The college enrollment landscape is unsettled this year and so too are long-held student decision frameworks. A recent Inside Higher Ed article revealed that a 1% increase in student use of the Common App is creating a 10% increase in application volume for Common App schools—a bellwether of accelerating student concern over college prospects.
But as some students hedge their bets, the Common App is also seeing a decline in applications from first-generation and fee waiver students.
Eduventures Research shows that in this recruitment cycle, prospective college students have indeed factored pandemic reality into their imagined college pathways. How are the Prospective Student Mindsets™ shifting as the pandemic shifts the reality of the college experience?
The Eduventures Prospective Student Mindsets identify the pathways that students expect to follow through their college careers. We’ve seen subtle shifts in the percentages of students in one Mindset or another before, but never a wholesale realignment .
Over the years, two Mindsets—Experiential Interests (students who want a hands-on college experience that leads to a career) and Social Focus (extraverted students who seek lifelong friends and a job at the end of the line)—have been the most prevalent. But not in 2021.
Figure 1 shows the shift in pre-COVID (January 2020) and post-COVID (January 2021) Prospective Student Mindsets.
Because Experiential Interests and Social Focus pathways require campus or hands-on experience—a tall order in the age of COVID-19—fewer students landed in these Mindsets this year. Instead, we see students shifting into Mindsets with pathways that do not require the full array of campus and experiential opportunities. These include increases in Grad School Bound (seeing undergraduate experience as a steppingstone to graduate or professional school) and Career through Academics (seeking a strong academic program that will launch them into lifelong careers).
This indicates that students are being more realistic this year, focusing on the educational value that is most present amid the pandemic: academic strength. These students are making difficult and mature decisions, and in many cases, setting aside prior dreams.
Decision Turmoil for Underserved Students
Of course, this does not represent all traditional-aged, college-eligible students. The students who responded to our 2021 Prospective Student Research reflect only those who are currently considering applying to college. Like the Common App, there are fewer first-generation students in our sample this year as well. The overall movement of students toward the Grad School Bound Mindset is shaped by those who have the privilege of applying to college this year.
Importantly, shifts in Mindsets play out differently among different segments of students (see Table 1).
Change in Student Mindset Membership 2020 to 2021
First-generation, low-income, and underserved minorities experienced the greatest Mindset shifts. These students need to be the most realistic; their college educations are most at stake. This year, underserved students shifted in large numbers away from Experiential Interests as a Mindset, and to a lesser degree, away from Social Focus. They landed in much higher numbers in Career through Academics, the Mindset that prizes academic strength leading to a career. They also landed in the Career Pragmatists Mindset that values affordability, community, and an immediate job.
Students who have been strongly represented in higher education—often white, high income, and less often first generation—shifted as well, but to a lesser degree and in different ways. Among these students, the Grad School Bound Mindset picked up steam in 2021.
What this Means for Your Market
The overarching point is that the way students in your market thought about college last year is not stable. Realism, driven by the loss of face-to-face experiences, has tempered some student decision making.
But will this orientation last? Or will the student market return to its prior Mindset orientation, when experiential and social opportunities rebound? It’s hard to say with certainty, but we believe there will be some return to prior levels; this may not be true for all students in all demographics, though. It’s up to your institution to lead students from a realistic college experience now to your ultimate post-COVID college experience.
The Bottom Line
So, what should you do about this current shift in thinking in recruiting for the fall of 2021? Start here: recognize that students are thinking critically about the ongoing COVID situation and how it affects their upcoming college experience. And follow on with these items:
Be realistic with prospective students.
We know that students have long-term dreams, but they understand the situation around them. Treat them with dignity and respect to let them know the truth about what is on offer now. How will this experience enhance their education? What is coming down the road?
Recognize that your key Student Mindsets have made a COVID-related shift.
Your core students are thinking in slightly different ways about their upcoming college experience. In the absence of in-person experiences, most have become more serious about focusing on academics, but in different ways. Adjust your messaging to address these shifts. Not all students have shifted in the same direction and you should be sensitive to this.
Position your Experiential Interests and Social Focus brands within the context of COVID.
The essential nature of your social and experiential identity isn’t going away, but it might be taking a back seat or occupying a different role in students’ lives for the next year or so. Consider how you want to convey this message to students so that this identity isn’t lost.
Talk about now; talk about the future.
Be aware of what students have put aside to make these realistic decisions. Once COVID wanes, their opportunities can and should blossom. You should let them know what they should expect to see when your post-COVID landscape emerges.
Pandemic-Proof Your Enrollment Strategy with Admitted Student Research
This recruitment cycle challenged the creativity of enrollment teams as they were forced to recreate the entire enrollment experience online. The challenge for this spring will be getting proximate to admitted students by replicating new-found practices to increase yield through the summer’s extended enrollment cycle.
By participating in the Eduventures Admitted Student Research, your office will gain actionable insights on:
- Nationwide benchmarks for yield outcomes
- Changes in the decision-making behaviors of incoming freshmen that impact recruiting
- Gaps between how your institution was perceived and your actual institution identity
- Regional and national competitive shifts in the wake of the post-COVID-19 environment
- Competitiveness of your updated financial aid model