Navigating the Survey
This year we received responses from over 5,100 high school juniors who shared their experiences with college search and feeling about the process and some of the hot topics. With the upcoming Supreme Court decision around using race in admissions looming this summer it’s important for colleges to proactively find ways to maintain their gains through incentives for low-income and first-generation students, among whom underrepresented minorities are overrepresented. These strategies may allow for recruitment and retention efforts that still support vulnerable students while not running afoul of any new rules.
Pathways that support removing barriers for students, such as test-optional and test-blind and the removal of essays, are a great start. With all that is known about students as they inquire or build profiles there’s now an easier way to streamline the interest to enrollment process: direct admissions. We knew students who were going through the Niche Direct Admissions™ process were finding it a positive experience, however it was surprisingly positive to find that 80% of juniors responding said that a college offering them a pathway to acceptance without an application would make them more interested in that college as well.
The goal when reading these results should be to find actionable takeaways that speak to your institution and what you’re experiencing. Finding ways to improve your outcomes by speaking to what matters most to students will make you more efficient and effective. Target the information that makes the most sense to your needs and work as an enrollment and marketing team to build your 2023-24 comm flows and strategies that will support students and your own institutional goals.
The Junior College Search Process in 2023
Anxiety may not be the most common emotion associated with the college search, but fears can still limit success.
- The biggest fear that students reported feeling when thinking about college was not being able to afford the college that they want to attend.
- 21% of students reported that they were afraid that they would make the wrong decision or would not be accepted to college.
- Low-income and first-gen students were much more likely to have fears about affording college, being socially or emotionally prepared, and making a mistake on their application.
- The majority of juniors predicted that they would struggle with applying for financial aid and deciding where to apply.
- Of interesting note, in interviews with seniors going through the application process submitting transcripts are cited as one of the biggest pain points and yet less than a quarter of juniors foresee it as an issue. What should be simple turns out to be more trouble than they know at this point.
Admissions staff are not the first choice for students to turn to for help in the search process.
- Only 8% of juniors indicated that they preferred to talk to admissions staff as a primary way of researching colleges.
- Going directly to college websites, using Niche to research and compare colleges, and visiting campuses were the top 3 preferred methods of researching colleges.
- The preference for a campus visit as a top 3 method was highest for students with a GPA of 4.0 or higher, indicating possible success for in-person honors recruiting events.
- Less than one quarter of low-income students preferred a campus visit as a top 3 research method. Instead, they were much more likely to utilize their school or college counselor and comm flow materials such as email and mail from a college.
- School or college counselors played more of an influencer role at private high schools than public and were most influential to students attending urban high schools.
- Advice from friends and family was most important to home schooled students with 44% listing it as a top 3 preferred research method.
Students Perspectives on Some Hot Admissions Trends
Direct Admissions is even more appealing to students than many would have guessed.
- 20% of students have heard of the alternative pathway to acceptance we know as direct admissions. When it was described to them, 80% of juniors reported that they would be more interested in a college that offered them acceptance without applying. Only 5% of students said that it would have a negative impact on their impression of the college.
- Direct admissions opportunities were even more appealing to students from underrepresented minority groups.
Why do you feel the way that you do about direct admissions?
“I feel as though the application process can become tedious and tiring and after doing so much work you have to wait a period before receiving a letter from you chosen school. The process mentioned prior would save me a lot of time, money, and headaches.”
“As a junior, I feel completely unprepared on how to apply to each individual school and what each school expects or requires. I think it would be so much more relieving to have this as an option so that it is easier to weigh out my options as to scholarship money and offers.”
“It shows how they care about how stressful the application process is and they want to help.”
Test-optional may be the norm, but students don’t fully trust it (yet).
- Misinformation about test-optional and test-blind policies continues to dominate. The majority of students reported that they plan to submit their scores to all colleges regardless of whether it is required. More than two-thirds don’t believe that colleges who don’t require scores really mean it with 26% saying that they believe colleges still want the scores and aren’t saying it and 44% believing that their scores would help them be accepted even if the college doesn’t consider them.
- Low-income, first-gen, and students from underrepresented minority groups were all more likely to believe that colleges who don’t require scores really don’t require them.
Political involvement in education is affecting where students consider enrolling.
- 41% of respondents said that state politics are changing their interest in colleges within that state.
- Students from the South and Northeast were least likely to say that state politics were influencing their interests.
- 53% of international students said that their interest, or lack thereof, in attending a college was being influenced by politics.
- As a student’s reported GPA increased, so too did the influence that state politics played in their interest in colleges in that state.
Communicating With the Class of 2024
What juniors want to hear about most has everything to do with experiences.
- Juniors were most interested in hearing about academics, the admissions process and requirements, financial aid, career services, and student life on campus. Alumni news, current student stories, and visit opportunities were the least important to them.
- Career services and outcomes information was of more interest to students at public high schools; as were financial aid and support services. Extracurriculars and student life were more appealing to students attending private high schools.
- Academic information was much more important to students with a GPA over 3.5; as were reviews and rankings. Career services and outcomes information was much less important to them however.
Where and how matter just as much as the message when it comes to enrollment communications.
- Across every channel, students were less interested in hearing from colleges directly. The majority of them did not want weekly outreach and most did not want to receive phone calls or video chats with admissions.
- The acceptability of weekly emails from colleges has declined from 81% to 45% over the past two years among juniors. Weekly mailings have dropped from 55% to 27% as well.
- 53% of juniors reported that they found the idea of a private community for them to interact with other prospective students interested in a college appealing.
- Only 15% of respondents said that the information they’re receiving from colleges is very personalized and relevant to their interests and 22% said that all colleges look and sound the same. Last year these were 16% and 21% respectively. Of those who have received relevant information, 84% said that it made them more interested in that college.
