These results are from our 2022 Fall Senior Survey. If you’re looking for the most up-to-date survey results, find them here.
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The class of 2022 has had to deal with over a year and a half of disruption to their education and college search. This year we received 12,000 responses to our survey, which has allowed us to better understand their process and how they want to be recruited. 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 collected a variety of tips and recommendations for you in each of the “What you can do now . . . ” sections.
The Big Takeaways
- 63% of students said that personalized and relevant outreach is influential when it comes to visiting or applying to that school.
- 75% of students are eliminating colleges based on the total published cost.
- Students continue to want to go farther from home. 32% said they want to attend an institution four or more hours away from home, and 53% want to go to college more than two hours away from home. Only 12% want to enroll at a college within an hour from home.
- 71% of students said they are very likely or likely to visit a college campus this academic year. 78% are comfortable with in-person events right now.
- 38% of students said that their college must have active clubs and activities, and 35% say it must have a diverse student body. Arts and cultural experiences are the third most desired experience, with 25% of students saying it’s a must.
- Only 4% of students said they have no fears or worries about the college search process, half of last fall’s 8%.
Students’ College Search in 2021
By September 20, 33% of students said they have applied to a college, and 35% said they have narrowed down their list of where to apply but have not started applying yet. For low-income students, only 28% have applied so far. The percentage decreases further to 25% for first-generation students. It’s still early in the admissions process, but this signals early delays and opportunities for additional outreach and education about timelines and processes to support these students. Students are continuing to pursue colleges with a strong brand and name recognition, emphasizing the importance of awareness and branding. Only 12% of students said that a college’s brand and name recognition is not important in their consideration of where to apply.
Just like for the class of 2021, mid-sized campuses (5,000–15,000 students) in urban and suburban environments are strongly preferred. The majority of students said they would consider an urban or suburban campus. Small-town or rural campuses are both detractors—more students said they would not consider these than consider them. The least appealing setting, however, is a fully online institution. Only 8% of students said they would consider an online college, and 77% said they would not. Rural and small-town colleges are most appealing to students at rural high schools, with 30% finding them appealing compared to only 17% students in urban and suburban areas.
Fine and performing arts are again more important than athletics. This fall, 66% of students said they want arts and cultural experiences, 46% want a strong athletic fan experience, and 36% want to have a strong experience as an athlete. When considering deal-breakers, 38% of students said that their college must have active clubs and activities, and 35% said it must have a diverse student body. Arts and cultural experiences are the third most desired experience, with 25% of students saying it’s a must.
Last year, 28% of students said that they did not visit any college prior to enrolling. For the class of 2022, only 45% of students said they are very likely to visit a college campus this academic year. Visits to college campuses will likely rebound this year, but if students are unable to visit any campuses, only 23% said they will delay making a decision. When asked about other traditional recruiting tactics, 35% of students said they are very likely to meet with colleges who visit their school, and 27% said they are very likely to attend a college fair. Students prefer to research colleges with their school counselor, friends, and family and to use college search platforms over going to colleges themselves. Among nine options, content and individuals from the college itself rank in 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th position. Only social media, with 9% of students preferring to use it for research, ranks lower.
Students continue to want to go farther from home. One-third responded that they want to attend a college four or more hours from home, and 53% want to go more than two hours from home. Only 12% want to enroll at a college within an hour from home. The pandemic has changed a lot about student behavior, and while initially there was a shift to students wanting to stay very close to home, after a year and a half there has been a reaction in the other direction. Students’ feelings about starting college have only slightly shifted since the spring. There have been increases in Preparation and decreases in Confusion and Fear. In that vein, 60% of students said that they don’t feel different about college due to the pandemic. For those who do feel differently, most feel concerned but still plan to attend college. Only 2% said they are considering taking time off before starting college.
Only 32% of students said they will submit test scores to all colleges they apply to. Additionally, 26% said they plan to do so selectively, and 16% will only submit test scores to those that still require it. Low-income students are less likely to have already taken a standardized test and to plan on submitting scores when applying than their peers. Students in urban areas are also less likely to say that they plan to submit test scores than their peers in rural areas, who are the most likely to say that they plan to send scores with their application.
