High school students molded by the pandemic are rejuvenated to experience an in-person college experience again. However, they expect institutions to be digitally literate, deliver outcome-oriented degrees, and provide resources that compensate for the growth they were deprived of when quarantined.
These are some key takeaways EAB gathered in their latest meta-report that creates a comprehensive picture of higher education’s future college cohort: “Gen P.” It draws from conversations with over 20,000 high school students, counselors, parents, EAB partners and college enrollment teams.
“Gen P” students have been molded by a world event that few can compare to, and thus they are unique in their college preferences. EAB aims to identify who they are so higher ed leaders can identify their needs—and win their selection.
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1. Gen P wants higher ed to be vocal about mental health offerings
In the 2021-22 academic year, 87% of public schools reported that the pandemic negatively impacted students’ socioemotional development, according to the CDC. Similarly, EAB reports that depression and anxiety have steadily increased in that period, partially due to their uptick in social media use and online interactivity. The issue has gotten so bad the U.S. Surgeon General believes social media deserves a warning label as youth mental health has become “the defining public health issue of our time.”
With the declining quality of youth mental health coalescing with their poorly matured socio-emotional development, 22% of students in 2023 opt out of college because they are “not mentally ready,” according to EAB. That’s an 8% rise compared to 2021. Moreover, the rates of first-generation and low-income students reporting this are higher.
2. Less confident about college success
EAB reports that 73% of counselors believe the pandemic weakened their students’ academic preparation at least moderately. Their concerns aren’t unfounded: Average assessment scores between 2020 and 2022 have dropped by 5%, the largest ever recorded by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
Students’ academic troubles interweave with their stunted social and mental development, making them feel as if they might not belong if they pursued a route in higher education. Consequently, 26% of students are worried about successfully pursuing a degree, which is one of the leading issues for turning a cold shoulder to college.
3. Holding higher ed in lower regard
From 2017 to 2022, freshman enrollment has decreased across three major sectors of higher education: public 4-year (2.9%), public 2-year (22%) and private 4-year (1.8%). While enrollment seems to have either increased or steadied in 2022, the 5-year decline is driven by a massive drop in 2020.
Despite leveling off last year, high school student sentiment for high education has become undeniably worse. Specifically, a fifth of students (20%) now agree “college isn’t worth the cost.” In 2019, less than a tenth agreed with that statement (8%).
And although higher ed’s reputation has taken a massive hit since the pandemic, its enrollment has long since declined. A separate report EAB conducted between 2016 and 2020 found that the rate of college-going high school graduates declined by 10%.
Among the top four reasons students are deciding against college, three have to do with the bottom line: cost.
Top factors students are deterred from attending college
- Cost concerns/debt (70%)
- Costs outweighing earning potential (34%)
- Academic readiness (33%)
- Cost of living (31%)
Gen P is only willing to enroll in higher education if it provides quantitative financial outcomes. This may explain why enrollment in liberal arts colleges has sharply declined over the same period as general enrollment in higher ed has.
4. Hunger for in-person events
The rate of prospective students attending campus visits has bounced back to 2019 levels, and while college fair attendance hasn’t entirely recuperated, they have increased. Similarly, in-person events have increased by 38% in 2022, while virtual event show rates have decreased by 58%.
The most popular recruitment event preferred by students were medium-sized, on-campus events with 50-100 attendees.
While virtual events have decreased significantly, EAB believes colleges should keep hybrid events for low-income students who do not have the time or money to attend events in person.
5. Digital engagement demand
A college’s website can make or break students’ esteem for an institution. For example, nine out of ten prospects make a point of visiting the website of a college they’re considering. Among them, 89% agree that “A well-designed website will improve” their opinion of a college, and 81% agree that “a poorly designed website will negatively affect” their opinion of a college.
While nearly three-quarters of students reported engaging with colleges via social media in 2023, an 11% bump over two years, students still prefer email as their main communication channel.
6. Students’ search behavior is shifting
Students are beginning their college search way later than four years ago. While the rate of students starting their college search their spring sophomore year was 67% in 2019, it was down 40% in 2023. However, EAB is unconvinced that this is a long-term trend, as the pandemic could have disrupted their priorities.
One long-term trend regarding students’ college selection process is that they visit colleges later. EAB posits that one possible reason is that students are waiting to know whether they were accepted and if their financial aid package is worthy enough to consider attending.
Similarly, Black and Hispanic/Latinx students are more likely than any other race/ethnicity to apply to an institution for being test optional. This is likely due to professional organizations purporting that standardized tests contain inherent biases against these demographics.
Trends exacerbated by the pandemic
Most of Gen P’s traits did not arise in a vacuum. EAB believes that some of their most significant characteristics result from long-developing trends that the pandemic helped push to the forefront. Among them are:
- Mental health concerns
- Academic achievement
- Equity gaps
- Student value of higher ed