College applicants have spoken. Our recent survey of prospective college students revealed some surprising insights into their expectations and preferences when researching and applying to schools. The findings could be an effective blueprint for institutions looking to better attract and engage with students during the recruitment, admissions and enrollment journey.
While the survey revealed tuition and costs remain top of mind for many students, a concern not easily resolved, the findings did identify more easily achievable opportunities for institutions to meet the needs of prospective students.
Search and be found
Surveying 1,443 current and prospective college students, the findings overwhelmingly point to both internet searches and university websites — not college ranking sites — as the main resources students rely on when trying to gather more information about universities. As such, an institution should ensure its website has strong organic search optimization (SEO) and targeted paid search (PPC) campaigns to increase its visibility in prospective learners’ search results. The other key is to create a web experience for prospective students that is clear and easy to navigate. This includes focusing on the content that students are interested in, as well as answering the questions they have.
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Create an atmosphere of success
Being able to identify institutions is the first step in a student’s journey, but giving students confidence in their ability to succeed is also important. Almost half of the students surveyed noted their primary concern about enrolling at a university as their ability to succeed. Creating an infrastructure of support and having that information readily available for prospective students can be very impactful. This support can vary from resources such as front-line support in student service areas like admissions, financial aid, student accounts, advising and registration, and more. In addition, each of these support areas should have clear instructions on the next steps for the admissions and enrollment process. Equally important is creating a supportive campus environment with resources for student success including campus engagement, tutoring, mentor programs, career services and physical and mental health services.
Institutions should also consider how they are presenting students and alumni on their websites. This is another way to show prospective students that they can be successful including profiling recent graduates from various backgrounds who are in careers that they are interested in – regardless of position.
Highlight the value and outcome of a degree
As students weigh their options on which institution fits their needs and budget, the survey highlighted the importance of the cost of a degree, as well as the value a degree will have on a student’s future (career outcomes). Not surprisingly, the cost of education is a driving factor in deciding whether to attend an institution but cost also has a key impact on the decision of whether to apply to an institution.
Making sure that information regarding tuition, overall cost of attendance and financial aid processes including tuition discounts is clear and present in admissions materials and on the website can make the up-front question about cost much more approachable to prospective students. In addition, institutions should seek to highlight the opportunities for financial aid in a way that reassures students about their potential ability to be able to afford attendance.
Nearly 70% of students surveyed indicated that their career outlook and career options are very important to them. Connecting academic program areas to career information and highlighting job placement as well as career services programs such as mentor and internship opportunities will make a strong impact on students during their search.
Support them throughout the admissions and enrollment process
Getting a student through the process of researching and deciding to apply is just the beginning. The next step is key to students making the ultimate decision to attend a university: ongoing support. The application process itself can seem like an overwhelming step, so ensuring that applications are clear and available in a technology-friendly format is important.
Another opportunity for significant impact is for students to have easy access to live support throughout the application and enrollment process. 40% of students noted that having a representative available to speak with would have made their enrollment process easier. Email and phone communication are still the highest forms of communication utilized and preferred by students during the process. There are plenty of students who go through a self-service process (i.e. do not engage with the institution), so having access to the admissions requirements and process in a clear format with a step-by-step guide online, or in materials, is also a benefit for applicants.
Although students noted the admissions office as being the primary office with which they interacted during the admissions and enrollment process, the financial aid office was the runner-up due to questions around financial aid – both institution-awarded as well as federal aid. As the price of education is a top factor, making this information clear and easily accessible is a critical need for prospective students.
Institutions that invest in personalizing and refining their admissions and enrollment strategies to attract and connect with prospective students help keep the enrollment process fluid. Communication and continued support even after a student has applied or been accepted will also go a long way to ensuring the student recognizes the value in the institution’s programs and degrees as well as the impact on their career journey.