2021 Survey of Juniors Searching for College

Want to keep updated about the blog? Sign up for the newsletter!

2021 Niche Spring Junior Survey

Key Takeaways

  • In a very surprising turn, juniors who have a preference for considering the distance from home are more likely to want to go further away than the senior class has reported. They were more likely to want to attend colleges four or more hours away from home than those within 30 minutes.
  • Again we see the majority of students eliminating colleges from consideration based upon the published total cost. Almost a third of students said that $30,000 would be too much to consider.
  • 75% of juniors believe that their chances of being accepted will be hurt if they do not submit test scores with their application to test-optional and test-blind colleges.
  • Nearly half of students reported that they had already taken the SAT, ACT, or CLT; and amazingly only 6% reported that they don’t plan to take a test. Of students who have taken, or plan to take, a test, 96% plan to submit the scores to some or all of their colleges when they apply.
  • 25% of juniors have already narrowed down their list of schools, while another 68% are actively doing college research. The majority of juniors reported actively started researching colleges between the summer before their junior year and the spring of their junior year.
  • Only 16% said that the outreach they’ve received is very personalized. Just like their senior counterparts, juniors feel that most of the information they’ve received from colleges and universities is very transactional, impersonal, generic, and mass message sounding.

Summary

This class has had an early search process unlike any other, so it’s important to understand what has changed for them and how it will help or hinder their preparation for college. Almost all of the 7,129 juniors who responded are currently actively researching colleges, only 8% said that they have not started yet. This survey was designed and the insights and recommendations were put together as a joint project between Niche and Tudor Collegiate Strategies (TCS). Along with the survey results, Jeremy Tiers of TCS has a variety of tips and recommendations for you in each of the “What you can do now…” sections.

The Evolving College Search

In a very surprising turn, juniors who have a preference for considering the distance from home are more likely to want to go further away than the senior class has reported. They were more likely to want to attend colleges four or more hours away from home than those within 30 minutes. This was in contrast to results from surveys of the classes of 2020 and 2021, who both showed a preference to stay closer to home now than they had previously considered. This opens up recruiting opportunities for colleges to return to a joint recruiting plan of “owning your backyard” while also finding students from further away who want to get away from home and are a good fit. No state had a significantly higher number of students who wanted to stay within 30 minutes, but a large number had significantly fewer. Colleges in the east may have a much harder time encouraging local enrollments than those in the western United States. 

Again we see the majority of students eliminating colleges from consideration based upon the published total cost. The only income quintile that did not report the majority of students eliminating colleges this early was the highest. Still, 47% did remove colleges.  One-third of students said that a college with a total published cost of $40,000 would be too much to consider. For colleges with a starting price of $50,000 or more, almost half of students have already eliminated them from consideration before they ever apply to determine aid eligibility.

When students start to research colleges, aside from making sure that they have their academic interests, the majority of students consider scholarship availability and a highly ranked institution important to their college search. Adding more interest to the first point made, the third most important factor for students is the distance from home. Single-gender and religiously affiliated campuses were the two least important factors. Arts showed up as more important than athletics with 21% reporting both of them as important, but only 26% saying arts are unimportant versus 34% for athletics. 

HBCUs and HSIs overall did not have high importance with the general student, but were very important to Black and Hispanic/Latinx students respectively. Half of Black students reported that a college being an HBCU was important to them. This, combined with even higher mobility interest among Black students, could be a significant boon for traditionally under-supported HBCUs. When also looking at household income, this effect is highest for those reporting incomes under $25,000/year (60%) and lowest for those coming from households earning more than $130,000 per year (36%). This could be an opportunity for conveying value. It was also most important for rural students and least important for suburban students, indicating that rural recruitment could serve a double purpose of engaging students who might not see themselves as able to attend college at all.

For HSIs, Hispanic Serving Institutions, 57% of Hispanic/Latinx students see that designation as being important. Again, we see that rural students most value the HSI designation – two-thirds find it important compared to only 55% of suburban students. When also looking at household income, this effect is highest for those reporting incomes under $25,000/year (64%) and lowest for those coming from households earning more than $130,000 per year (28%). While known in the college ranks, it’s possible too that students and families don’t understand what HSI means.

