Cookie cutter colleges
Enrollment Insights Blog

Class of 2023 Fall Senior Survey

If you’re looking for the most up-to-date Niche Fall Survey results, you’ll find them here.

Key Takeaways

  • 67% of students were influenced by the personalized and relevant information they received. Only 9% reported that they were receiving very personalized and relevant outreach and the share of students reporting that all colleges look and sound alike nearly doubled from 15% to 27%.
  • Only 4% of students surveyed said that a college’s brand or name recognition was not at all important in influencing their interest.
  • For the 51% of students who have not visited a campus yet, resources (time, money, transportation, etc.) were the most common reason why not with 20% providing that. Another 19% said that they are waiting to decide where they are going to enroll prior to visiting. Not knowing how to schedule a visit (16%), waiting until acceptance (14%), and other reasons (14%) rounded out the top five reasons for not visiting.
  • As with the Class of 2022, diversity was the top thing that students want in a campus community. A diverse student body was appealing to 42% of respondents and an additional 37% said that it was a must-have in their college experience. Diversity among faculty and staff was appealing to 45% and an additional 31% identified it as a must-have community feature.
  • 97% reported that they had fears about the college search process. The most common fears were not being able to afford the college that they want, making the wrong decision, and not being accepted to a college.

Executive Summary

Across the more than 20,000 responses in this year’s Class of 2023 Fall Senior Survey one critical theme occurred: unnecessary barriers. Understanding and resolving the barriers that students face in the college application and admissions process is key to helping colleges stand out to students and thrive. Websites were difficult to navigate, applications were challenging to complete and required too many additional materials and fees, and the admissions process in general wasn’t focused on meeting students where they are. The survey responses show students from every background struggling with navigating the application and admissions process.  As you review this year’s survey responses, one key trend will stand out: students want more simplicity and fewer barriers to learning about a college and applying. 

Two things that students highlighted across multiple sections are simplicity and relevance. Throughout the survey students mentioned that there were too many requirements, they wanted fewer essays, and did not want to be required to submit test scores. Personalized and relevant outreach is a major influencer in where students consider and ultimately apply, especially to traditionally underrepresented students. However, the share of students saying that all colleges sound the same increased from 15% last year to 27% this year. Small changes in communications and simplifying the application process by rethinking what is needed to make a decision or by implementing new strategies, such as direct admissions, will go a long way toward earning student interest. 

The key takeaways from this year’s survey are to focus on meeting students when and where they are – with the relevant information that matters most to them. Emails that provide value and link back to highly relevant landing pages build trust, relationships, and affinity. Students need more information, more context, and more excitement. By providing them that on your website, on Niche, and in engaging virtual events you can remove barriers. This is how colleges break out of the cookie-cutter experience and become the exciting community students turn to.

Methodology

In our third annual Fall Senior Survey we received 20,045 completed responses from seniors graduating in 2023. This survey was posted to Niche and emailed to registered seniors between August 12 and September 25. Results were analyzed and the following results were put together as a joint project between Niche and Tudor Collegiate Strategies. 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. 

How Students Are Approaching the College Search in 2022

Key Results

The search for colleges is progressing slightly ahead of last year’s schedule. Low-income, first-generation, and traditionally underrepresented students are lagging behind, which may lead to more issues and a need for more support throughout the process. Addressing these behaviors, as well as the negative emotions and stress associated with the search for these students, can help position institutions as supportive partners in enrolling these students.

Having conversations with trusted advocates, their counselors and family, are very important to students in their search. College search platforms such as Niche as well as online content directly from Niche were also very helpful for students in their search. Having a strong online presence is important to meeting students where they are in their search, but influencing the influencers and building advocates for your institution cannot be forgotten.

Compared to the fall survey of the Class of 2022, this year students were slightly more likely to report that they have started applying to colleges—38% versus 32%.

Low-income students were more likely than their peers to report that they were just starting their college search process and had not started narrowing down options or applying.

As household income increased, so too did the likelihood that the student had started applying. The majority of students from the highest income quintile said that they have been applying and 8% have already submitted all the applications that they intend to as of September 20. 

First-generation students were much less likely to have started applying and almost twice as likely to only be starting their college search as their peers.

The majority of students reported feeling hope, excitement, and anxiety. One-third or less of students said that they felt afraid or confused; however, these were the two fastest-increasing emotions from last year’s fall survey.

