College Selections

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College Decisions

There are several trends for students' most important factors in deciding to attend a specific college or university that are consistent across multiple surveys and reports from 2017-2019. As would be expected, financial concerns play a strong role in the college chosen as does its reputation for academic excellence. It is important to students that their degree will provide strong career opportunities and the success rate of a college's graduates is another important factor. A variety of personal preferences, like location, size, and culture of the college, typically ranked third in factor trends.

Topline Insights

  • The most important deciding factor for students in selecting a college, with around 80% of families agreeing in multiple different surveys, is the financial cost of college.
  • The second most important factor in choosing a college is its degree of academic excellence within the student's intended major and the career success rate in the college's graduates.
  • A variety of personal preferences, like location, size, and culture of the college, typically ranked third in factor trends.
  • Surprisingly, the state of a school's reputation, such as its prestige and class, is becoming less and less important in student college decisions in the United States; as little as 8% of students believed in the necessity of it in one study by the Princeton Review.
  • And finally, the presence of online college courses is becoming a more prominent deciding factor for students who plan to attend college, with nearly half of all students taking advantage of online courses offered by their college.

Analysis: How America values college

  • This How America Values College 2018 report, a comprehensive report conducted by Sallie Mae in partnership with Ipsos, surveyed 957 parents of undergraduate students and 950 undergraduate students to understand what drives their college choices.
  • 79% of families said that the actual or perceived cost of a particular college was a main factor in either choosing or eliminating schools. In fact, cost is so important to families that 53% of families eliminated certain schools based on their perception of the cost before researching its actual cost. 50% more students than parents will opt out of colleges based on cost.
  • Around 77% of students end up choosing an in-state institution as they are less expensive. However, only 20% of students report deliberately selecting schools that were within their home state.
  • The next most common factor was academic criteria, with 77% of families reporting that it was a main concern in deciding which college to attend. Specifically, they are looking for academic excellence in their intended major (58%).
  • Though not as high a priority, families consider career opportunities for graduates (33%), the school's graduation rate (28%), its reputation (22%), and lastly graduate school success rates in graduates (13%).
  • A variety of personal preferences are factored in as well. These include campus setting (39%), size or population (26%), closeness to home (25%), offered activities or sports (16%), social aspect (15%), distance from home (10%), availability of online course (9%), family alumni or connections (8%), and lastly religious affiliation (7%).
  • While only 9% of students actively considered the availability of online courses in their college decision, 43% of students took advantage of online courses if they were offered. 60% of students like the convenience of being able to easily fit classes into their schedule or attend class without traveling. 45% of students believe they learn better through them.

Analysis: USA Today Twitter Poll, 2019

Analysis: College Hopes & Worries Survey

  • This 2019 survey by the Princeton Review questioned almost 12,000 college applicants and their parents to determine what was important to them in their college experience.
  • The level of debt caused by the cost of college is students' and parents' biggest worry, with the plurality of 42% agreeing that the cost of college must be considered.
  • Being enrolled in good academic programs for their major was the respondents' biggest hope, with 42% agreeing that this is important for the student's career. 41% of respondents hope that the college will be a good fit for them as well.
  • Only 8% of respondents hoped that they could choose a college with one of the best academic reputations, consistent with the trend that the importance of a college's ranking and reputation is no longer a main concern for students and parents.

Analysis: The American Freshman

  • The "very good academic reputation" of the college was the most common reason for choosing the colleges students enrolled in, with 66% of surveyed students agreeing. Making sure the college's graduates find good jobs is important (59%) as well, and additionally, 53% agreed that the school's reputation for activities and social life was also an important factor.
  • The school being a good "fit" for students is important too, with 52% of students believing a visit to the campus is necessary and 42% reporting that the size or population of the school was a major consideration as well.

Analysis: Payscale's Salary Survey

  • In this recent online survey conducted by Payscale, questions were asked of almost 250,000 respondents regarding what they regret about their college experience, which gives valuable insight to what they believe their top priorities should have been at the time they were considering colleges.
  • 66% percent of all surveyed reported some kind of college regret. The most common regret, at 27%, was the amount of student loans accumulated. The next most common regret was the area of study chosen (12%), and then their lack of networking while in college (11%).
  • Had the respondents been more careful in their college considerations by factoring cost, academic criteria, and the social life of the college, these respondents likely would not have had the same regrets. These three factors correspond with similar studies about the most important factors for students considering college now, making this a reasonable assumption.

Analysis: Preparing for College: The Mental Health Gap

  • This 2018 survey asked 700 parents of students planning to attend college or post-secondary school what their most important factors were in considering which colleges to choose.
  • According to parents, the most important factor in determining college choice was affordability, with 62% of parents agreeing.
  • The next most important factors were distance from home (51%), academic reputation (50%), learning support services (35%), and the culture of the school (33%).
  • Trends between parents' most important factors and students' most important factors differ, but because students report the influence of their parents making an impact on their college decisions, it's important to understand the differences and the relationships between the two trends.

Analysis: Online College Students

  • This recent study from Learning House polling 1500 students reveals students' most important factors for deciding what college in which to enroll in to take online courses.
  • 63% of students taking online classes said they decided to enroll because of the convenience and its better fit around "work/life responsibilities."
  • 34% reported taking courses simply because they learn better from them.
  • 67% of online college students are taking classes from a school within 50 miles of their residence, which is 42% higher than five years ago. This is likely because as the demand for online college increases, more and more schools are adopting online courses, meaning students have more options to choose that are more local.
  • Options for online college is expected to be a popular factor for students considering colleges in future years, with national online enrollment consistently growing.