Juniors are reporting more positive feelings than negative about their college search right now, but only 18% report feeling prepared for college. At a time where mental health concerns are grabbing headlines, this is very positive news. The most frequent responses were hopeful, excited, and anxious. 

Students overwhelmingly prefer to research colleges online. The ease and ability to compare options without travel makes sense why platforms such as Niche are so popular with students, but it was surprising that 55% of juniors said that it was their preferred method. In the free-response data from students, juniors made it clear that most college websites need a lot of work — they need to be easier to navigate and the language needs to be much clearer and easier to understand.

Visiting campus came in second with 18%, followed by virtual events at 14%. Speaking to current students was the least preferred option, with only 2% of students. While speaking to counselors and current students might be great ways to engage and convert seniors, juniors are saying that they prefer a more passive approach to research from afar at this point. 

At this point in their college search, many students reported not yet having a preference for institutional size or location. Only 22% of students had no preference on either factor though. Mid-sized campuses, those enrolling between 5,000 and 15,000 students were the most preferred, with large campuses trailing and small campuses the least preferred. The most common preferences were for urban and mid-sized institutions though. A common sentiment was that it takes way too many clicks to find the most important information. Simplify pages and make sure relevant information is called out prominently.

What you can do now… 

  • It’s important for colleges and universities to have a specific stream of personalized, engaging communications for juniors that communicates different parts of their value proposition. 41% of those surveyed told us that they actively started researching colleges in either the fall or spring of their junior year. Be sure that you’re sending juniors more than just a general viewbook, brochure, or campus visit and event notifications – all of which they can find on your website. 
  • If you work with prospective students from out-of-state, or those who live more than four hours from your campus, be sure and ask early on why they’re looking at colleges farther away from home. You could say, “So why does our location seem like it would be a good fit for you?” If the student can’t verbalize a specific reason, I encourage you to probe further and see if there’s true interest in learning more about your school, or if the idea of going away from home for college just sounds fun and exciting. We continue to find that while a lot of high school students are open to leaving home and traveling off to college, “location” is a common unspoken objection that often comes up late in the process. 
  • Tying in with the previous bullet point, be sure and create content (messaging and/or videos) that showcase current students from your school who came from out-of-state or a significant distance from home. Have them talk about why they felt comfortable, and why it’s been the best decision for them.
  • Knowing that a large majority of students visit your school’s website while doing their research, take the time to put yourself in their shoes and see how many clicks it takes you to find the information and resources they care about most – application requirements, popular majors, cost, available scholarships, your net price calculator, your location/surrounding area, campus life, diversity, student outcomes, as well as any fun or unique facts. And if you work at a small college, explain the key differences (pros and cons) in your student experience versus what they’ll find at a larger university, or vice versa. Consider putting “everything you want and need to know” together on one page or in one area of your website. Students continue to express frustration when they have to go to different menus to find all of the aforementioned information.

Student Confidence

Juniors are largely confident in their college search. However, we continue to see serious concerns about affordability. Only 6% were very confident and 16% confident that they could afford college. The number of students saying that they were confident in their ability to afford college has declined from 48% in 2016 to 32% in 2020, and now for the class of 2022 are showing only 22%. Affordability, or at a minimum perceived affordability, should be a top concern for colleges who want to impact college access and success. 

Another area that colleges should prepare for is that of student mental health. Only half of students say that they feel confident that they will be socially and emotionally prepared for college. This is a decline from two-thirds of the class of 2020. Students talked a lot about being nervous and anxious when they think about “growing up” and being independent at college — they feel unprepared and like they have to have it all figured out now. Only 53% also say that they feel confident that they will fit in and will be able to make friends. The last year has been a challenge, so facilitating connections and helping students know how to advocate and receive help will be important to their ability to thrive on campus.

