Parents, students leaning to colleges close to home, study shows

Cost of tuition, safety protocols and the types of learning offered by higher ed institutions are affecting decisions made during the COVID-19 pandemic.
By: | November 19, 2020
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A new report on student and parent preferences of college and universities in large metropolitan areas during the COVID-19 pandemic reveals several trends that could impact higher education in the coming months, most notably that the majority are considering remaining closer to home.

Nearly 50% of parents would prefer that their children attend college near their homes and a third of students agree, a huge increase from a pair of surveys done in the spring by Brian Communications, a national strategic agency based in Philadelphia that works with several universities and top companies. Another quarter or so said they are thinking about choosing schools in close proximity to where they live.

“Students choosing to stay closer to home could be a lifeline for schools in more densely populated regions,” said Brian Tierney, CEO of Brian Communications and the chairman of the Poynter Institute Foundaton. “For areas such as the Northeast, where there is a high concentration of colleges and universities, and not as much distance to travel, this could be a real opportunity to boost freshman enrollment by adjusting marketing and recruiting strategies. Parents seem to want their children to be able to drive home relatively quickly.”

The agency’s two most current nationwide studies, done in early to mid-October that sampled 1,000 parents and 1,000 high school seniors, addressed a number a key topics affecting higher education because of the lingering impacts of coronavirus – including cost of attending, distance learning models, safety policies, communications and even the types of colleges they would or would not attend.

While parents in the study still highly value a college education (73%), their children are mixed, with only 53% saying it’s critical for advancement. Of those that do, both groups prefer four-year institutions (49%) nearly 2 to 1 over community colleges. Nearly 10% would pursue CTE courses or certificates, while 6-8% of parents and students are considering gap years. In fact, one of the parents surveyed said they were considering two gap years for both of their children, ages 17 and 19.

What is impacting those high school seniors most as they look ahead? Cost of tuition (25%), school safety and COVID policies (20%) and the quality of remote learning (17.7%) are the three biggest concerns. Parents were almost in equal agreement, although a large percentage deferred to their children’s preference.

Cost is still a major sticking point for parents and students, who were both in agreement (65%) that the pandemic has “made them more cautious about the financial impact of tuition.” More than half of students said that because of changes in their financial picture they were considering attending a different college or university. Colleges and universities should strongly be touting financial aid packages that are available to students.

“The debate around paying full tuition for a mix of in-person classes and remote learning boils down to value,” said David Demarest, senior advisor at Brian Communications and former vice president for public affairs at Stanford University. “The best college administrators and faculty are challenging themselves to view this period as an incredible opportunity to innovate and reinforce the potential that they promise by creating richer and more engaging experiences for students.”

When it comes to the types of learning students and parents were more willing to pay for, there was a lot of uncertainly. Though about 46% said they would pay for hybrid learning, another 38% said they were unsure. Only a quarter said they would pay for an institution that offered fully remote learning.

One of the other considerations on the minds of parents and students revealed in the survey was a college’s communications policies. The majority of parents and students want to updated at least a few times a week on COVID-19 cases. As for how they want to be contacted, the two groups showed their generations’ differences:

  • Parents: 54% want email, 14% prefer texts, while 11% want web posts;
  • Students: 40% want email, 20% say text; and 12% want them via social media.
  • One thing they both agree on: They don’t want phone calls, with less than 10% perferring that form of communication.