Both low-income and first-generation students were more likely to report feeling negative emotions associated with starting college.

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When asked about their top 3 ways of researching and discovering college, the majority of students reported that they prefer advice from their school or college counselor. Advice from friends and family, college search platforms such as Niche, and online content from colleges comprised the next three. 

For students who have started applying to colleges they were most influenced to apply to a college they hadn’t heard of before by their school or college counselor, family, or a conversation with someone from that college (29%).

Prospect communications from a college made less of an impact than influencers in convincing students to apply.

87% of students who have started applying have applied to a college they hadn’t previously heard of because of something that caught their attention. Very few students said that they would not consider a college that is currently unknown to them.

97% reported that they had fears about the college search process. The most common were not being able to afford the college that they want and making the wrong decision, and not being accepted to a college.

5% or less of students said that their biggest fear about the search process was moving away from home, failing in college, being socially or emotionally prepared, fitting in and making new friends, or their safety in college.

As the household income quintile increased the likelihood of a student planning to submit test scores to colleges that don’t require them increased significantly from 48% to 69%. 

Students expressed concerns about their social preparation for college. Just 60% reported feeling confident that they would be socially or emotionally prepared for college and felt confident that they could make friends and fit in at college.

Academically, students feel confident in their preparation for college with 80% saying they’re academically prepared, 77% with their ability to choose a major they will enjoy and can find a job with, and 75% with their ability to advocate for themselves. 

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76% of students reported eliminating colleges from consideration based on their total published cost, up one point from last fall’s survey. This increased to 80% for low-income students. The midpoint was at $40,000 per year total cost where 51% of students reported that they would consider inquiring or applying.

In a new low, only 22% of students reported being confident that they will be able to afford college. This is down even from last year’s survey where 25% of students reported having confidence in their ability to afford college.

Marketing to and Communicating With Students

Key Results

Students are expressing disappointment with outreach from colleges, many described emails from colleges as spam and the frequency as too high. Emails remained the preferred channel, but relevant print also was well regarded in earning interest. The share of students who said that all colleges look and sound alike nearly doubled to 27% this year. The most important issues they want to hear about surround their experiences with academics, affordability and aid, and relevant career pathways being the most important topics. Are those the top priorities in email and print outreach?

A college’s name recognition is extremely important to students, but it’s not an absolute dealbreaker either with almost all students reporting that they will consider a college they haven’t heard of if they can catch their attention. Relevant academic information, i.e. speaking to their major interest and goals, was the top way to earn their attention across any channel.

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The share of students reporting that all colleges look and sound alike nearly doubled from 15% to 27%. Slightly more students this year reported that their outreach has been very personalized and relevant, but it is still a meager 9%.

The share of students who said that they had not heard from any colleges yet doubled from 3% to 6%.

44% of students prefer emails to come from an admission counselor. Only 16% prefer it to come from a more generalized sender such as “Office of Admissions” or “X University.”

Students were given 8 topics to rank in terms of what they want to hear about from colleges. The most important topics in order are academics, financial aid, careers related to their major of interest, how to apply and what’s considered for admission, student housing, student life and activities, fine and performing arts, and finally athletics.

The majority of students rated financial aid (56%), academics (55%), and careers related to their major (53%) in their top 3, but 29% rated academics #1 compared to 18% for financial aid and 15% for careers.

11% of students rated how to apply and what is considered for admission, fine and performing arts, and athletics as their #1 topic of interest. However, 42% had information about how to apply in their top 3 compared to 24% for both the arts and athletics. More telling, only 3% said that how to apply was the least important thing to hear about compared to 29% for the arts and 38% for athletics.

Only 4% of students surveyed said that a college’s brand or name recognition was not at all important in influencing their interest. 12% of respondents said that it was very important to them and 52% said that it was somewhat important in influencing their interest.

The most common themes students mentioned in their thoughts about a college’s name and brand recognition were around jobs and careers, more opportunities, and the strength of the brand as a measure of the quality of the education.

Why does a college’s brand matter to you?

“I feel that as long as you have a good education and are doing the best you can in whatever college you go into it shouldn’t matter if the college is a well-known college. I would prefer it has a high ranking of course but personally, I just want a good affordable education.”