Student confidence is largely in line with what the class of 2021 reported in the Niche Senior Survey. The largest discrepancy is in confidence surrounding affordability, but it should be noted that we had not reached the October 1 FAFSA launch date and financial aid packages had not been sent. This could be seen as baseline confidence that college in general, and not a specific college they are enrolling at, is affordable. The bad news is that only 5% of students are very confident and 20% say that they are confident that they can afford college. The other marked drop was that students are almost 20 percentage points less confident that they will fit in and make friends, with only 63% being positive about it. This could be because they haven’t built affinity and connections through admitted student communities yet.
Affordability remains the biggest concern for students, but they’re also afraid of making the “wrong decision,” and they are concerned about their grades or test scores keeping them from being accepted. The class of 2021 set a new high mark in over six years of Niche surveys, with 73% of students eliminating colleges from consideration based upon the total published cost. However, 75% of students in the class of 2022 say that they are eliminating colleges based on the total published cost. This increases to 78% for first-generation students and 79% for low-income students.
What you can do now . . .
- The overwhelming majority of students have not submitted all their college applications yet. The key is figuring out where they are in the process. Instead of sending an impersonal, transactional email with another push to apply, create a very short and direct email for inquiries with a call-to-action question that encourages the student to respond to their admissions counselor and share how they’re feeling and what’s keeping them from starting (or finishing) their application. You could also utilize text messaging and take a similar approach.
- For prospects and suspects, focus your messaging on determining what topic they might be interested in learning more about. Make it clear that you don’t want to overwhelm them by sending a bunch of information all at once. Ask them which one of these three topics they want to know about the most at the moment: financial aid, student life and activities, or careers related to their major or the major they’re thinking about. Additional research by Tudor Collegiate Strategies continues to show that the majority of seniors want more information about one or more of those three topics.
- During both high school visits and college fairs this fall, have you been predictable or memorable? It can be tempting to dive right into the “spiel” and give the same rehearsed presentation or introduction that other admissions counselors use. Often, though, that approach isn’t going to be effective. Being memorable should be a consistent goal every time you interact with prospective students. When their friends or parents ask them about that high school visit, college fair, or virtual event, what are they going to say? Get rid of the spiel or the elevator pitch, and instead come up with one or more direct questions that you can use to begin a conversation . . . not about your school, but about the prospective student(s).
- Despite most colleges and universities being test-optional, test-blind, or test-free, the majority of students continue to tell us they plan to submit test scores to some or all of the schools they apply to. Students want and need a better understanding of how your school will evaluate their application and make an admissions decision if test scores are not part of the equation. Be transparent and clear about the criteria that your school will use—do not just use phrases like “holistic approach.” Otherwise, students will continue to believe that a good score gives them an advantage over other applicants.
- To help with the cost and affordability conversations, explain the idea of sticker price and encourage students not to freak out when they see large numbers on different websites. Focus on the idea that very few students pay anything close to the numbers they see, and then share a few things that your school will do to help bring down the cost. Also consider sharing what the average first-year student (in-state or out-of-state) received in scholarships and grants, as well as overall financial aid.
- The data continues to show that just about every student is scared, nervous, or worried about something during their college search—for most, it’s actually multiple things. When you ask them about their fears, worries, and concerns, it builds trust and can increase engagement. If you don’t, it can slow down a student’s search, and/or prevent them from taking the next step. Once a student provides feedback, the next step is figuring out how you can alleviate their fear, worry, or concern. One of the most effective strategies involves providing them with a concrete example of someone who felt the same way, along with how they overcame (or how you or someone at your college or university helped them overcome) that fear, worry, or concern.
- Students are spending more time researching colleges and universities online. When was the last time your website was audited? Do you have any broken links? Is your event information outdated? Is it easy for students, parents, and families to find detailed information and clear answers to key questions on topics like cost, financial aid, scholarships, campus life (i.e., student housing, food, clubs and organizations, traditions, academic and mental health resources), and student outcomes? Students continue to talk about how frustrating it is to have to hunt through page after page for essential information.
