Why More Enrollment Prospects Are Searching for Colleges “Maybe Later”

As the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, pandemic burnout lingers. Enrollment Prospects were not spared this feeling either. In the fall of 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health. Anecdotally, we have heard parents lament unmotivated high school seniors, institutions report of incomplete applications, and students themselves say they feel overwhelmed.

But it has been hard to quantify the feeling of motivational loss—until we conducted our annual Student Sentiment Research in the spring of 2022. Here is what it tells us about student burnout.

Understanding the Typology of College Search Behaviors

Every spring, Eduventures surveys college-bound high school students to better understand their college search behaviors and preferences. As part of our analysis, we identify five Search Strategies – distinct approaches in which students go about their search. Institutions use these to refine and personalize their outreach strategies across the recruitment funnel.  The five Search Strategies are:

  • Getting Started: Students who use this strategy, many of whom are early in search, rely on the basics like email, print, and website, but also like to consult online and print college guides.
  • Fact Finders: Students who use this strategy prefer digital communication with admissions, but mostly trust information from third parties like rankings, online college guides, and current students and alumni.
  • Maybe Later: Students who use this strategy, many of whom are early in search, are the least active. They may browse a college website, talk to their high school teacher, or read the occasional email from admissions.
  • Word of Mouth: Students who use this strategy rely predominantly on insights from their – often college educated – families and friends but also current students and alumni.
  • Future Fit: Students who use this strategy are eager to communicate with admissions whom they trust the most for information about colleges. They also like to talk with faculty.

All five Search Strategies are used by students in different high school class years, but some, like Getting Started and Maybe Later, are more prevalent among sophomores. Others, such as Fact Finders and Future Fit, are more common among seniors. We observed an interesting shift, however, when we compare the Search Strategy distribution in 2022 to 2021 (Figure 1).

 

Change in Search Strategies from 2021 to 2022Figure 1.
Source: Eduvenuters Student Sentiment Research 2021-2022

 

Figure 1 shows the breakdown of the Search Strategies in 2021 and 2022 for all students, and for seniors only. In 2021, each of four of the Search Strategies comprised between 20-25% of the total. The exception was Maybe Later, the group that is least active in college search, with only 8% of the total. This group was even smaller among seniors in 2021 (5%), while Fact Finders (32%) was the largest senior Search Strategy.

In 2022, however, Maybe Later had doubled in size among all students, expanding to 16%. More surprisingly, this group nearly tripled among seniors (from 5% in 2021 to 14% in 2022) while Fact Finders saw the largest decline (from 32% in 2021 to 25% in 2022). What does that mean?

The Kids Are Not Alright

“For me, it’s chaos, but not necessarily due to the time, but due to my lack of effective time management, I didn’t even know what colleges were available and didn’t start looking until about a month ago.”

– High school senior

The marked shift from high school seniors who actively communicate with admissions and use third-party information to vet what they learn (Fact Finders) to students who rarely do more than read an email or look at a website (Maybe Later) indicates a loss in motivation, particularly among a subgroup of seniors. While still the smallest Search Strategy (14% of students in 2022), the sudden increase of Maybe Later should be of concern. It may signify fatigue, overwhelm, and potentially rising mental health problems. It also signifies a growing challenge for admissions offices: How to engage students who may be interested in your college but can’t find the drive to connect?

“He really doesn’t know what he wants to major in or study. He doesn’t have any direction nor passion. And his grades are horrible because he lacks motivation.”

– Parent of high school student

If you are struggling to engage the aloof student, rest assured that you are not alone. Many parents in our Prospective Parent Research also voiced their frustration with their unmotivated offspring. But parents might just be your best allies. The nature of their complaint is somewhat different from that of students but points to the same underlying issues.

Parents, more practical in nature, worry that their children seem unmotivated to think about majors and career paths, neglect their schoolwork, and seem unprepared to handle mature responsibilities. Students also recognize that they are falling behind, but they struggle on a more emotional than organizational level. For them, applying to college on the heels of a less-than-normal high school experience feels daunting. Often, they are not sure what to do. And they tell us they need help.

“Personally, it has been an absolute mess. I have gotten very overwhelmed when trying to complete applications that I just lose motivation to do them.”

– High school senior

 

The Bottom Line

One important thing to keep in mind is that most students fall into one of the four more active Search Strategies. None-the-less, the increase in students who put off college search activities to Maybe Later is concerning. How do you help these students over the motivational issues and bring them through the finish line? Does your institution acknowledge and address students’ struggles with relevant messaging and engagement procedures? It will require extra work on your part to compensate for their apathy, but you will also need to rely on help from others.

Some tips to keep in mind:

  • Recruit families, not students: Parents are concerned but also willing to help their children find their pathways. Most parents are active participants in their child’s college search but can be particularly helpful in coaching and motivating Maybe Later.
  • Revisit your admissions policies: Students report that they would like to engage more in college search activities but often feel overwhelmed and pressured. These students can benefit from guidance on how to submit applications, write essays, or submit transcripts – skills these students feel they had to miss out on learning during their pandemic remote schooling. But a more effective way to alleviate some of the stresses students feel might require altering your admissions policies to streamline and simplify them.
  • Find students where they are: Maybe Later students are not likely to proactively seek out information about colleges, but they will occasionally read institutional emails or look at your website. You will have to take on the proactive role in the engagement. Continue outreach with the guidance and pointers mentioned in the previous point.
  • Understand students’ needs upon enrollment: Keep in mind that the feeling of burnout may not automatically subside once students arrive on campus. The lack of motivation could signal deeper mental health struggles that may put students at risk in their freshman year and beyond. Orientation events and easily accessible services may be necessary for many students’ academic success.

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Johanna Trovato

Eduventures Senior Analyst at Encoura
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Never Miss Your Wake-Up Call


Learn more about our team of expert research analysts here.