“Schools with a respected brand and name recognition typically are able to help students secure a job after graduation. So, I would want a school that is recognized so future employers can see I went to a good school making them more inclined to hire me.“

“I believe that the quality of education is really all that matters, however, if you have a degree from a place that no one has heard of, I feel it’s is going to seem less valuable when on an application.”

Email was the only channel in which the majority of students reported that weekly communication was acceptable, but only 54% of students said so. 

Email remained the most influential channel for colleges to engage with students, edging out letters from 61% to 57%. In our Senior Enrollment Survey, only 34% reported that viewbooks were influential in their ultimate decision, but at this point in the cycle, 44% of the Class of 2023 said that it was influential in consideration. Postcards and video chats were slightly more influential, but texting and phone calls were less influential.

Remarketing, digital marketing targeted at a known audience, is still shown to be a better approach than broad campaigns at earning conversions. Most students said that they were not enticed to consider or apply if they only saw a digital ad from a college they had never heard of before. Context, placement, and name recognition may all be at play.

The most common things that caught students’ eyes about digital marketing were the relevance of programs or majors highlighted, the quality of pictures of campus, and whether or not students looked happy and were having fun.

What was the content of the digital ad that caught your eye?

“A specific program I am interested in.”

“The ads always show college students having a good time, and I could picture myself there.”

“I loved the energy of the students and how diverse the school is. Just from that video alone, I’m confident that I have a place there.”

Rankings were equally likely to generate interest in applying as mail from a college if the student had not previously heard of an institution.

The least influential channels for students were text messages (37%), postcards (35%), and phone calls (33%). Phone calls were the only one in which more students indicated that they had no influence than were influential with 38% saying that they were not influential.

Previously 46% of students said that they never wanted to receive video chats and 36% never wanted phone calls. For the Class of 2023, 43% never wanted video chats and 41% never wanted phone calls. 

67% of students said that they would be influenced to visit or apply to a college because of personalized and relevant information. This increased to 71% for both first-generation and low-income students, 71% for Hispanic or Latinx students, and 73% for African American or Black students. 

Besides key topics like financial aid, careers related to their major/program of interest, and campus life additional things that catch a student’s attention when they read emails from colleges included the following–offering an express application, offering a fee waiver code or free application, or lack of essay requirement. Additionally, using the student’s preferred name, the name of their high school, and any other personal details also made emails stand out.

What about the email caught your attention?

“The way they made me feel like I was already part of the college without heavy pressure to apply right away.”

“The email can describe the major I want to pursue or the scholarship offers they provide.”

“They addressed me by my name and provided exciting and enticing offers for me.”

What about the mail caught your attention?

“The pictures, the information, and the gifts caught my attention. The beautiful pictures of the campus and the information caught my attention. The gifts made me feel as if I was important to them and they really wanted me at their college.”

“Good organizations, testimonials from students and faculty, pictures of the campus.”

“I personally like the mail that is very eye-catching, whether with bright colors or someone thing fun that came with the mail, but still maintain being professional.“

“Colleges would put rankings or majors I was interested in so I took virtual tours.”

57% of students did not want their parents to receive information directly from a college. 

Students attending an urban high school were more likely to want their parents included in communications. Interestingly, 60% of home-schooled students and 64% of students attending a fully online high school did not want colleges to communicate with their parents.

The most common information students did want their parents to hear about from a college were financial aid information (26%), a copy of everything the student receives (25%), and deadlines and events (21%). 

21% of respondents thought that a private group or community for students to engage with each other was very appealing and 49% found it appealing. 

7% of respondents thought that engaging with a chatbot was very appealing and 24% found it appealing. It was more appealing to those who were considering 2-year colleges than 4-year colleges.

Instagram remained the most used social network and the only one used by the majority of students for college search at 63%. This was a decline from 69% last fall and the 6% drop was made up by TikTok gaining 6% to 31%.

YouTube usage dropped from 35% to 26% and Facebook and Twitter both continued their decline to 12%. 

Students’ Preferred Campus Qualities and Experiences

Key Results

Diversity is the number one thing students want in a college, so this is the time to showcase all the ways your campus is embracing diverse viewpoints and backgrounds in students and employees. Remember that diversity goes beyond race and ethnicity to have a variety of backgrounds on campus in terms of the types of schools are areas they’re from even. Highlight scholarship opportunities and how to earn them, address campus safety, and don’t forget the residence halls and food when talking about campus. These are all important to students in their search for the right place for them.

