The stereotypical depiction of Generation Z, the students now entering their college years, is that they are, among other things, hyper-pragmatic. These young adults, having witnessed the Great Recession during their formative years, are expected to be unusually cost-conscious at a young age, especially compared to the generations that preceded them.
That’s why I was at least a little surprised to find that when we surveyed nearly 4,800 new college freshmen from more than 900 schools about their enrollment experience, there appeared to be more interest in academic programs than in cost or other financial information, at least based on what students were seeking on college websites and in digital ads.
Prospective students are most curious about majors and minors
During the college search process, according to EAB’s latest New College Freshmen Survey, students were actively looking on college websites for information on majors and minors, more than any other factor, including tuition costs and financial aid information, ranking and reputation information, and student life and campus activities information.
Moreover, over the past two years, there was a 3.6 percentage point increase in how important this academic program information was to prospective students. Results show 70% of respondents said they went to college websites to find information about majors and minors.
A school’s website wasn’t the only digital locale where students sought information on academic programs, either.
According to our survey, students paid attention to schools’ display advertisements on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media channels: 48% of students recalled display ads for the school where they enrolled and 65% recalled display ads for schools where they did not enroll.
As for what information they found most useful from the digital and social ads, 41.3% said "majors/minors." That’s more than those who said college costs or financial aid, at 31% and 26% respectively.
The "ROE" theory behind student choices
When I thought more about it, this interest in academic programs was probably more consistent with this generation’s reputation for pragmatism than I had initially realized. In fact, other recent EAB research shows that Generation Z students are increasingly selecting majors and minors that will have a greater "ROE"—return on education.
For example, Michigan State University, like so many other colleges and universities, has reported a sharp rise in engineering and business majors, and a steady decline in arts and letters majors since the recession.
Taking this observation one step further, New York University conducted an experiment to understand how projected salary information would influence students. After students received data for their respective major’s actual expected earnings, 12% switched to another field of study.
Implications for enrollment managers
One "so what" of this New College Freshmen Survey finding, and from the return on education phenomenon overall, for that matter, is that colleges and universities should be thinking more deeply about the enrollment impact of their program portfolio choices. We find that as many schools review their academic programs and make changes, they too seldom and too narrowly factor in market information from enrollment managers.
My colleagues in EAB’s Enrollment Management Forum profiled a "5-minute viability review" used by Virginia Tech to assess enrollment of each of its programs. Part of Virginia Tech’s viability review process requires enrollment management and department chairs to agree on initial targets for total enrollment, student credit-hours, and degrees conferred. It ensures that initial targets are realistic and reflect both external market demand and the institution’s enrollment goals.
Likewise, these freshmen survey results are a good reminder to enrollment managers to put information on academic program offerings in the foreground for prospective students.
Personally, I know I could have done more to make program offerings prominent to prospective students. Before joining EAB, I led admissions and orientation at Northern Arizona University. We had a 101 session for prospective students and their parents, and I recall having a robust set of information on the financial and social aspects of our school—but not as much on our collective academic programs and outcomes. We found students would often change majors and we therefore focused on ensuring the cultural fit and financial feasibility.
Armed with these new survey findings, I would make different choices about what factors to prioritize today, giving academic offerings precedence.