Northern Arizona University: Using transparency to open doors [an anniversary update]
February 1, 2024
With 28,000 students enrolled across multiple campuses in Fall 2022, the team at Northern Arizona University knows more than a bit about what students and their families need when they are choosing where to go to college. In fact, the school is laser-focused on opening access for all students and consistently goes the extra mile to support the nearly 50 percent of students who are first-generation along with students of color and Indigenous students. But attracting those students is hard, and they wanted to find ways to do more—something had to change in their financial aid and admissions process.
NAU attracts a diverse group of students to its campuses, including those from primarily Spanish-speaking homes, those who qualify for military benefits and those who are international or undocumented. They also offer significant financial aid based on a variety of factors, including in-state residency, Western Undergradute Exchange (WUE), honors affiliations and whether they are first-generation, Indigenous, or Hispanic/Latine. Yet prospective students visiting the NAU website were often unaware of the financial aid opportunities available to them.
NAU’s net price calculator (NPC), a tool used to give prospective students an idea of the cost of college including tuition, fees, housing etc minus the aid a student will receive, was provided by the federal governmentand offered only a limited ability to communicate an accurate and personalized price to students. The calculator didn’t factor in whether the student qualified for financial aid and scholarships. Plus, it was only available only in English, which posed a challenge to the nearly 20 percent of students who are Hispanic/Latine—the very students NAU was hoping to attract. Unable to accurately capture demographic data or ingest information about academic performance, their NPC showed students a tuition cost much higher than what they would pay, with less financial aid than was available. Simply put: Students went to the website, used the standard NPC and got sticker shock from seeing the high tuition and fees. Even the students who continued to the federal template didn’t see something that was much more affordable, so they walked away.
For a school that was focused on opening access, their net price calculator was more likely to communicate information that led to the majority of prospective students closing the door.
NAU needed to make a change, and they were convinced a new net price calculator was the answer. They needed something that accurately calculated the cost of tuition and fees (with the abundance of financial aid and scholarships factored in), showed the high completion rates and helped students and families see that an NAU education was not only affordable, but actually a great value. Then, they found Meadow.
Meadow’s net price calculator stood out for a few reasons: it is mobile-first, multilingual, easy to use and personalized for every student—whether they are full-time, part-time or online. When looking at examples on other college sites, the NAU team saw how many military-connected students Meadow served with built- out sections for veterans, making it Isakson and Roe compliant. Equally important, NAU saw a platform that was easily customizable for its specific needs and ensured accuracy without creating a heavy lift for their team or the need to involve IT.
The team was excited about the possibilities a new NPC like Meadow offered.
In December 2022, Meadow and NAU began working together. Over the course of 10 weeks, different stakeholders came together, including enrollment management, admissions, student affairs, the Lumberjack Family Hub and financial aid to design a calculator and launch plan that would meet NAU’s needs. In calls every other week, NAU shared data that allowed Meadow to configure, build and test their NPC. Soon, they were ready to launch the calculator using a toolkit that included sample emails, social media copy and suggested website placement.
It was go time.
After just a month of build out, NAU’s new net price calculator was launched in January 2023. One year later, 38,342 students used the net price calculator, with an average of 800 weekly users, and more than 4,000 prospective students used the calculator to get an estimate in response to an email campaign. This is more than 3X the number of estimates last year and more than 2X their 2021 peak.
Using Meadow’s dashboard, the university can also see the most popular scholarship (Freshman Scholarship), most frequent “next step” (Apply to NAU) and what links are driving the most traffic. They also keep a close eye on the average aid being provided and what percent of need they are meeting. But for NAU, some of the most important data points are the 70 percent completion rate and that it takes 57 percent of students less than 3 minutes to get an accurate net price, proving the calculator is easy for everyone. This is directly in line with the university’s mission of providing access to higher education for all.
“Our goal is to show prospective students that college is attainable for them and it can be done affordably here at NAU,” said Caleb Williams, director of Enrollment Management for NAU. “Meadow allows us to show our packaging methodology in a way that is clear and to the point. It also allows us to share with our students many of the other scholarship/grant opportunities that are available to them.”
He continued, “Meadow’s NPC allows us to serve our diverse student body by: offering it in both English and Spanish; determining whether undocumented or non-citizen students qualify for Prop 308 and are eligible for in-state benefits like resident tuition, grants and NAU’s Access2Excellence (A2E) program; knowing if they are enrolled members of one of Arizona’s 22 federally recognized tribes, making them eligible to receive A2E as an out-of-state student; factoring in military benefits; ability to select a campus; and so much more. Getting accurate information to current and prospective students really matters. Meadow is also working with us to bring on a new expanded glossary to better help students and families understand the financial aid world which is full of jargon.”
The glossary is just one example of how Meadow works closely with schools, building new features based on their unique needs. When a staff member who works on NAU’s family portal pointed out that words like “cumulative GPA” or “resident” might not be obvious to everyone, NAU and Meadow came together to design a solution to normalize not knowing what every word means. As a result of the collaborative effort, a bilingual glossary will soon be available on every calculator across the dozens of schools with which Meadow partners.
NAU knew something had to change; and it did—for the better.
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