Niche 2021 Survey of Parents Searching for Colleges

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This fall, Niche surveyed parents to learn about their school search experience. The survey was open from August 27 – September 19 and posted to Niche, sent to registered parents, and shared in the Niche Parents Facebook group. Results were segmented into preschool searches, K-8 searches, high school searches, and college searches. For college searching parents, we received 292 responses from parents whose child started at a college last fall.

A Few Key Results:

  • Parents started actively researching colleges sooner than their students. 25% of parents said that they started before their child’s junior year, compared to 19% of students in the 2021 Niche Senior Survey. 15% of parents said they did not start until their child’s senior year, but 28% of students said they waited.
  • Parents had less price sensitivity than their students, but two-thirds still eliminated colleges from consideration because of their published total cost instead of waiting to see the final net cost. Half of the students would consider up to $30,0000 per year, but half of parents would consider up to $50,000 per year.
  • When asked about four metrics touted by colleges (acceptance rate, graduation rate, job placement rate, and retention rate) parents ranked graduation rate as the most important for assessing quality, followed by job placement, acceptance rate, and retention.
  • Over 20% of low-income parents (earning less than $50,000 per year) said they did not file a FAFSA last year, frequently citing that they didn’t know about it or didn’t think they would receive anything. FAFSA submission was highest among families earning $50-80,000 at 92%.

Parent Involvement: 

Parents were more involved this year than in last year’s survey. This year, 12% of parents said that they did the college search primarily for their child rather than together and 88% searched with their child. In 2020, only 4% said that they did the college search for their child. Parents started actively researching colleges sooner than their students. One-quarter of parents said that they started before their child’s junior year, compared to 19% of students in the 2021 Niche Senior Survey. An additional 15% of parents said they did not start until their child’s senior year, but 28% of students said they waited. 

Parents obviously are not alone in helping to support their students during the college search. School counselors typically support the students directly, but we wanted to know how parents reported their engagement with counselors. While 49% of parents said school counselors were able to help last year, 32% felt they were understaffed and unable to assist. This tracks with the increase in students saying that they didn’t have counselor support this past year. This was felt most in the Midwest where 39% of parents say the counselors were understaffed and unable to help. Parents in the Northeast reported the most support from counselors with 28% saying that their school counselor worked with both them and their child and 26% said that the counselor worked only with their child.

Parents had less price sensitivity than their students, but two-thirds still eliminated colleges from consideration because of their total published cost instead of waiting to see the final net cost. Half of students would consider up to $30,0000 per year, but half of parents would consider up to $50,000 per year. Parents in the West were the most likely to eliminate colleges based on total cost, with 82% saying that they did so. Household income made very little difference, except that families earning between $80-130,000 were the most likely to eliminate colleges based on the total cost.

The Takeaways

  • You can’t ignore parental involvement. At the inquiry or prospect stage, initiate communications with a request to students to bring their parents in through a form or through mail to the home. Make sure parents know the timeline and important information that can excite them and tidbits they can drop when speaking with their friends.
  • Educational content is important, not just for first-generation families, but for every parent. It has likely been quite a while since they have been through a college search even if they did attend college, and things have changed even over the past decade. Don’t assume they know what is expected of them.
  • Approaching cost and affordability early is just as important for parents. There is a lot of misinformation about college cost and debt, so early education is important. Videos, educational landing pages, and social content designed for parents can be useful.

Communicating with Parents:

Email was the most common way that colleges communicated with parents—92% of parents received an email from at least one college. Mail was the only other method most parents received, 85% received print mail. Text messages were the least common with only 39% of parents saying they received a text from a college, and only 40% received a phone call. 

When asked about four metrics touted by colleges (acceptance rate, graduation rate, job placement rate, and retention rate) parents were asked to rank them by the importance of their use in evaluating a college’s quality from 1-4. Respondents ranked graduation rate as the most important for assessing quality, followed by job placement, acceptance rate, and retention. Job placement rate had the most parents rating it first (33%) followed by graduation rate (28%). Graduation rate was more consistent with 41% of parents rating it the second most important metric and only 29% of parents saying job placement was the second most important. Retention was very consistently rated as the third and fourth most important metrics. Acceptance rate was unique because it had a U-shaped trend with 42% of parents rating it 4th but 27% rating it as the most important. There was an interesting trend with the highest and lowest income quintile parents most likely to rate acceptance rate as the most important and middle-income families most likely to rate them as the least important metrics.

