9 Insider Tips to Understanding the College Student Journey

When it comes to choosing a college, prospective students weigh a number of factors. Sure, some college preferences follow the political climate at the time. For instance, first-year students who started school during the financial crisis of 2007-08 and the ensuing Great Recession worried more about financial stability and the career outlook of their chosen field of study than the generations that followed them. As jobs opportunities have become more bountiful, this worry has begun to rank lower on the list of considerations.

Despite the shifting sands of our sociopolitical landscape, there are some key factors all incoming college students consider throughout their journey. No matter what is influencing students’ enrollment decisions, it’s your job to measure and leverage their needs in your campaigns, content, and marketing collateral. So, what are the key motivators of incoming college students? How can you leverage that knowledge to strategically market your institution, engage current and prospective students, and meet your enrollment goals?

We’ve got answers to all of these questions and more.

Factors Traditional Students Consider

1. Location, location, location

Geography is one of the main driving forces for college choice. “Location is a huge factor for college decision-making,” says Loyola University-Chicago Academic Advisor, Brianne Lauka. “Many students want to be close enough that they can go home if needed, but not so close that they worry about parents dropping in.” By analyzing what makes your campus valuable to prospective students in a particular region, you can attract, entice, and distinguish your school among those concerned about finding their home away from home.

2. The campus visit matters

Despite the availability of information online, almost half of first-time students said the campus visit was an important factor in their college decision. In fact, Mallin notes that the overall feel of the campus can make or break a student’s decision. The Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) suggests homing in on prospective student needs and preferences during campus events. Keep in mind that some students won’t be able to visit your campus due to distance or financial constraints, so do your best to engage with them personally through a virtual tour.

3. Financial opportunities

The college student’s journey doesn’t have to be financially stressful, but it is for more than 55 percent of incoming students, according to HERI. The study found nearly 50 percent of freshman students considered financial assistance an important factor in their enrollment decision.

Average net tuition continues to increase annually at both private and public colleges, according to the Washington Post. For this reason, scholarships, financial counseling, work study programs, and payment plans are critical to alleviating the stress incoming students are feeling. Be transparent about how your institution is there to support them financially. It can also help to designate a place where off-campus jobs and paid internships are posted, as more than half of incoming students say there is a “very good chance” they will need a job to finance their education.

4. Job and internship opportunities

In addition to location and programs of study, college students actively consider the types of opportunities available to them once they complete their academic work. “At schools like Loyola or other urban institutions, we draw a lot of students throughout the Midwest who want to go to a school in the city with all its opportunities for jobs, networking, and internships,” Lauka says.

Make sure the language in your marketing materials promotes physical, social, and emotional wellness as core values.

Make sure you’re not missing basic opportunities to improve sales performance and emphasize what makes your location special. Is your organization in an urban center? Capitalize on the bounty of off-campus opportunities that may appeal to future students. Perhaps, it’s in a more rural location? Make sure students are made aware of the area’s parks, trails, lakes, festivals, and outdoor sporting events, in addition to the myriad on-campus events being offered.

5. More than just academic support

Almost 22 percent of students HERI surveyed identified as having at least one disability or disorder. Having support services like counseling available on campus will undoubtedly benefit the almost 14 percent of incoming freshmen who predict they will seek counseling in college. For this reason, make sure the language in your marketing materials promotes physical, social, and emotional wellness as core values.

5. Something their parents like, too

When it comes to the college journey, parents are usually behind the steering wheel, but students have a bigger say than you may think. “My trick was exposing my two kids to all types of schools starting in October of junior year. Then I shut up and listened,” says Melissa Mallin, a parent of two college graduates. “Giving my kids time, space, and an ear was key for me.”

When building your comprehensive marketing strategy, know your audience. For colleges and universities, it’s crucial to consider the challenges, motivations, and influences that parents and prospective students consider during the journey.

Factors Nontraditional Students Consider

6. Flexibility

As of 2007, students over 25 years old made up more than 38 percent of college enrollment, and the numbers have grown steadily since, according to the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU). Because of this, it’s increasingly important to know how to accommodate and appeal to working professionals.

“For me, it was important to find something flexible so I could go at my own pace,” says 28-year-old Sarah Boyd, who is returning to earn a degree in marketing management. “I work in the service industry so my availability can change from week to week.” Implementing competency-based courses is one way to make school work for nontraditional learners. “I go to a competency-based online college now that allows me to study at my own pace. I was able to immediately take the final exam and pass some courses,” Boyd says.

7. Ease of transferring

Transfer students are another important group to consider—a third of students transfer schools before graduating, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Think about steps you can take to generate transfer student leads and reach this potentially untapped network.

  • Does your school make transfers seamless?
  • What types of credits or courses easily transfer?
  • What are your transfer student orientations like?
  • Are there campus events designated specifically for transfer students?

Be sure to emphasize in your marketing material how your school makes a transfer student’s journey easier. Use data to highlight the success rates of past transfer students. This will help make your school a frontrunner for other students looking to make a move.

8. Use of social media

Facebook use among students is more prominent than ever before. Nearly 80 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds had a Facebook account in 2013, and that number can only be growing. Further, about 25 percent of students spent five or more hours a week on social media platforms. In 2016, however, this number rose to over 40 percent of students, according to HERI.

Meet your prospective students where they are by engaging them online, but pay attention to which social media platforms are most popular with the demographic you want to reach. For example, nearly 60 percent of 18-29-year-olds use Instagram, while just 33 percent of people 30-49 years old use it. Facebook use among both age groups is nearly equal. Guard your revenue and reduce overhead costs by going paperless and reaching out to new audiences online.

9. Academic reputation matters, but rankings are less important

Many students consider the academic reputations of the schools they’re considering seriously, Lauka says, particularly within their major of choice. In 2016, 64 percent of students surveyed by HERI said academic reputation was a “very important” factor in their college decision. But, it’s important not to confuse academic strength with prestige. The same year, just 18 percent of freshmen said ratings in national magazines factored into their decision. Even if your school isn’t nationally ranked, use content to showcase your institution’s thought leadership and program offerings to draw in potential students.

The Bottom Line

Taking a strategic, informed approach to your student recruitment efforts will help you engage prospective students where they are in their journey and, ultimately, drive more applications, enrolls, and starts. Develop marketing collateral that meets your prospective student needs and answers their questions.

Download our higher education ebook to see how Olive can help you meet your enrollment goals.

Ashley Abramson

Ashley Abramson

Ashley Abramson is a freelance writer in Minneapolis. When she's not writing for clients, she's working on her online magazine or spending time with her husband and two young sons.