Mastering the communication around the cost of college

The average college graduate takes 20 years to pay off their student debt.

It’s no surprise that when students look at your price tag, they can be intimidated by the long years ahead of paying off their college degree. According to a recent survey, 76% of students rejected colleges based upon their published price alone.

On top of this, there’s no certainty around securing a degree-worthy job when you finish college, rented grad cap in hand. With 52% of graduates ending up in jobs that don’t require degrees in the US, it’s easy for prospective students to be scared of stories about degree holders doing low-wage, unskilled jobs. They’re asking themselves: is a college degree worth it? 

Convincing students may seem a gargantuan task, but with the right approach, it’s not as complicated as you think. Through strategy, careful messaging and a bit of creative thinking – students can be guided down the path to a better future, despite the skeptics. 

Net-tuition over price tags

It’s been found that in 2019-20, 26% of in-state public college students paid the full price tag, down from 53% in 1995-96. At private nonprofits, the portion dropped from 29% to 16% during the same period. While the price tag is rising for colleges, the reality is that financial aid and bursaries often leave students to pay just a fraction of the cost. This fraction that students end up paying is otherwise known as the net tuition.

Some price tags are enough to make even the upper-middle class blush. The one-size-fits-all approach of pricing could drive away students who aren’t clued in to what scholarships or financial aid may be available to them. Of course, because financial aid is dependent on the various demographic factors of the applicant, personalized tuition costs can’t be published for everyone.

The answer to all this, lies gracefully in the middle. A free financial aid calculator built into the university webpage could be an easy way to get students to understand how much of their tuition can be covered. Alternatively, publishing the average net tuition your students pay can give a more realistic insight into the real costs associated with your degree. Both are smart ways to avoid students being intimidated by what they could be forking out.

Value-based messaging

The most influential marketing is based on delivering the right messages at the right time. Value-based messaging is a communication framework that allows you to identify the right things to say to students when they start comparing tuition costs. The “elements of value pyramid” breaks down messaging into four types of value, ranging from least to most impactful; Functional, Emotional, Life Changing and Social Impact.

Functional value is core to your college’s value proposition – the quality of the education, the job preparation and the facilities of your campus. Emotional value is then layered in through the social benefits of your campus, exploring the different societies and events that can enrich students’ experiences beyond the classroom.

By the time prospects move down the student funnel to the application and decision stages, they have a clearer picture on the net tuition cost of their options. This is where Life-Changing and Social impact messaging can make a real difference, as universities have the opportunity to sink their teeth into how they’ve impacted on previous students' lives. Here, think about using alumni success stories, user-generated content and demonstrable ROI as social proof.


Relative positioning

A tried and tested technique for communicating costs is relative positioning. This communication method uses alternative benchmarks for relaying the relative cost of your institution. This could mean benchmarking against other universities similar to yourself, or using a completely different benchmark altogether. This is an effective strategy for marketing to specific student personas, who may be interested in studying in a particular state, subject area or size of institution.

For example, if you’re a private institution in New York, referring to how your net tuition fees stack up against similar institutions in the city can usher students into your courses. If a student is determined to study in the city of New York, then simply being in the city has put you on their shortlist. Pointing out that the student can get the same city experience for less investment than the competition can positively tip the scales in your favor.


Discussions around costs can be an uncomfortable and sometimes sensitive topic for students. It’s been instilled into us that talking about how much someone earns, or how much they spend, is a taboo subject. Ignoring the problem however, won’t make it go away. Approaching the conversation in the right way, at the right time, will yield strong results at the decision-making end of the student funnel.


If you need support with your messaging, partnering with specialists who can help you subtly address the cost of college can help. Get in touch to learn more.