What about a college’s email catches your attention?
“The friendliness of the email and how ‘urgent’ or ‘nagging’ it sounds. I’m less likely to take interest in a school that seems to beg me to go there. Rather, I pay more attention to the schools who focus on showing me the opportunities they have in store and why it would be worth my attendance.”
“The way they address me catches my attention. Another thing that catches my attention is if they know my preferred major.”
“I usually pay attention to emails that speak about financial aid or potential scholarships. I know a few colleges that have hosted programs, available to everyone, to explain the application and financial aid.”
What about print mail from a college catches your attention?
“I like seeing pictures of the college campus and I really appreciate the handwritten notes from current students. This just makes me feel like they genuinely want me to be there.”
“Diversity. I do not like seeing only white people on the brochures because then I assume one of two things: They just have me on a mailing list and/or they want me as a student to add to their diversity. When I see people of color on the mail, it feels more personalized.”
What content in a college’s ad catches your eye?
“The pictures of the campuses and the student testimonials are aspects that catch my eye.”
“I like college ads that strive to display their community of students. I like colleges that seem diverse and inclusive.”
Juniors want to be the primary contact, not their parents.
- Only 40% of juniors wanted colleges to send information to their parents, but even 25% of those who said that they didn’t would provide parent contact information if asked and 63% would if they were interested enough in the college.
- International students and those from US Territories were the most interested in having their parents contacted, but less than a third of Midwestern students wanted their parents contacted.
- Private high school students were more likely to want their parents included in communications, but less than 30% of homeschooled students did.
- Students from underrepresented minority groups were more likely to want their parents included in communications.
Higher Ed Marketing and Earning Student Consideration
Video rules student interest in using social media for their college search.
- Instagram remained the only platform which the majority of juniors used to view university accounts, but just barely as it decreased from 67% to 50%. TikTok and YouTube were the most popular for viewing student accounts with 35% of juniors saying they did and YouTube was the most popular for college content not associated with any college with 34% of students saying that they did.
Student influencers are an important part of their search and discovery.
- Current students at a college were the most influential in a student’s search, followed by their family and then admissions counselors and school or college counselors at their high school.
- Students attending high schools in the South and Midwest were more likely to cite current students at an institution as being influential in their search and interest.
- Colleges were most likely to have earned consideration from students who hadn’t heard of them through recommendations from their school or college counselors, family, or current students as well as through conversations with faculty, staff, or admissions counselors at a college or through rankings.
- 35% of respondents indicated that they used YouTube and TikTok to search for current students at colleges and universities. Just over a quarter used Instagram and no other network had more than 8% usage for viewing student accounts.
AI isn’t winning the hearts and minds of students searching for a college.
- Only 7% of students reported that they prefer to use chatbots to learn about colleges and 24% said that they would only if they had to.
What Students Want in a College
A physical campus is important to students.
- Only 6% of students were interested in fully online programs; however, 22% of students attending an online high school and 10% of homeschooled students plan to consider fully online institutions.
- Students attending a public high school were much less likely to be considering attending a private college with only 65% reporting that they were compared to 87% of their private high school peers.
- Low-income students were significantly less likely to report interest in attending a private college.
- Less than two-thirds of respondents from the Midwest, West, or South reported considering attending a private institution while over 80% of those from the Northeast and US Territories did and almost all international students did.
- The majority of juniors did not find campuses in small towns or rural areas appealing. However, the majority of students from rural high schools did.
- Respondents attending urban high schools primarily wanted to attend an urban college, they were the least interested group in every other setting.
- Three-quarters of juniors reported campus safety as very important to them and two-thirds cited the safety of the surrounding neighborhood or town as very important.
- Most students are considering how close or far a campus is from home when doing their search, but a third are open to enrolling more than 4 hours away and just 10% are only considering colleges within an hour of home.
In spite of political headwinds, diversity is very desirable to students.
- Diversity was again the number one most important factor in a campus community with 38% of juniors responding that a diverse student body was a must-have feature and an additional 47% saying it’s appealing. Diverse faculty and staff were a must-have to 32% of students with half reporting it as appealing.
- 43% of underrepresented minority students also identified as low-income, compared to 21% of their peers. Of all low-income respondents, 63% identified as an underrepresented minority.
- A campus community that is active on social issues was appealing to 70% of respondents.
- Three-quarters of juniors said that a campus that emphasizes the arts was appealing while only just over half reported a campus that emphasizes athletics to be appealing.
- The only community factor that students identified as a net detractor was the presence of Greek life on campus. Only 27% of students felt it was appealing and 36% said it was unappealing.
The idea of “fit” may be a myth when thinking about it as an intangible consideration.
- While the idea of “fit” might seem to be something that speaks to how students fit into a student body and the feel of a campus, the majority of students primarily determined fit based on academics, cost, campus housing or ability to commute, and outcomes. The majority of respondents were not seriously considering social life or student organizations, how others perceive the college, or extracurricular opportunities when determining fit.
In our third annual Spring Survey of Juniors, we received 5,178 completed responses from high school juniors graduating in 2024. This survey was posted to Niche and emailed to registered juniors between February 24 and March 26. Results were analyzed and the following results were put together to call out the significant areas of interest. Free-response questions were first analyzed with an n-gram and then representative quotes were pulled based on the most frequent themes. If a respondent identified as Asian or Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, we provided additional options to gain further insight into their ethnic identity. We provided these options as they are suggested by the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center’s “Everyone Deserves to Be Seen” policy brief, among other resources. In the results below, any Asian ethnic group that represented at least 0.5% is shown while others are grouped as Asian – Other.