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Mid-sized colleges (5,000-15,000 students) were again the most popular with 91% of students considering them in their search. At this point, 74% are considering large campuses and 65% are considering small colleges.

Colleges in urban and suburban areas were equally appealing with 89% of students considering both. Small-town colleges were in the mix for 63% of students and rural campuses were appealing to only 49% of respondents. Just 18% said that they are considering a fully online education.

87% of respondents are considering 4-year public colleges, 60% are considering a 4-year private college, and 14% are considering a 4-year for-profit college.

There was no significant change in preferences for students to attend college closer or further away from home with 57% willing to consider a college more than 4 hours away.

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As with the Class of 2022, diversity was the top thing that students want in a campus community. A diverse student body was appealing to 42% of respondents and an additional 37% said that it was a must-have in their college experience. Diversity among faculty and staff was appealing to 45% and an additional 31% identified it as a must-have community feature.

A campus that values the arts continued to matter more than one that emphasized athletics with 68% interested in the arts, 53% wanting a strong athletic fan experience, and 37% reporting athletic participation was appealing.

Greek life divided respondents; 23% found it appealing, 23% found it unappealing, and 54% were neutral on having it as part of a campus community.

The three most important non-student campus factors students wanted were the availability of scholarships (98%), a safe campus (96%), and the quality and variety of food options (93%).

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The Student College Visit Experience

Key Results

Students are returning to campus for visits, but that does not mean that virtual events and tours need to be abandoned. The college search is primarily done online, so providing resources for them to do some initial research and get excited about a college will better help them connect. There are a large number of students who have not visited campus yet, and requiring them to set foot on campus to feel welcomed and included is an unnecessary barrier. It’s very common for colleges to believe that a campus visit is critical to being able to enroll students, so often students mentioned interactions with current students as the positive of their visit. That doesn’t have to be something that occurs only on a tour.

Only 49% of students said that they have visited a college and met with admission staff already, which is not significantly different than last fall. That number drops below 40% for low-income and first-generation students, however.

Caucasian or White students were significantly more likely than any other race or ethnicity to have visited a campus with 59% reporting that they had. Vietnamese and Pakistani respondents were the least likely to have visited a campus with 25% and 26% respectively reporting that they had. 

For the 51% of students who have not visited a campus yet, resources (time, money, transportation, etc.) were the most common reason why not with 20% providing that. Another 19% said that they are waiting to decide where they are going to enroll prior to visiting. Not knowing how to schedule a visit (16%), waiting until acceptance (14%), and other reasons (14%) rounded out the top five reasons for not visiting. Only 5% said that they don’t feel like they need to visit at all. Timing contributed again for 7% who said that it felt too early to visit and 5% who wanted to wait for financial aid packages.

70% of students who have not already visited a campus said that they are very likely to visit a college campus this year, 41% said that they are very likely to meet with admission staff who visit their high school, and 34% said that they are very likely to attend a college fair. Traditional tactics still hold interest for students.

Only 23% of students reported that they would be likely or very likely to delay their enrollment decision until after visiting if they are unable to. 

Campus visits did matter to students, but when asked about what stood out to them it wasn’t anything about the campus itself really. Overwhelmingly the response was about the tour guides and current students. Students also used words like patient, kind, and encouraging as things they look for during their campus visit. 

The negative aspects of campus visits tended to focus on campus buildings and visits that were done in an impersonal manner.

What was a great experience on campus that really stood out to you?

“A great experience I had while on a tour was when the tour guide asked what I was interested in majoring in and showed me the buildings that my classes would be in. It let me imagine what my life would look like at that college and made it more appealing.”

“When the tour guides are interactive and excited about what they’re doing. I have been to a visit where the tour guides were not super excited and very rehearsed which made it seem like a bland school.”

“When I was able to meet with an admissions counselor, I felt at home. The counselor made me feel comfortable, allowed me to ask as many questions that I wanted, and gave me a thorough walkthrough of the campus. I felt like a student, not just another number on a roster.”

What is something you experienced on a visit that you wish colleges didn’t do?

“I wish the tour wouldn’t focus only on the campus buildings and also spend some time on the dorms since that’s ultimately where I’ll live for the next several years.”