Analysis: Annual Trends in Online Education

  • This 2018 survey outlines the reasons and factors that cause some students to enroll in online college instead of in-person college. The biggest factor is existing commitments in an increasingly busy society that don't allow some people to stay on or commute to a college campus.
  • 47% of online students say their biggest factor in deciding to enroll online is their existing work and/or family commitments that don't allow for attendance on a college campus.
  • The other top factors in deciding to enroll online are: employer incentive or partnership (21%), "the only way to pursue my field of interest" (21%), reputation of a specific school (8%), and other reasons (4%).
  • Like trends in traditional college, the school's reputation as a deciding factor for application is decreasing in popularity from recent years.
  • Students' biggest convincing factor for deciding which online program to choose came from contacting the college directly (20%), followed by researching reviews for the program (19%), and the ranking of the school's online program (17%).

Analysis: Community college students to detail their challenges

  • Achieving a study/work/life balance is one of the biggest challenges students face, with 61% of finding their work hours impede their ability to study, around 50% whose income isn't sufficient to cover education costs and 30% whose family responsibilities affect their attendance.
  • Childcare, parking (86% of respondents struggle to find available parking nearby), a lack of family support and "time-consuming non-credit-bearing remedial education courses" all create financial stress for students. Colleges offering financial incentives and solutions to students challenges are more appealing.

Analysis: The Plight of the Undecided Student

  • Not all college students have a clear focus of what they want to achieve at college or university, even what they would like to do as a career.
  • For those students, choosing a college or university that offers guidance and support while preparing them may well be an important consideration, though not large in number. For example, the University of Cincinnati for example has 6% of its student population attend their Center for Exploratory Studies while they make up their minds.

Analysis: Survey of Admitted Students: Targeting Yield Strategies

Supplementary findings

Analysis: International Student Survey, 2017

  • Although this survey does not have an exclusive focus on US students and colleges, all research can benefit from a broader perspective of relevant information. Conducted by Hobsons Educational Consultant, this report surveyed over 65,000 students from around the world and found that the two most important factors students considered when choosing a university were high-quality education and the availability of scholarships.
  • 30% of surveyed students agreed that the most important factor in determining choice of college was the quality of education. Highly qualified teachers (69%), good graduation rate (52%), and up-to-date teaching methods and online courses (49%) were the top three indicators of high-quality education according to the students.
  • The second most important factor when considering universities was the availability of scholarships, with just under 30% of students agreeing. In third place was the consideration of the university's rank (24%).


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College Marketing Trends

Marketing for higher education is evolving to include emerging technologies and the new browsing and shopping habits of consumers, especially those in Generation Z who are reaching college-age. One marketing trend is the integration virtual reality into the marketing process to give prospective students an immersive experience into what the has to offer university. Another trend is optimizing for voice search to reach prospective students who are increasingly using voice search with AI assistants like Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa.

Topline Insights

  • Institutions that added a virtual reality experience to their website saw a 22 percent increase in applications, according to Hanover Research.
  • A 2019 study by Microsoft revealed that 72 percent of respondents used a voice assistant like Google or Amazon Alexa. Voice searches only read the top ranked result, making content marketing and voice optimization a key factor in successful marketing.


Virtual Reality

  • Hanover Research notes that 73 percent of Generation Z in the United States are interested in virtual reality.
  • Universities can implement virtual reality into their marketing by adding virtual experiences to their websites including virtual tours of campus, live cams in the quad, live chats with campus ambassadors and adding drone footage of the campus.
  • Adding a virtual tour of campus can increase in-person visits by 27 percent, notes YouVisit.
  • Institutions can further incorporate new technologies by using augmented reality videos and animations to enhance marketing materials and the course catalog. The Savannah College of Art and Design saw a 26 percent increase in student applications after adding augmented and virtual reality to their recruiting.
  • The U.S. Commercial Service, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration, sets up Virtual Education Fairs to help colleges and universities attract international students using a virtual experience.
  • Wayne State University in Michigan used handed out Google Cardboard headsets branded with their name to prospective students and created a virtual reality experience for the school on a phone app. The school achieved 10,000 direct interactions at the recruitment event and students continued to share the goggles and the experience after the event was over.
  • Virtual reality is also making it into classrooms to enhance the learning experience. The University of Nevada, Reno uses VR to create a virtual museum experience and Western Carolina University is experimenting with virtual reality to enhance the learning experience for students in the School of Nursing.

Voice and Search Engine Optimization

  • Achieving the top ranking, or position zero, for a search allows the school or university to appear in voice searches and in featured snippet results online.
  • In 2019, Google announced the release of a new algorithm called BERT that focuses on natural language processing. The goal is to return results that are relevant to the intent of the search rather than only matching specific search terms and words. This makes quality content and answers more important than ever.
  • 40 percent of voice results came from featured snippets. These are the answers to common questions that Google posts near the top of search results. They can include questions such as "How long does it take be become a medical assistant?" or "How can I save money as a college student?"
  • Colleges can use content marketing and blog posts to answer common questions from prospective students and improve SEO. Caylor Solutions notes that colleges that show the ability to solve a prospective Gen Z student's problem is becoming more important the perceived or historical prestige of a school.
  • According to Harvard Business Review, a consumer's trust is shifting from known and trusted brands to a trusted AI assistant. This means that results from voice search and AI assistants like Amazon Alexa are becoming more important and playing a larger role in a consumer's decision-making process.