2020-21 Niche and HECA Survey of Independent Educational Consultants

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Graphic of a counselor meeting with a student.

This senior college search cycle has been the least predictable in our lifetimes, so to provide some context Niche partnered with the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA) to ask their members (Independent Educational Consultants or IECS) about their experiences and how the students and families that they work with are changing their considerations and behaviors. This survey was only open to HECA members and was sent from their leadership in mid-December and closed on January 3rd. Two hundred eighty-three consultants completed the survey and provided qualitative and quantitative feedback. The median respondent has been an independent consultant for 10 years, so in addition to their prior institutional roles, there is quite a bit of experience to pull from in order to take a long-term view of student behaviors. The uncertainty of this search and enrollment cycle has been a boon for IECs; 46% reported that they have had more students and families reach out to them to work together and 41% are seeing similar levels of interest. 

Top Takeaways

  • The biggest differences between this year’s seniors and prior years are that they are more interested in staying closer to home, financial aid, and diversity and equity on campuses. One-third of IECs also reported more significant social and emotional barriers for this year’s seniors.
  • More than one-third of IECs reported an increase in students interested in taking a gap year or deferring enrollment for a year.
  • Almost 80% of IECs said that students are still considering and applying to colleges that they have not visited, but are less interested in them.
  • Only 43% of their students think they will be considered equally if they do not submit test scores.
  • 58% of IECs reported that they are still recommending that students take standardized tests.
  • Important to remember for your yield strategy: 44% report that students are applying to more colleges than in past years.

Changes in College Search

Independent counselors are reporting the same trend continuing this year that students reported last year – there’s a growing interest in attending a college close to home. This was the biggest difference between this year and prior classes that respondents worked with. There was also an increased interest in financial aid, likely fueled by job losses due to the pandemic, and in the diversity and equity of campuses. The only topic that saw a marked decline in interest was student interest in online colleges. That’s unsurprising given both parent and student responses to past questions about their perception of the effectiveness of their online learning experiences. 

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Nearly a quarter of those surveyed are seeing changes in the types of majors their students are interested in. The most common increase for those that are was in healthcare majors; which makes sense given the emphasis and need over the past year. There were also reported increases in STEM majors and business. Business programs have seen declines over recent years so this is a positive change.

More than one-third of IECs reported that their seniors are more likely to have significant social and emotional barriers this year than in the past. Only two-thirds of last year’s seniors reported that they felt socially prepared for college in the 2020 Niche Senior Survey, so this decline could be an early warning sign for colleges to prepare for more counseling and support needs. In what could signal smaller fall classes, there were quite a few who were surveyed reporting that their students were more likely to be planning for gap years or deferring enrollment this fall. At this point, it’s impossible to know how many will follow through – but planning for this possibility and having open conversations with students to understand their thought processes are important.

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Students working with independent counselors were evenly split between being ahead, even, and behind in their application process. Those who reported their students being behind were much more likely to only say that they were somewhat behind rather than significantly behind in their process at this point in the year. In our Fall Senior Survey a large number of students reported that they had not yet started applying, so it is encouraging to see recovery in the lag.

The IECs surveyed mirrored what students and parents have been saying for almost a year now: remote learning is the biggest challenge students face right now. The majority of IECs also reported that their students are more anxious about attending college and that the types of colleges they are considering have changed from prior years. 

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While 39% of those surveyed reported that their underclass students are not changing their approach, nearly half said that juniors and younger are adapting by considering colleges closer to home than they would have in the past. Nearly one in five also said that their underclass students were not planning to take a standardized test. In spite of the uncertainty and narrowing search radius, they are more likely to increase their number of reach schools than safety schools. Many said that their younger students are in a holding pattern; they’re uncertain of what they will need to do and are waiting to see if they need to take tests or can visit campuses. That has the potential to cause a delay in applications for next year or push even more students towards the most well-known colleges. Another common thread was that they are casting a wider net and considering more colleges than they would have in the past.

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Virtual Visits and the Effects of Not Visiting Campuses

Virtual visits have expanded rapidly, but another growth has been in the number of students not visiting. While there had always been students who never visited (15% in 2019-20), this year is sure to show rapid growth in the number of students not being able to get a feel for a college before applying or enrolling. Almost 80% of IECs said that students they work with are still considering and applying to colleges that they have not visited, but are less interested in them. This could be a risk for smaller institutions that earn much of their class from the visitor experience and could be a boon for institutions that get younger students on campus and have already made an impression. Many respondents were encouraging students to bypass the traditional process altogether and instead reach out to current students on social media and ask about their experiences.

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With very few students able to safely visit campuses and truly experience them, it’s important to understand how independent counselors are encouraging students to get in front of colleges and make their interest known. Everyone who responded is encouraging students to attend virtual events, which doubles as a great opportunity for the students to learn more rather than only making their interest known. The majority of IECs additionally recommend that students directly reach out to admission counselors at the college, fill out inquiry forms, and engage with college social media accounts. Only a quarter of respondents are encouraging their students to take standardized tests specifically as a way to engage with an institution by submitting scores. While 58% are recommending students to take standardized tests, most of those would not do so as an outreach method.

