The New or Old Normal: What Do Traditional Students Really Want to Know?

Summer melt season has arrived. At the same time, many institutions are turning their attentions to their Fall 2022 classes. But the extraordinary recruitment environment of the past year has left many schools unsure about the messages students want and need to hear right now. Do pre-COVID priorities still hold? Should you address, head-on, how your institution provided a positive student experience over the past year, or is it better just to move on?

What is it that traditional students really want to know from colleges right now? To shed light on this topic, we posed this question in our latest Student Sentiment Research.

The New or Old Normal?

Eduventures’ annual Student Sentiment Research assesses the college search behavior and communication preferences of college-bound high school students. In our 2021 research, we also wanted to understand the nature of the marketing content students are looking for. In our March 2021 survey, we asked, “What questions do you have for colleges right now?”

Respondents selected their top three questions from a list of options. Figure 1 shows these results among sophomores, juniors, and seniors.

 

What Questions Do You Have for Colleges Right Now? Select Responses by Class YearFigure 1.

 

Figure 1 shows that despite the pandemic disruption, the most pressing question on the minds of prospective students is a classic: What will it really cost to attend?

Forty-eight percent of juniors and 47% of sophomores chose this question. Even 39% of seniors chose this as their top question, although at the point of data collection they likely had received most of their financial aid offers. This shows that despite—mostly modest—attempts to make the cost of college more transparent, students are still first and foremost concerned about uncertainties of the financial commitment they are about to take on.

Beyond questions of cost, high school seniors cite questions about the college experience and the residual impact from the pandemic: What will my academic program be like (30%)? Will I be able to be involved in research and internships (27%)? Will classes be online or on campus (26%)?

Sophomores and juniors also wonder about the academic experience and availability of hands-on opportunities, but seemingly less in a pandemic context. The nature of their top questions revolves around classic application drivers. Juniors, for example, more often wonder about the college experience: What is it like to live in campus housing (23%)? While sophomores are more concerned about factors that will shape their lives after graduation, such as what kind of jobs they can do with their majors (28%) and how many students graduate with debt (17%).

Overall, questions about the student experience outweighed health-related concerns. Only 15% of seniors were curious about how the school would keep students safe and healthy. This concern was shared by even fewer juniors and sophomores (7%)—as a sign that as vaccinations rise, the prospect of contracting the illness has lost its fright. What remains is the uncertainty of a life not yet quite back to normal.

More Than Just a Healthcare Crisis

Unfortunately, simply saying that things will be back to normal means ignoring the lasting impact 2020 has left on some students. Underserved students, whose families were disproportionally impacted by the pandemic, showed greater concern about their families’ abilities to finance their educations (Figure 2).

 

Demographic Differences in Questions Asked (Seniors Only)Figure 2.

 

In contrast, students who were neither first-generation nor low-income were less preoccupied with financial questions, or with health and safety, and focused more on academic aspects.

Further, 2020 has shined a brighter light on the experiences of students of color, particularly Black students. Perhaps not surprisingly, Black students were more likely to wonder what the school would do to keep them safe and what their social lives might be like.

The Bottom Line

In many respects, it appears that we may be returning to the “old normal”—at least when it comes to recruitment messaging themes. These messaging practices, however, need to be reframed to fit a new environment that includes a renewed focus on racial justice and the overall value of higher education. While some of the nuances among certain student segments may seem small, these differences are significant, shedding light on the narrative students from specific backgrounds want and need to hear.

The timing of your message matters as much as the type of student with whom you are communicating. To tailor your outreach this summer and beyond, keep in mind a few guidelines:

Directly address the student experience.

While life is returning to normal, your admitted students are still worried about how much the pandemic will alter their student experiences. You may have experienced this uncertainty during the current recruitment cycle in the form of lower-than-expected inquiries, applications, and deposits. Now is the time to double down on messaging to reduce summer melt. Communication with newly enrolled students should include updates about what their fall will look like, and reassurances that they will still be able to have the academic, career, and social opportunities that matter to them.

Put cost and value front and center.

The questions that are on the minds of students now are the same questions that have driven application and enrollment behaviors in the past. First and foremost, students seek transparency about net cost, not just in the first year but across their years in college. Then, they want to know that it will be all worth it: Will they have the academic experiences and internship opportunities that will lead to their desired careers? High school juniors, in particular, want to know what it is like to be a college student.

Personalize, personalize, personalize!

Some students will take longer to overcome the trauma of the past year. Low-income student populations are more concerned about the financial impact of their choices. Black students, for example, want to know that their schools are a safe place to meet students with whom they can form social bonds. Personalized messaging has always been important to ensure the attention of your prospects, but for underserved students, personalized messaging is essential. It may make the difference between attending or not attending college.

We have only just begun to analyze the rich data from our most recent Student Sentiment Research! Follow our Wake-up calls or contact your Client Research Analyst for new insights on the channels that help you reach the right students with your message.

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Johanna Trovato

Eduventures Senior Analyst at ACT | NRCCUA
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Tuesday, June 22, 2021 2PM ET/1PM CT

Presenters will provide an overview of the results of the CHLOE 6 Survey of Chief Online Learning Officers. The survey investigated how institutions responded to the Covid-19 pandemic in the 2020-2021 academic year and how the pandemic impacted their plans for the future.

Presented by Bethany Simunich, Director of Research and Innovation at Quality Matters, and Richard Garrett, Eduventures Chief Research Officer at ACT | NRCCUA.

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