Today’s world isn’t anything like it was when I was choosing a university. I didn’t have access to a cell phone until my senior year. And I had to borrow that from the athletic department. Students making decisions about college in 2015 are connected to information everywhere. We’ll take a look at some of the common factors influencing students and some ways marketing can give you some focus and hopefully a nice competitive advantage.
Here are 5 factors that research shows influence college choice for today’s students.
- Geography – Location is significant in many students’ minds, either because they want to live in a certain part of the country or because of financial constraints. The New York Times posted a study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling that indicates that the education level, income, and travel experience of parents are the easiest ways to determine how far away a student is willing to go for college. Still, 72% of Americans go to college in their home state. No huge surprise here, but it’s a nice reminder to keep the bulk of your digital media dollars close to home and focusing the rest on your key out of state pipelines.
- Financial – A recent survey by The Higher Education Research Institute shows that the availability of financial aid heavily influences college selection. 48% reported that a financial aid offer was a “very important” factor, up from 33% in 2004. Overall cost is considered as well. More than half of first-generation students indicated that the cost of attending was a “very important” factor. Continuing-generation students consider cost also, but at a lower rate “” only 43% rated cost as “very important” in their enrollment decision.
- Academic Excellence and Reputation – Although students see academics as important, they’re not looking at ranking lists to judge them, according to USA Today. Students report that broader academic reputation leads their decision-making. And Inside Higher Ed (citing the book How College Works) says that faculty in particular play an important role in college decisions. At the right stage in the process, key faculty can be really influential in a student’s choice of college and their major once they get there. Of course, it’s pretty common that on most college visits students have the opportunity to meet key faculty. But, if you can connect students and faculty earlier through digital, you may be able to get an early advantage. Professors active (and engaging I might add) on social media could make for great digital recruiters.
- Parents & Peers – As much as kids don’t like to admit that their parents affect their decisions, parental input does matter, according to higher ed consultants Noel-Levitz. Nearly 60% of prospective college students report they research colleges with their parents, and 61% of parents say that the final decision on where to enroll is made together. As expected, students are also affected by peers, but as a study by ACSD points out, that relationship is correlational. Researchers haven’t determined whether like-minded students tend to become friends or if friendship affects college choices.
- Marketing – Marketing still matters of course, but it’s changing. The 2014 Social Admissions Report, a survey of college-bound high school students, shows that institutions’ websites are the most heavily-accessed online resources, with 86% of respondents listing these as very or extremely useful. We all know mobile is a priority, but a key takeaway is the lack of interest in university apps. While 97% of students have viewed college sites on their phones, nearly ¾ of students said they had no interest in downloading a university’s app. If your college’s site isn’t yet responsive, we’d recommend this be the priority. However, this effort at an institutional level could be pretty monumental in its own right. Changing a college website is a little like turning a cruise ship. It’s not going to be quick. If that’s the case, it may be worthwhile to explore a microsite aimed specifically at prospective students. That can give you a quick, effective destination that you can use for other digital campaigns.
The report also included a few great insights on social media usage. Social is a huge play space, and it’s hard to understand where to focus. Even if you have that figured out, great content is still difficult to create. Students claimed that only 44% of the content was relevant, namely because colleges still need to communicate with current students and faculty. One way to combat this is to create specific groups for admitted students. 63% of students said they would join a Facebook group at a school they were admitted to. This is great info because you can focus content directly relevant to this audience, but you can also start conversations with them. 2/3 of students said that conversations over social directly influenced their decision. The report has some pretty solid examples of conversations as well, so it’s definitely worth the download.
What It All Means
Many of these factors are things that institutions can’t change. Geography, cost, and faculty are all part of a college’s identity. There are more channels than anyone can probably manage, but if you can hone in on a few that are most effective and focus on content specific to prospective students, you’ll be giving yourself a nice advantage over your rivals.