Enrollment Blog

Are the students you want the students who want you?

by Pam Kiecker Royall, Ph.D.

Courtship metaphors are common in discussions of college enrollment. Students and schools have to find, choose, and commit to one another—a type of “recruitment romance.”

But in admissions as in life, the path to a true partnership is sometimes undermined by a lack of mutual understanding. Enrollment managers continually review key metrics based on student data to determine the gaps in their incoming classes. In their efforts to fill the gaps, they create targeted marketing campaigns to find the students needed to complete the class.  During this process, enrollment managers are often reminded that college choice hinges on students’ desires to fill some need of their own.

It’s a two-way street: Students’ appreciation and understanding of an institution’s attributes are as much a part of the enrollment decision as the institutions’ appreciation and understanding of students’ particular qualifications and backgrounds.  

Uncover students’ perspectives

We created the Institutional Awareness and Perception Study to help our partner schools begin to see themselves through the eyes of the prospective students in their inquiry pools. We believe this reflective insight can ultimately empower institutions to craft their communication campaign messages—and, perhaps, even their missions and identities—to better match the needs and wants of their desired students.

Our pilot study included nine partner institutions and surveyed more than 9,400 college-bound students spanning income levels, ethnicities and geographic regions. These first-round data begin to demonstrate how different demographic characteristics inform students’ interest in particular kinds of colleges. That is, we have begun to unearth how students’ cultural foundations shape their college choice motivations, and how they might value your institution—or not. 

For example, we have found significant differences in how students value some common attributes of colleges: 

Distance from home

Asian and Hispanic students are more than 9% more likely than Caucasian students to prioritize schools within easy commuting distance of their homes, and first-generation students are nearly 6% more likely to value staying close to home than students whose parents attended college. These results suggest that prospective students’ willingness to go farther away for college is related to culturally-based family dynamics and college exposure.

Public schools

We found that students’ commitment to attending a public school is inversely related to their income levels. Thirty-three percent of lower-income students, 28% of middle-income students, and 21% of higher-income students indicate they would consider only public institutions, suggesting that public schools are perceived to cost less than privates (and, perhaps, that public schools are more committed to helping lower-income students).  We also found that African American students were more than 15% more likely to consider only public schools than Asian students, with Hispanic and Caucasian students falling in between.  

Rankings and reputation

Asian students are about twice as likely (33%) to consult college rankings in, for example, US News & World Report, than their African American (16%), Hispanic (17%) or Caucasian (15%) peers. This finding relates to another: Asian students (76%) are also most likely to select a first-choice school based on its academic reputation, although students of all racial backgrounds indicate academic reputation is an important factor in their college selection [African American and Hispanic (65%) and Caucasian (68%)].

Align your value with students' desires

Our initial analyses begin to address student motivations to choose particular types of colleges, writ large. They provide important reflective insight that will allow our partner institutions to consider how their value proposition is resonating with the students they most want to enroll. 

In our subsequent work with individual institutions, we will find answers to school-specific questions: What is the level of awareness for your institution among specific student segments? What do students in your prospect pool know about your institution?  What adjectives do they use to describe it?  Are your desired students hearing your campaign messages as you intend them to be heard? Does your value-proposition reflect the ambitions of your desired students? 

We believe these customized iterations of our Institutional Awareness and Perception Study will empower our partner institutions to satisfy their own top ambition: to effectively—and efficiently— court the students they need to build their class.  

Every institution faces different enrollment challenges

Discover how our customized research projects have helped countless institutions accelerate their unique enrollment goals and achieve financial success.

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