Deep dive into digital habits

Digital expectations of students and parents in 2017

Curious about the digital habits of college-bound high school students? Since 2005, the E-Expectations report has offered a deep dive into their needs and desires.

The latest study, conducted in April in partnership with Ruffalo Noel-Levitz, NRCCUA, CollegeWeekLive and OmniUpdate, looks at a sample of 4,274 high school seniors, juniors and sophomores, plus 3,530 of their parents.

“Parents take an increasing part in the college admissions process,” says Stephanie Geyer, a vice president at Ruffalo Noel-Levitz. Geyer gave me early access to the complete data set, so I could invest more time analyzing its top findings.

The 50-plus hours I spend on E-Expectations data every year acts as my annual pilgrimage into the land of prospective students. It informs the way I analyze new trends and platforms, and their impact on higher ed digital marketing.

As I often tell my social media marketing students, audience research is where everything starts—you want to speak your target audience’s language, and data is the only way to learn it.

I have published a series of posts including a total of 50 different charts highlighting top insights on students’ and parents’ expectations regarding email, texts, SEO, digital advertising, higher ed websites and social media. Since I don’t have room to share everything in this column, I’ll give you my top digital marketing recommendations.

Optimizing your site

Your website remains your most influential marketing resource. Students and parents scored websites ahead of financial calculators, school emails and print materials for parents. Your site needs to be easy for smartphone users to navigate because 95 percent of high school seniors and their parents use mobile devices for their web browsing.

Moreover, 74 percent of seniors and 60 percent of juniors have completed a college online form on their phone. So make sure it’s easy—29 percent of seniors have submitted applications via phones.

If your site is your most influential resource, search is its top digital marketing channel.

When looking for websites, 82 percent of seniors and parents use their favorite search engine. Excelling in SEO for your school’s name is a no-brainer. You should also optimize for combinations of your school and program names because 50 percent of parents and close to 60 percent of students will search for those terms.

About one-third of prospective students and 40 percent of parents will also use a search engine to find specific information on a college website, rather than using site navigation or a website’s search tool.

Improving your global site navigation will never be a waste of time, but your school can’t afford to go without a comprehensive SEO strategy. If your secondary web pages are not optimized, only 1 in 3 students will find them.

With so few schools focusing on SEO in their content development process, there’s a real opportunity to win this game.

Popular platforms

Whether your school uses paid or organic platforms, you can’t ignore social media. Facebook is still the top social media site for college information, but Snapchat is the most popular platform overall, according to the E-Expectations survey.

While only 12 percent of high school seniors used Snapchat for college searches, that number has grown by 100 percent over the past 12 months. Moreover, Facebook is losing ground with juniors and sophomores. If your school isn’t yet engaging students on Snapchat, it’s definitely missing out.

Snap Inc. knows it and has just announced the launch of campus versions of its Discover platform to monetize all this attention.

Karine Joly is the web editor behind, a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations and technologies. She is also the founder of


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