10 ways students search colleges today—and how to adapt

Understand how students choose a school, and recalibrate your approach for recruitment success

These days, institutions can’t say they fully “control” their recruitment and enrollment process—but they can adjust to how prospective students and their families are navigating it.

Five years ago, RuffaloCODY set out to understand the student perspective by conducting what is now an annual survey of high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors. The goal was to learn what students think about the ways institutions communicate with them—and how they prefer to interact with schools. In 2013, a second survey focused on how rising seniors’ perceptions of cost and the aid process influence their college search.

How can institutions adapt based upon this intelligence?

Forget the “admissions funnel”

If you needed any proof that the paradigm has changed, here it is.

  • Just 3 percent of student respondents are following “funnel rules,” and waiting for a school to contact them before they reach out to the institution. The other 97 percent will initiate contact with a school if they have an interest. This number has shifted upward over the last four surveys: in 2010, 84 percent would initiate contact.

    Adapt: It is absolutely critical to build and maintain a relevant digital presence. And robust search functionality is key. Students are exploring schools online before formally engaging. So ask yourself, can they readily access all of the information they want? What content do formal inquirers receive that unofficial “explorers” could benefit from?

  • The traditional concept of “response” isn’t one students recognize. Search-and-reply isn’t so straightforward anymore. When a direct mail piece piques students’ interest, six in 10 explore the school online. Just under a quarter “respond,” either online or via a paper reply card. Similarly, when an email interests them, 44 percent react by doing their own online research and almost the same percentage click on interesting links in the email. Just 2 percent actually reply.

    Adapt: Use research to identify those unofficial inquirers who are looking at you on the web or in other informal ways. Just because they aren’t raising their hand as they would in the funnel, it doesn’t mean they are any less interested or are uninterested in hearing from you.

  • Less than half of seniors surveyed reported completing all applications they started. This number has crept slowly downward over the last two years. When asked why they didn’t complete, 94 percent indicated it was because, as they learned more, they realized the school was not a good fit.

    Adapt: Expand application and yield communications. While students may be more informed about you (without talking to you) than ever, they seem to lack an ability to accurately determine, on their own, if the institution is a good fit. Consider segmenting application-stage messages based upon students’ prior engagements, catching later inquirers up with what they need to know. Asked what was most helpful in convincing them to complete their application, 45 percent indicated information sent via email; 26 percent, direct mail; and 21 percent reported a call with an admissions staff member was most helpful.

Get more strategic with how you engage

Consider the purpose each communication channel serves and how it can relate to—and enhance—the others. The objective: less general information and more facilitating engagement.

  • When it comes to hearing from an institution, one in five students prefers a phone call. It may seem “old school”—and is probably why only 8 percent report receiving calls. But, done well and timed properly, picking up the phone is one of the most powerful ways to engage students and provide the information they seek.

    Adapt: Use the telephone strategically. The data shows that calling is particularly important for males, students later in their high school career, average ability students, and those interested in playing a sport. Train staff (admissions and aid) in the art of recruitment calling. Rather than segmenting messages within a channel, consider segmenting by channels—communicating a message via phone to some, direct mail to others.

  • Online videos and social media continue to draw growing interest. Four in 10 students viewed online videos to learn more about an institution. Of those, just over a third reported viewing campus tours and a third watched student testimonials. Three in 10 are using social media to research schools, up from 21 percent in last year’s survey.

    Adapt: Your web experience needs to more closely model the campus visit experience. The campus visit is critical in the decision process, but students with crammed schedules and seemingly limitless avenues to research schools might not realize that. The visit does what no collateral channel can by allowing the student to really answer “Can I see myself here?” Consider how you can convey a sense of campus in your virtual presence. Web content needs to become experiential—as evidenced by the preference for online videos of tours and student commentary. This content can’t replace a visit, but, done well, it can encourage one.

  • Three-quarters of students have a smartphone and they are increasingly interested in mobile communications. That’s up dramatically from the 2011 survey, when only 39 percent of students had a smartphone. Now, seven in 10 check email, at least sometimes, on a mobile device. In terms of what they would like to receive via their phone, more than half indicated they wanted updates on their application and acceptance status, and 21 percent wanted to know what’s happening on campus. Eleven percent of respondents preferred to get information via email only.

    Adapt: Students prefer a mix, so build a plan with a well-coordinated balance of engagements via multiple channels. Each component should serve a specific function. Direct mail evokes emotion and should drive students online. Email tells your story over time and is readily adapted to student interest. The phone provides instantaneous personal feedback and builds rapport. Social media conveys a sense of the campus community. Texts communicate where they stand in your process.

The aid conversation must be part of the recruitment effort

The cost and aid survey uncovered the need to educate families earlier, more consistently, and more comprehensively regarding tuition and financial aid.

  • Nearly 60 percent of students in the survey had already discussed college finances with their parents before the college search. Those students who had had such discussions were more likely to also report having already done a lot of research on aid. They also appeared to perceive financing their education as less difficult than did those who hadn’t had a conversation.

    Adapt: Talk aid early and on an ongoing basis. You cannot over-communicate affordability messages. Early in the process, encourage families to begin conversations with the aid office. When students schedule tours and interviews, make it standard to also offer an appointment with the financial aid office.

  • Just over a quarter of students had done no aid research, and 19 percent indicated they had already done a lot. Despite all the talk of net price in higher education, only 40 percent of respondents indicated they had already ruled out colleges based upon sticker price alone.

    Adapt: Provide support to counselors so they can better educate students about aid—and include high school counselors in communications. For local institutions and key feeder schools, consider holding general financial aid information nights to educate families on the process, or events specific to families that have expressed an interest in your institution.

  • College websites and high school counselors are the top sources of aid information, by far. Four in 10 students indicated institutional websites were their top source. But first-generation students, Hispanic students, and students with parents less involved in their college search ranked their high school counselor as their top resource.

    Adapt: Be transparent—and make sure everyone is on the same page. Clearly communicate your notification process and timeline for merit and need-based aid, and be clear in how athletic scholarships are discussed. The process must be well-explained in materials, on the web, and by staff.

  • Students have high expectations. Two-thirds of students expected to qualify for merit aid. Of aspiring athletes, 47 percent think they will receive an athletic scholarship. Asked when they anticipated receiving aid offers, more than a quarter expected an offer before they even applied to an institution.

    Adapt: Make sure your website is an in-depth resource. Show how aid is distributed among families at different income levels. While students can “stealthily” learn a lot about the campus from your website, more comprehensive information about cost and aid is required to best educate families.

Jacqueline Gregory is director of enrollment management marketing for RuffaloCODY.

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