Advice for Communicating with Students
Time and again, students overwhelmingly say that they want emails, and email is the easiest way to provide relevant outreach to students at the right stage. This year, only 7% of students said that the communications they have been receiving are very personalized and relevant. This is bad news for colleges who aren’t maximizing their relevant messaging—63% of students say that personalized and relevant outreach influences where they apply. When asked if they prefer emails to come from an individual or an Office of Admissions account, students are split between preferring them to come from an individual and not paying attention to the sender. Only 16% prefer emails to come from a general Office of Admissions account.
At this point in their college search, students most want to hear about how to apply and, perhaps more importantly, what is considered for admissions. Students were asked to rank nine factors based on importance, and 56% ranked this in the top three and 21% as the most important. Academics and classroom previews also had a modal response of first but had the fourth overall highest rank, with only 44% of students saying it is among their three most important areas. Financial aid and career pathways were the second and third most important topics of interest for students. At this point in their search, student housing and student life are the least likely to be ranked as the most important topics, and only a quarter of students say they are in their top three most important topics. Again, we see more students saying that they want to hear about the arts than athletics, further emphasizing this topic’s importance to this new generation of students.
More than three-quarters of students say that weekly emails are acceptable, and 93% want colleges to use email when recruiting them. Mailings are preferred less frequently than email, but 92% of students do want them as part of the recruiting mix. In a prior survey, students said that mail was almost as influential as email in determining where they ultimately enrolled. Text messages were requested by 77% of students, so while they are less popular than email or print, they still have a place in enrollment strategies when used correctly and with permission. Almost half of the students say they don’t want phone calls from colleges, and 42% don’t want to participate in video chats. Phone calls are most accepted in the East South Central region (TN, KY, MS, AL) and least wanted in New England. The only other regional outlier was in video chats. While not widely desired, international students and those from US territories do want to have fairly regular video chats with admissions offices.
While only 9% of students said that social media is a preferred college research method, there’s no denying that it’s an outlet for sharing stories and building awareness that carries over to research elsewhere. When asked, 69% of students said that they are viewing colleges on Instagram—much higher than the second most common, which is YouTube at 35%. We saw a similarly large gap between those top two platforms last fall. TikTok continues to rise in popularity and is now the third most viewed platform with 25% of students viewing content there. That number is up over ten percentage points from our survey last fall. One-third of students also said that they engaged with college content on Instagram. Behaviors only significantly differed for Instagram (in which students were significantly more likely to both view and engage with content than the class of 2021), Facebook (in which students were significantly less likely to view content than the class of 2021), and Snapchat (in which students were significantly less likely to engage with content than the class of 2021).
What you can do now . . .
- Prospective students continue to want more personalization during the college search process. They’re tired of feeling like they’re constantly being marketed or sold to. True personalization involves a lot more than including a prospective student’s name in the subject line of an email. Here are a few things that you can do to make students’ college search process feel more personal.
- Word choice and tone matter in every form of communication you use. Take a less formal, more conversational approach. That approach will make you more relatable, believable, and personal. Don’t be afraid to start the occasional sentence with the word “and,” “but,” or “because.” It’s also okay to use an ellipsis to continue a thought. Also, refer to yourself as “I” and the reader as “you,” or use their name again in the body of your message or during your conversation.
- Next, use a non-transactional call to action in your emails or text messages (i.e., instead of talking about visiting or applying, ask a question and then encourage a response).
- Finally, be more intentional and direct with the questions you ask. Instead of asking if they have any questions, or saying “If you have any questions, please contact me,” ask them specific things about their decision-making process, their mindset, their frustrations, and their timeline. This not only makes your message feel more personal but also opens the door for them to engage and reveal what they’re currently thinking. Increased personalization makes students feel like your school wants them more.
- Focus on improving your email subject lines. Your number one goal should be to get the other person’s attention. When you create curiosity, sound helpful, or ask a question, your email will feel more personal, and subsequently you’ll increase the chances of it being opened.
- It’s helpful when you incorporate the current student point of view (i.e., direct quotes) in your emails and letters as a way to back up what you’re saying.