“Personally, I think colleges say a lot of the same information in the information session before the tour that they do in the actual tour, so I’d like to know more specifics on the tour rather than a repeat.”

“I think college tours should not consist of such large groups. At one of the larger colleges I visited, I feel as though the experience was not personable like the other visits I had because of the size of the tour group, and I found myself having many unanswered questions by the end because our tour guide couldn’t answer them due to their job of trying to keep the group together through each area we went.”

“I wish that there was a little more one-on-one time to ask questions.”

57% of students were interested in attending a virtual event, down 7% from last fall. This increases to 76% for those who have already attended one but drops to only 47% for those who have not.

African American or Black (67%) and Hispanic or Latinx (64%) students were significantly more interested in virtual events than their Caucasian or White peers (47%).

Weekend events, especially in the afternoon, were preferred even for virtual events. 

64% of students prefer a virtual event that lasts 40 minutes or less.

Students preferred live virtual events to pre-recorded 2:1 but felt the best events would combine both aspects.

What advice would you give colleges and universities to make virtual events more engaging and fun?

“Have current students from the university discuss their experiences and give their insight about their student life and programs or clubs they have tried out in college, as well as sharing about their classes and professors and how they built their schedule in freshman year.”

“Take breaks once in a while, after every topic discussed, to allow students to ask questions, and be answered in detail.”

“It would be nice if colleges could offer LIVE virtual tours and enable participants to ask questions during the tour.”

What Students Want to See Improved in the College Search Process

Key Results

The student experience in college search is too often ignored in favor of preferred actions and conversions desired by the institutions. This was made apparent by student comments in free response sections surrounding what they want colleges to do to improve their experience and what colleges don’t understand about them and their peers. Emails were too frequent and didn’t offer enough relevant information, websites were difficult to navigate and find what they were looking for, and colleges weren’t transparent enough about the admission process. These were some of the most frequent issues.

College websites were a frequent pain point and barrier in the search and application process. Students felt that they aren’t easy to navigate and are often not mobile-friendly. It took them too many clicks or searches to find what they were looking for.

Students wanted more current student perspectives throughout their college search. This included more videos of current students talking about things like the transition from high school to college, what the first few weeks will be like, a day in their life, and support systems on campus among other things.

Quite a few students mentioned that they would like a well-summarized guide or calendar to stay on track with deadlines and expectations for staying on track with college and applying.

During campus visits and on-campus events, students wanted shorter information sessions that share information not readily found on their website. They wanted to go on tour and interact with current students, and they didn’t want tours to feel hurried either. Dorms were a top priority for them on a tour. More students indicated that large group tours were less enjoyable. They wanted more 1:1 interactions and opportunities. 

Students wanted authenticity and sharing of both the strengths and areas that might be less appealing to some students. Many felt that colleges portrayed college life as too perfect and weren’t sure they could trust what was said.

A frequent theme was around the need for colleges to be more open and transparent about processes and information that matters to students. There is a lack of understanding about how admission decisions are made, the timeline and benefits of taking actions at certain times, and around testing policies.

The tone of the message should match the channel. Students mentioned that they see email as a more formal and serious channel while texting and social media are more informal.

What can colleges and universities do to make the college search process easier and less stressful for prospective students?

“A big part of applying for college involves scouring the internet for scholarships. Hoping you’ll be able to graduate college with the least amount of debt, but then they come upon a new obstacle. Application fees. I can speak for many students when I say it is overwhelming and anxious to pay the application fee. Thoughts of  “What if I spent this money for nothing?” cause many applicants stress and anxiety. College students stress enough thinking about money for school the last thing we need is extra money out of our pockets.”

“Maybe set up a checklist that lays out steps of the college search/application process throughout many weeks to make the process less intimidating.“

“Become test-optional- this will allow students to focus on their grades and essay rather than their SAT or ACT.”

“Make their websites more user friendly, do more texts than phone calls, don’t require us to use apps to talk to you or to get roommates, etc.”

“They can make their websites easier to navigate. Some websites take 10 different links just to find out their tuition for the year.”

“I think they should be more open about what they offer and not just advertise their campus and student life. Thoughts about the campus and student life come after I find out what you offer when it comes to majors, minors, opportunities, internships, etc.”

“Send encouraging words and less spam.”

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.