What Are Prospective Students (and Their Parents) Thinking About College?

Colleges and universities nationwide find themselves navigating uncertain terrain in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, grappling with unpredictable prospective students. A recent survey, encompassing over 5,800 prospective college students and 1,100 parents, sheds light on the considerations influencing their choices regarding whether, when, and where to pursue higher learning.

According to Spark451, a Jenzabar Company, college students and their parents are thinking deeply about their college choices. With regard to finances, nearly 70% of parents said cost was extremely important or important in deciding to which colleges their student should apply. Thirty percent (30%) of parents also noted that their child would have attended a different college if money were not a factor. When asked if the college their child selected was the most affordable one on their list, 56% of parents said no. However, 30% of parents said they would have encouraged their child to select a different college than they chose if money was not an important factor. Of note, 55% of students applied to colleges because they were given an application fee waiver. However, the leading deciding factor for parents and students when making college decisions was academic quality. Cost was the second-leading deciding factor.

With increased competition, institutions of higher education must be savvier in terms of how they attract students, and how they showcase their academic quality. The study revealed that a college’s website is the most popular resource for students looking for information about their preferred college. Students (75%) and parents (84%) use college websites, making them the biggest single source of information for students and parents. Of course, students are also looking at social media. Sixty-one percent (61%) of students are spending three or more hours every day with most of that time on TikTok. Colleges are leaving students behind if they aren’t highly visible on social media. Of note, parents are on Facebook — nearly 61% of them — following college accounts while their students are in the search process.

Colleges can benefit from adding more short video to their websites, mimicking popular social media approaches. According to Tronvig, a brand strategy and advertising agency, “With the rise of TikTok, Instagram Reels, [and Facebook stories] brief vertical videos that get straight to the point of a niche subject have grown in popularity. The shorter length lends itself to higher video completion and engagement rates, while also encouraging creative innovation. With only a minute or so to make an impact, more value is placed on using that time wisely as opposed to “high-quality” yet meaningless content.”

Students listed emails as their preferred method of communication with a college or university; text messaging was their second preference. However, many students said they don’t open emails that are sent to them unless they are personalized. Parents (50%) prefer direct mail and the traditional glossy college brochures.

According to Steve Kerge, Co-Founder of Spark451 and Vice President of Enrollment Marketing at Jenzabar, “We saw several important takeaways from this survey, including that institutions may see substantial and positive changes if they personalize content and communications, are consistent with their branding, and convey critical information on their website.” He added, “First impressions are vital to retaining those learners and colleges and universities want to make sure they deliver the first-year experiences that they promise.”

Students are also planning ahead, thinking about what’s next after earning an undergraduate degree. They are realizing that by continuing their education, they open themselves up to greater career and financial opportunities. Developing more skills through additional coursework and degrees can also help future-proof their careers. Forty-five percent (45%) of students said they plan on acquiring additional education, while 41% plan to pursue employment.

Amidst the current political debates surrounding higher education, it is noteworthy that 65% of parents expressed a reluctance to base their college decisions on a state’s political stance. In contrast, 50% of students indicated that a state’s political leanings would indeed influence their college decision-making process. This divergence in perspectives adds an intriguing dimension to the ongoing discourse on the intersection of politics and education choices.

The Spark451 survey offers insight into the communication preferences of students, signaling a call for personalized, targeted interactions that resonate with today’s tech-savvy generation. Furthermore, the forward-thinking mindset of students contemplating additional education emphasizes the importance of colleges and universities becoming catalysts for lifelong learning and career adaptability. Amid political debates, the survey results demonstrate the complexity of student decision-making, urging colleges to foster environments that navigate beyond political divides. The survey results are a call to colleges to innovate, and to align their strategies with the evolving needs and aspirations of a dynamic student demographic, and in part, their parents.

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