Meeting new college students’ digital expectations

Survey provides insight into how prospectsstudents want to be reached

If you work in higher ed digital marketing or communications, you’ve likely heard about the annual College-Bound Student E-Expectations Survey. Launched 11 years ago, this comprehensive research has become a critical piece of marketing intelligence.

The survey asked 3,000 college-bound high school seniors and juniors about their digital habits and expectations—from the start of the recruiting cycle.

Stephanie Geyer, vice president for web strategy and interactive marketing services at Ruffalo Noel-Levitz, gave me early access to the entire survey data set. This enabled me to analyze the data in a four-part blog series you can read at Here’s a selection of the top insights from this analysis:

Websites: The go-to info resources

College websites are still central to the decision process for prospective students. Close to 70 percent of them say a school’s website is more influential than emails, phone calls from admissions, print marketing, college rankings and college planning sites.

And, while a bit more than 50 percent of students say the quality of a website doesn’t necessarily correlate to the quality of a college education, it does make a difference on their overall perception.

Mobile first, but not only

Students are attached to their mobile screens. Most college-bound students use mobile devices all the time (45.7 percent of high school juniors and 42.7 percent of seniors)—or when they don’t have access to a computer (respectively 54.6 percent and 51 percent).

When asked about their most recent college website visit, about one third of seniors and 42 percent of juniors reported using a smartphone. Only 15 percent of juniors and 17 percent of seniors said they use a desktop computer, while 37 percent and 45 percent, respectively, said they use a laptop.

The takeaway for web developers? Most prospective students will use two or three different screens, all smaller than a desktop monitor.

Search-engine optimization is key

How do students find the top digital source of information about your school? A majority (88 percent of seniors, 86 percent of juniors) rely on a search engine. It’s a mystery, then, why so little time is spent on SEO strategy in higher ed.

While it’s usually easy to rank well in a search of the name of your school, that’s not the only way students search for college options.

According to the E-Expectations survey, it’s just as important to optimize your website so it ranks well on combinations of your school name and your academic programs. The social media ‘Magic 4’

A majority of surveyed high school students use YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram. Sixty percent use Snapchat daily compared to 53 percent for YouTube and Facebook. Instagram’s decision to launch a clone of Snapchat Stories was proof of Snapchat’s popularity.

Yet, Facebook is still seen as the best social media platform for college information by 47 percent of seniors and 36 percent of juniors as opposed to respectively 7.6 percent and 8.1 percent in the case of Snapchat.

Varied platforms, varied messages

Your website should answer questions about cost and tuition (24 percent of seniors and 19 percent of juniors), the admission process, scholarships, and course catalog, the survey found.

On social media, they want to learn about your students: their lives and their activities through photos (77 percent of seniors, 74 percent of juniors), videos (52 percent, 50 percent) and stories (47 percent, 46 percent).

If you plan to send prospective students text messages, keep them focused on application details (status, missing docs), deadlines and notifications.

But don’t forget to first ask permission to text. This shouldn’t be a problem, as 71 percent of juniors and 74 percent of seniors said they would give the OK to schools that ask.

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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