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There was very good news for the virtual events and information sessions that colleges are hosting. Niche asked about two aspects of a virtual event and how the students felt about their effectiveness and, if they had attended events, how effective they felt they were. In both cases, the IECs were more positive than the students. Virtual events were more effective at conveying information and building interest than they were at engaging attendees and allowing them to ask questions. 

We asked for some feedback from the IECs about their experience with virtual visits and events and what feedback they would give. Here are some of the themes that emerged:

  • The format that was most appreciated was an open forum with current students and admission counselors. Rather than a presentation, they appreciated colleges that allowed questions to be submitted and answered instead.
  • They recommend having breaks for small breakout rooms with attendees and the hosts to facilitate connections and engagement.
  • Respondents agreed with what Niche has heard from students – the best sessions are short sessions, optimally around 30 minutes.
  • Some colleges got creative and engaged attendees with polls, fun questions about themselves, or by using services such as Kahoot.
  • As we heard from students in the fall, targeted sessions by program or on a topic (such as internships or financial aid) were praised while general information sessions or tours were panned.
  • One of the most frequent reasons for recommending students to attend: Demonstrated Interest. There was concern that if they didn’t attend they might not be admitted.
  • Some reported that the events were too long and not well designed for the format, but they recommend students attend because something is better than nothing.

Test-Optional and Test-Blind Policies

One of the biggest storylines this year has been the rapid move to test-optional and test-blind admission policies. There are, at the time of writing, over 1,600 colleges that are now test-optional or test-blind. In spite of most schools offering pathways to admission without test scores and the health risk of taking the tests, the majority of respondents said that they are recommending that the students they work with take a standardized test.

For families, there has been some confusion and misinformation surrounding the policies and what they mean for whether the student would be benefited by submitting their scores. Parents were more confused than their students, 70% of those surveyed reported that most of their students understood the policies but only 51% reported that most of their parents do. 

There is some concern, and an opportunity for outreach and education, when IECs were asked about their own perceptions of the policies. Nearly 40% of respondents felt that students who applied to a college that did not require test scores without submitting their own would be viewed less favorably. Perhaps because of this, the majority of those surveyed are still recommending students to take a standardized test in spite of the risk. Only 22% say that their students do not feel they will be equally considered without test scores. 

Most of those surveyed were not surprised by admissions decisions when the students that they work with applied without test scores. Less than a quarter said that students they did not think would be admitted were with the new policies and only 7% said that students they thought would be admissible based on prior experience were denied. One opportunity for colleges to provide more education and outreach is that of how applicants are reviewed in test-optional or test-blind situations. This was a frequent comment from respondents and 39% believe that colleges view students who apply without test scores less favorably than those who do submit scores in spite of policies.

The most common feedback from those who had students denied or deferred that they thought would be admitted was about students with lower grades and high scores. There were quite a few noting that students were being deferred from early action and early decision. Those who reported more acceptances when they thought the student would not be were more positive – often citing that they were students with strong GPAs but barriers that led to lower scores and in the past had not been given a chance. One quote summarized a number of responses perfectly: “I like the test-optional because it reduces the stress.  I don’t have kids spending every weekend thinking they have to get a high score. These kids are allowed to be kids, and do things that will better serve them.”

More Perspectives For Enrollment Officers

We asked respondents to provide more context and details about what they are seeing and to help provide insights for colleges and universities. Here are some of the themes that came up frequently that haven’t already been covered.

  • Improving clarity in admissions standards and testing policies was one of the most frequent requests. Students and IECs weren’t always clear on what was needed and what was being considered once they applied.
  • Students and parents are more focused on costs than they ever have been before. Many shared that parents are evaluating not just the actual cost, but the perceived value of online learning.
  • A surprising number said that international students are much less interested in studying in the US now and their focus has shifted to UK and Canadian colleges.
  • 80% of those who reported serving a significant number of low-income families said that those students did not have different considerations or trends than their peers. However, almost all of them did report that financial aid was even more important than in prior years and they were seeking out need-aware colleges. A couple of respondents noted that net-price calculators were showing results higher than in previous years and deterring low-income students from applying.
  • Their first-generation students were more interested in community colleges and needed more support comparing and differentiating colleges. Providing clarity for what the experience will be like, especially without visits, could go a long way to helping yield and support these students and their families.
  • Those surveyed who are working with significant numbers of traditionally underrepresented students emphasized how important diversity and equity are to them. They want to know they will go to a campus where they are safe and feel welcomed.
  • While chatbots and automated systems can be more efficient, IECs noted that students struggle with them and don’t know how to phrase questions in a way to find their answers. It’s become more challenging to reach a person at the institution and have a conversation to answer their questions.
  • Respondents want admission staff to be more accessible for short 1:1 sessions with students. A scheduling tool (such as calend.ly) could support that as a test.
  • IECs would like information sessions for themselves as well, opportunities for updates and conversations that can help them better serve their students as they consider their college options.

Will Patch

Will Patch is the Enrollment Marketing Leader at Niche and helps clients with their enrollment strategies and digital outreach. He also shares insights and research on the Enrollment Insights blog and through webinars and a monthly newsletter. Prior to coming to Niche in the summer of 2019, he served Manchester University for 9 years in roles including Digital Strategist, Social Media Coordinator, and Associate Director for Admissions Operations. Outside of Niche, Will also coordinates the #EMChat community on Twitter, with weekly chats Thursdays at 9:00 PM Eastern.
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