for the future." Seventy-six percent described their values as similar or mostly similar to those of their parents. Colleges and universities can take advantage of such close emotional ties to give marketing strategies broad reach, knowing that by addressing teen core values they likely resonate with parents as well.

While the summer prior to junior year remains a high-school student's typical starting point for the college search, the trend keeps shifting to searching earlier. In 2004 researchers saw a spike in students who said they began looking at colleges the summer before their sophomore year. Those numbers have receded to roughly 2002 levels, but the 2005 TeensTALK study showed a rise in students who started their college search freshman year or earlier.

But while they may be looking earlier, students are deciding on colleges later. By the spring of their senior year, only 59 percent of students have chosen a college or university. This number reflects a decrease over the years.

Admissions offices should plan for longer communication spans with prospective students. Schools with strong brands in place have an opportunity to distinguish themselves early and build value through prolonged student exposure.

Regardless of income level, parents of college-bound juniors and seniors say they look at college admission as a grade on their parenting. They are by far the biggest influencers on teens making college choices.

Parental involvement in helping prospective students choose a college rises with family income level, likely because wealthier families have the resources needed to engage in relatively expensive endeavors such as college visits. But even low- or no-cost search activities show varied involvement levels based on parental income.

In the mid-level or higher income classes, more than 90 percent of parent respondents said they planned to talk with friends as part of the college search for their child. Compare this with 77 percent of those whose income was in the "poor" range. Similarly, at least 66 percent of wealthier parents said they had viewed marketing information on colleges, compared with 45 percent of poorer respondents.

The final college decision continues to be up to the teen. However, schools that impress parents as well as students have a much better chance of coming out on top. Here is where branding can make the difference.

Parents who themselves went to college are sometimes very reluctant to consider unfamiliar colleges for their teens. To overcome this reticence, marketing should stress individual program values and outcomes. It should support claims with personal stories from faculty, current students, and alumni.

TeensTALK found that most of its respondents fell within one of six student personas, differentiated by how they rated 31 key attributes in choosing a college.

"These personas can act as a powerful segmentation tool for colleges and universities," Morehouse said. "We recommend that schools replicate key questions among prospective students to determine prevalent personas, then target their communication messages accordingly."

The six personas in the study are: God and Service First; The Collegiate Experience; Be More Than My Parents; Nontraditional Traditional Students; Image and Reputation Conscious; and Personal Enrichment--Liberal Arts.

Marketing strategies will differ slightly or markedly for each student segment. For instance, those who fall under The Collegiate Experience persona place comparatively more importance on the social aspects and amenities a college offers. They want to get a visual feel for what college life will be like in a particular institution. This makes them especially sensitive to the look of marketing communications.

To target this persona, introductory mailings, viewbooks and website pages should feature plentiful photographs of campus, housing, services, and off-campus activities.

Generation M is outstandingly technology-savvy. As a result, many parents are getting schooled in technology as well. Thirty-eight percent of surveyed teens say they instant-message their parents. Seventy percent of 16- and 17-year-olds have cell phones. For this generation, innovation is normal.

Music, television, movies and the internet are part of everyday teen life. College marketing departments should know which radio stations their current and prospective students listen to, which movies they're seeing, and what television shows and websites are popular. By understanding how teens choose to spend their time, marketing becomes more responsive.

When asked for the best recruiting strategies, teen respondents listed the course catalog, campus visit, college website and financial aid brochures as the top four. This is a change from previous studies where the campus visit ranked first.

Eighty-eight percent of teens say they are on the internet more than three hours a day. Competition for their online attention is fierce. TeensTALK respondents said they most wanted to see information on majors and programs when they visited collegewebsites. Colleges should structure their web pages so that such information is no more than one mouse click away from the home page.

"We find the TeensTALK and ParentsTALK studies to be very valuable when considering our brand attributes and target audiences," says Jennifer Jones, marketing strategist for University of South Dakota. "In addition, we use the research findings for our internal rollout. The research is a measurable justification to our facility and staff that our brand positioning and key messages are on target."

In the end, knowing as much as possible about prospective students, and responding to their desires and needs, can also be a most effective way to satisfy the needs of their highly involved parents. True, the hovering probably won't subside anytime soon. But with the right marketing strategy, a college can clear helicopter parents for a smooth landing.

For more information on TeensTALK, ParentsTALK and other Stamats studies, visit

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