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We wanted to understand what interactions with other parents influenced the search of parents researching colleges. Parents were most influenced by online reviews from other parents, followed closely by interactions with parents of current students at a college. Surprisingly, only 5% of parents said that other parents they knew going through the college search process were very influential. Parents cared more about the opinions and experiences of parents they did not know than those they did during their search process.

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Safety remained the most important factor for parents when researching colleges—98% of parents said that the safety of a college is important when researching and comparing. Safety was followed closely by college rankings, with 81% of parents saying they’re important. Other characteristics with a positive influence were clubs and extracurriculars, strong alumni networks, campus diversity, and fine and performing arts. As with students, parents considered fine and performing arts more important than athletics. The least important factors were single-gender campuses, HSIs, HBCUs, religiously affiliated campuses, athletics, and test-optional/blind policies. While not necessarily a top priority for students at-large, 54% of African American or Black parents said that an HBCU was important. 

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The Takeaways

  • Parent emails are common, but allowing parents to opt-in for calls or texts can help you stand out from crowded channels. Personalized and relevant mail will also help you stand out, as opposed to the all too common form letters and general postcards and mail. 
  • Parents are much more interested in outcome metrics, graduation rates and job placement rates, than the input metrics of retention and acceptance rate. When sharing information with parents, look to the outcomes and experiences.
  • Parents care a great deal about their child’s safety, but don’t forget that safety is more than the crime stats. How are students supported with mental health and is campus a safe place to ask questions?
  • Use rankings as proof points for parents; they again report that they are very important. Focus on rankings and reviews that speak to the programs and interests of their students as a way to let others advocate for you.

Parental Campus Preferences:

Parents were most interested in 4-year college options for their child; less than 10% said they considered a 2-year college, and only 1% considered any for-profit colleges. Parents evenly considered public and private 4-year colleges, each with 81% of parents considering them. There was more interest in for-profit colleges among low-income families than their peers. 

Like their students, parents preferred mid-sized institutions (5,000-15,000 enrollments). Large campuses were the least appealing. Suburban campuses were the most appealing location, followed by small towns. In contrast, students preferred urban campuses. Neither group found online institutions appealing. Parents felt comfortable with their students going further from home again—39% of parents had no preference about how close to home their child attended college. Those that did have a preference preferred within 4 hours from home.

The Takeaways

  • More parents said that they would consider private 4-year colleges than their students, so this should indicate the importance of awareness and outreach from private institutions to parents as a way of earning an advocate for their institution.
  • Like their students, there is more interest in enrolling further from home than over the last two years. Colleges should still focus on owning their backyard, but there may be growth opportunities for recruiting students from further away who are searching for colleges like yours and want to get away from home.

Enrollment Process:

Over 80% of parents said that their child will live on-campus this year. The share of parents saying that their child was living on campus this year increased as income increased. Only 56% of the lowest income quintile parents said their child was living on campus and 87% of the highest income quintile parents said their child was. Low-income families were much more likely to have students renting off-campus housing, not necessarily living at home with family as might be expected.

We asked parents about where they felt their preferences most aligned with their student’s. Parents and children were least likely to agree on the cost of college they pursued. Only 39% said they agreed completely and 40% said they mostly agreed about colleges to consider based upon cost. In related results, over 20% of low-income parents said they did not file a FAFSA last year, frequently citing that they didn’t know about it or didn’t think they would receive anything. FAFSA submission was highest among families earning $50-80,000 at 92%. College major was where students and parents were most in sync—52% agreed completely and 37% said they mostly agreed.

The Takeaways

  • Studies from the University of Chicago and Saginaw Valley State both show that there are academic benefits to living on campus rather than off. Higher GPAs and a higher likelihood of completing degrees are shown, and may be compounding struggles that low-income and first-generation students face. Ensuring that living on campus is desirable and affordable may be a way to improve outcomes for the most vulnerable students.
  • Parents need to be involved with their students when discussing cost and affordability. There is some discrepancy between what parents feel is affordable and students. It’s also concerning that so many parents whose children would benefit from filing a FAFSA did not do so. Early outreach and education can be critical to helping reach these families.
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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.
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