What you can do now… 

  • Create personalized messaging and other content that acknowledges college is expensive and an investment. Talk to juniors about the importance of not freaking out and immediately dismissing schools because of the numbers they see on different websites or Google – especially if the school appears to have a lot of other things that appeal to the student. Explain that very few students pay anything close to the numbers they see because scholarships and other types of financial aid (grants, work-study, outside scholarships, and loans) help bring down the cost and make it more affordable. Tell them it’s different for every student, there’s a lot of math involved, and they’ve got nothing to lose by going through the process. 
  • Consider having some of your current students talk during your events and information sessions about why they chose to pay more and make that investment in your school. 
  • Place more of an emphasis on the social transition from high school to college and the different mental health resources available to students on your campus. Highlight and address some of the most common fears like making friends, fitting in, fear of failure, and fear of being independent. Introduce some of the people on your campus that help in these areas as a way to help students feel more comfortable and confident.

Experiences with College Outreach

At this stage in their college search juniors are most interested in talking to admissions counselors and current college students rather than faculty and leadership. Slightly more students said that current students were the most important, however, more students overall said that admissions counselors were important. The most important relationships are with their admissions counselors. Before bringing in alumni, faculty, and college leadership to speak to juniors make sure that you have a well-staffed and trained counseling staff and ambassador program.

Students are least interested in receiving phone calls and video chats with counselors at this point, but one-third say that even daily email would be acceptable. Email and mail are the most accepted outreach methods. Students want the first outreach from a college to be an email, by a very wide margin. When asked for their preference, 71% prefer an email and only 11% want mail first. Only 4% want their first touchpoint to be a phone call from a college, slightly less than 7% for text messages or video chats. Here again, we see that more passive methods are preferred at this early prospect and inquiry stage.

Only 16% of juniors say that the outreach they’ve received is very personalized, even though 59% say that personalization in communications makes a difference for them. This is twice as many seniors reported personalized outreach last fall, which may point to improvements in early outreach. 

What you can do now… 

  • Yearly training and professional development for your admissions staff are essential. Both high school juniors and seniors have made it clear that when they start their college search, they want to hear from their admissions counselor (not the Office of Admissions) at various schools. If you’re going to establish the admissions counselor as a student and families’ go-to person for help, counselors need to understand how students are navigating their college search, as well as the latest best practices around how to effectively engage, communicate, and build relationships. 
  • For your outreach to be impactful and generate action, it needs to feel personal. In the words of one junior, “Multiple emails with general information gets repetitive, especially when many other colleges are doing the same. People receiving the emails become annoyed after a while and don’t even check them.” Another junior added, “Spamming us with the same emails makes us feel unimportant and like we aren’t wanted or the school isn’t really interested in us.” If you want your outreach to truly feel personal, it starts with having just about all of your emails, letters, and text messages consistently come from the prospective student’s admissions counselor and not a general admissions account or someone in a leadership position. Introduce the counselor when the student first enters your system, and make it clear that they will be the primary communicator throughout the process. 
  • The language and tone you use in any communication or conversation should be more conversational and less formal. It should always feel like you’re talking with the other person, not at them. Don’t start any email or letter with “Dear,” or end with “Sincerely.” Avoid using multiple hyperlinks, bolding, higher ed jargon, and multiple calls to action. Each message should focus on one topic only and highlight one or two value points. Explain why you’re sharing what you’re sharing to the reader, and end your message with a singular call to action that isn’t always transactional. Ask the reader a direct, intentional question, or for their feedback or opinion on something. Encouraging them to engage adds another layer of personalization.
  • Audit the frequency of your enrollment communications and make sure they align with the preferences of your target audience. Overcommunicating, especially if you’re sending the same message repeatedly, is not going to make a student more likely to take the next step. In the words of one junior, “It’s annoying and I’m less likely to attend because you keep bugging me with the same boring, impersonal emails.” 
  • Additional survey research by Tudor Collegiate Strategies indicates the majority of students are comfortable with one email per week, one letter per month, one phone call or video chat per month, and one text message per month from a college or university during their search. Before you reach out via any medium, a good rule of thumb is to always ask yourself, “What’s the value I’m offering the other person?”