- Don’t underestimate the value of a phone call when it’s done in a way that is student centered. Additional qualitative research by Tudor Collegiate Strategies over the past few years continues to show that most students’ dislike of phone calls has more to do with the fact that random, “checking in” cold calls make them anxious, as do calls where the admissions counselor or student caller asks them questions they feel unprepared to answer. Phone calls should be reserved for important conversations only. Always attempt to schedule your call ahead of time (emails or text messages both work well), and explain in your message the reason for wanting to have a call—it needs to be something of value or worthwhile for the student. You also need to be prepared to lead the conversation in an empathetic manner that feels authentic and not scripted.
- Create more student-generated video content for your social media platforms. Prospective students go to Instagram and YouTube looking for authentic day-in-the-life stories (i.e., vlogs) from your current students, not from, as one student put it, “People who are paid to make the school look good.” Focus less on making a perfectly produced video and more on being consistently genuine and helpful. Video content is also very effective in helping create feelings and emotions that impact decision-making. Remember, feelings and emotions often outweigh logic and facts.
- Consider hosting in-person or virtual events for juniors, sophomores, and freshmen that provide tips on how to develop a college list, why the campus visit is so important, as well as things they can do that will help maximize their chances of being admitted to your school.
Students’ Experience with Virtual Events
More than half of students—54%—have participated in a virtual college tour or virtual information session this year. There is a divide, however, in that 62% of private school students have attended one virtual tour or session and only 53% of their public school peers have. There are also differences in income level. Only 52% of students from families earning less than $80,000 per year have attended a virtual event, but 69% of those from families earning more than $130,000 have. Of those who attended, 86% said they had a positive experience and found them helpful. Most students said that the speakers felt like a mixture of scripted and authentic; only 14% said that the content being shared by different speakers felt very authentic.
Only 18% of students said that they are very interested, but an additional 46% said that they are interested in attending virtual events from colleges. Interest is highest among low-income students and declines as family wealth increases. Interest is also highest for Pakistani, Indian, African American, and Bangladeshi students. Students are most interested in attending live events, either by themselves or supplemented with on-demand content. Only 18% of students want virtual events to be fully on-demand.
Almost two-thirds of students said that they want virtual events to be offered on the weekends, while half said they want them to be during the morning or afternoon. Evenings are less popular options on the weekend but a good opportunity during the week. Students want virtual events from colleges to be between twenty and forty minutes—67% said it needs to be forty minutes or less. Just 8% of students said that they prefer to attend virtual events that last more than an hour.
The format of the event being offered changed how likely students were to say that they would attend, regardless of which college offered it. The most popular option is an AMA (Ask Me Anything) or Q&A style virtual event offered by a college—37% of students said they would definitely attend and an additional 42% said that they might attend. During events, students most want to hear about how admissions decisions are made. Three-quarters of students prefer to ask questions during events rather than in follow-ups, and only 2% said they would not be comfortable asking questions at all.
What you can do now . . .
- Record all your in-person and virtual admissions events and repurpose the content to be accessible in multiple formats. Create targeted communications that alert prospective students, parents, and families to what they missed, and why/how watching it will be helpful.
- Shorter virtual events with a singular focus continue to perform well. Consider topics like moving away from home and adjusting to college classes as a way to differentiate your event. Also, when prospective students know what kind of content will be shared ahead of time, it allows them to think of questions they might want to ask during or after the event.
- Segmented virtual events will also increase personalization. Consider parent-only events, as well as events for groups such as local students, out-of-state students, first-generation students, and students with specific interests, or events that are based on stage or grade.
- The majority of your speakers should be currently enrolled students sharing stories and different experiences they have had as a student at your school. Give them guidance and direction, but do not give them a script to read from.
- Make sure your PowerPoint slides don’t just list facts, figures, and generalized statements that can be found on your website. Focus on answering the “why” and the “how,” while also incorporating more visuals (namely videos) into your presentations.
- Make sure you have a “fun” component to help with engagement. Prospective students continue to recommend activities like trivia and scavenger hunts.