Virtual Events and Juniors

Students prefer to physically visit a campus (66% said they would rather visit a campus in person with social distancing vs doing a virtual event), but only 29% have visited a college campus in the past year. Almost two-thirds of the juniors who responded say that they’ve attended a virtual event and 80% say that it was a positive experience. Most juniors are at least exposing themselves to some sort of college experience, even when they are unable to attend as they would prefer. However, 28% reported not taking any visits or attending any virtual events. It’s still early, but if trends continue this could signal more trouble for small colleges.

Students are most interested in attending a virtual event that takes place on a weekend afternoon, only 29% want to attend something during the week. This is more of a shift from the seniors class; 39% of which were interested in weekday events. Offering events at different times to accommodate the myriad schedules of families is important, but starting with the most preferred times can help make sure that your planning is not in vain.

When it comes to how they want to consume a college’s virtual content, 38% want to participate in a live event, while another 44% want to have a combination of live and pre-recorded content. In terms of the length of your virtual events, 60% of juniors said they prefer events that are 45 minutes or less.

Whereas seniors are seeing value in panels where they can interact, juniors were the least interested in panel events. Contrary to common practice, they aren’t as interested in general information sessions either. Juniors were most interested in attending academic events or those about the admissions process. Financial aid events had the most students reporting they were very interested as well.

What you can do now… 

  • Visiting campus is a big step for most prospective students. It’s something they don’t in many cases just decide to do randomly because of a mass email or postcard. Your outreach needs to feel more personal and genuine, and it needs to clearly explain the value of coming to check out the campus. For example, you could explain how important the “feel of campus” is for most students when it comes to submitting applications and ultimately choosing their college. Or, you could let them know that during their visit, you’ll be sitting down with them 1-1 to offer tips about applying, scholarships, and financial aid that will make their college search easier.
  • Offer a mix of in-person and virtual events and information sessions that are segmented based on grade and/or stage. Trying to cover everything for everybody all the time is not an effective strategy. Your content should focus on things that are most relevant and appealing to your attendees. If you’re talking to underclassmen, walk them through how to put together a college list – things to look for and how to differentiate between schools. For rising seniors, besides information on the admissions process (i.e. your application requirements and how admissions decisions are made) and financial aid (i.e. different things your school does to make it affordable), additional survey research from Tudor Collegiate Strategies indicates that most students want a better understanding of what student life is like on your campus, as well as information on careers related to their major or the majors they’re considering. Don’t be afraid to ditch the PowerPoint slides and focus more on storytelling. One of your primary goals should be to help students picture themselves as a student on your campus. Provide relatable examples that help them understand what their student journey could look like. And when it comes to lining up your speakers, remember that prospective students want to hear most from admissions counselors and current students.
  • Having a post-visit and post-event outreach plan is critical. No student leaves their campus visit or your virtual event feeling the same way about your school as when they arrived. They’re either more or less excited. It’s critical that the student’s admissions counselor reaches out in a personal way and asks direct and intentional questions. In most cases, the student will reveal all kinds of new information about their mindset and timeline, as well as new feelings (both likes and dislikes) they now have. It’s much easier to discuss the next step when you know how a student is feeling.

Standardized Testing Plans

Nearly half of students reported that they had already taken the SAT, ACT, or CLT; and amazingly only 6% reported that they don’t plan to take a test. Of students who have taken, or plan to take, a test – 96% plan to submit the scores to some or all of their colleges when they apply. This is unexpected behavior given that the majority of colleges no longer require standardized tests. One note of concern and an opportunity for messaging from colleges; 75% of juniors believe that their chances of being accepted will be hurt if they do not submit test scores with their application. It will be interesting to see what the final outcomes are, but with early searchers, there seems to be a return to interest in testing.

What you can do now… 

  • If your college or university is test-optional or test-blind, create personalized messaging that explains how admissions decisions will be made. Just like the senior class before them, juniors want to know what criteria matter most. They’re looking for tips on how they can build a strong resume and other ways to help maximize their chances of being admitted if they choose not to submit test scores with their application. This content can also be incorporated during different in-person and virtual events, and it would be valuable to record stand-alone videos that can be accessed via your website or social media at any time. 

The Effects of COVID on College Plans

Almost half of the students said that the pandemic has changed how they feel about attending college. Most said that it feels riskier to attend college right now, but they still plan to. Only 5% said that they might take a year off and another 5% said that they are not sure college is a good investment for them. Last fall, only 40% of seniors said that it had affected their thinking and they were less likely than the juniors to say that attending college feels riskier than it did before. Poverty exacerbated this, as 56% of respondents coming from households earning less than $25,000 per year reported that it changed how they feel and two-thirds of those say it feels riskier to attend college now.

Social Media Usage for College Search

Social media behavior continues to stray away from Facebook and towards more visual networks. Instagram and YouTube are the only networks where the majority of students say they are interested in either viewing or engaging with college content. Just because students use a network, does not mean they are interested in seeing content from colleges there. These behaviors are for usage preference, and not for advertising. Serving ads through social networks and their affiliates is still a great way to reach students where they are for awareness campaigns. 

Juniors are most interested in seeing classrooms, academics, and campus life on social media as well as updates on deadlines and important events. This content can be varied by channel to create value. Surprisingly, they’re least interested in seeing athletic content, though engagement rates tend to be higher with those pieces.

What you can do now… 

  • Your people are your brand and with the eyeballs of your target audience glued to social media, it’s a great place to pull back the curtain and offer a different perspective of your campus and your student experience. That starts by understanding how prospective students use the different platforms; which platforms they go to when they’re looking for content from colleges; as well as what kind of content they want to see – what’s helpful and impactful.
  • As we mentioned above, when students are interested in your school, the majority will go to Instagram and YouTube at some point and do a search. If you haven’t done that lately to see what results come up, I encourage you to. Additional survey research by Tudor Collegiate Strategies has shown that Instagram is number one by a wide margin, with Facebook coming in third behind YouTube. Plus, about 27% of students have indicated they didn’t check out any college social media to help with their search. 
  • When it comes to content, the number one thing both juniors and seniors want to see on social media are day-in-the-life videos from the current student perspective – otherwise known as vlogs. They want to know what it’s like to be a student on your campus. And as you might imagine, authenticity is paramount. The majority of students find more value in a shaky video that’s done on a cell phone without pans and fades, doesn’t have perfect lighting, and features one or more students who talk to the camera, don’t act robotic, and don’t sound like they’ve been told what to say. 
  • Consider creating relatable and helpful content during the year that targets students at different stages of their college search (i.e. inquiries/prospects, admitted students, and students who have deposited), as well as different types of students (ex. out-of-state, first-generation). Have your current students talk about different fears and concerns they had during their college search. Have them explain how they created their list, decided where to apply, how they made their college decision, why they love living in the dorms, or why taking campus visits was so valuable. Have them talk about some of the people and resources on your campus that helped them with the transition, how they take notes and study in college, their favorite campus meal, and where they go grocery shopping. Showcasing each of those things not only fills in some of the blanks for prospective students, but it helps to differentiate your school, and it helps to create emotions and connections with your campus community that will impact decision-making.
  • Finally, don’t be afraid to repurpose the same content on different social media platforms. For example, you could post an entire student vlog on YouTube, and then take short clips from that vlog and turn those into Instagram stories. 
Avatar

Will Patch

Prior to coming to Niche in 2019 Will served 9 years at Manchester University in roles as an Admissions Counselor, Associate Director for Admissions Operations, Social Media Coordinator, and ultimately as Digital Strategist. Will surfaces tactical insights from user behavior and surveys to help higher ed build recruitment strategies. In addition to the Enrollment Insights blog, webinars, and podcast; Will is a frequent conference speaker and podcast guest. He has presented at NACAC, AACRAO-SEM, AMA Higher Ed, CASE V, EduWeb, and EMA. Will's work has been featured in Forbes, Inside Higher Ed, CNBC, CNN, the LA Times, and The New York Times among other outlets.

Want to Hear more from Niche?