Unprecedented College Search: The Class of 2021 Fall Survey

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This senior class has had an experience unlike any in history, and we wanted to hear about their experiences. Over 31,000 of them responded to our survey to hear more about their experience, their anxiety, and how they want to learn about and work with colleges right now. 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 Big Takeaways

  • 47% of all students, and 56% of low-income students, have not started applying to colleges yet. New England and the west coast are furthest behind.
  • 42% of students have reportedly not taken a standardized test, and 53% of low-income students have not. 36% of those who have taken a test still do not plan to submit a score with their application.
  • 92% of students are feeling fear or anxiety right now, with the most frequent concern of being able to afford the college at which they choose to enroll.
  • 56% of students have attended a virtual event and 79% of those who have are interested in attending another one.
  • Weekends are better than weekdays for virtual events.
  • Students prefer Instagram, by a very wide margin, to look up colleges on social media.
  • 79% of students aren’t willing to participate in a virtual event that lasts longer than 45 minutes. 
  • Counter to some concerns, the majority of students don’t plan to enroll within two hours from home at this point in their consideration.
  • 48% of students feel the communications they’ve been receiving from colleges and universities all look and sound the same. Only 8% said they feel very personal.

Students’ College Search Experience in 2020

The process of students researching, narrowing down their list, applying, and ultimately enrolling in college has changed; likely for years to come. This year, as of mid-October, 47% of all students – and 56% of low-income students – have not started applying to college. On the other side of the spectrum, 11% of students said that they have already submitted all of the applications that they intend to. Even further behind are international students; only a third say that they have started applying to colleges. This makes sense as there is a lot of uncertainty about traveling this coming year or the appeal and safety of coming to the United States for their education. 

Surprisingly, the pandemic has not drastically changed how close to home students plan to enroll. While it may be closer than they initially thought, less than 1% of students plan to enroll online and 40% say that distance from home doesn’t matter in their decision making. Of those who did have a preference, only just over a third wanted to stay under two hours from home. While we don’t know what the final enrollment decisions will be, Over a quarter of the class of 2020 said that COVID-19 made them pursue enrollment closer to home than they had originally intended. Low-income students were much more likely to want to enroll less than two hours from home though, especially when compared to their high-income counterparts.

Students are feeling a great deal of fear and anxiety right now. In fact, 92% said that they had some fear or anxiety associated with attending college. The majority of students were concerned about affording the college that they wanted to attend and were afraid of making the wrong decision. The first makes sense as there are constant headlines about college costs and financial aid packages have not gone out yet. Over the course of the last five years, we’ve seen concerns about affordability grow annually, so this should be a priority to address in communications with families and in institutional policies. 

The second fear, that of making the wrong decision, is more difficult to address head-on because it assumes that there is a right and a wrong decision. Help students feel comfortable with their decision, they need to feel like the decision they are making is the right one for them. 

The fears and anxieties were not felt equally. For example, 96% of female students reported some level of fear or anxiety and only 84% of male students did. Students identifying as gender nonbinary were the most likely to experience fear or anxiety and also one and a half times more likely to say that they were concerned about being emotionally or socially prepared at 58% responding that they were. Household income made very little difference, with the exceptions that low-income students were more afraid of affording the college that they want to attend and about their grades or test scores preventing them from being accepted, and less likely to have concerns about fitting in or making the wrong decision.

The ongoing concern is COVID-19, so we asked students how the pandemic has impacted how they feel about attending college and in what way. Fewer than half, 40%, reported that it has made them feel differently about attending college, and 46% of those (19% of all students) say that it feels riskier to attend college now. Only 36%, or 14% of all students, said that it feels more important to attend college now. Students attending rural high schools were the least likely to report that it has changed how they feel about attending college, perhaps indicating less impact in their less densely populated communities.

Another change for many colleges was the move to a test-optional or test-blind admission policy. This is also the first time that many students and their families will have been exposed to the concept. Just over 10% of the class of 2020 did not take a standardized test, and it will be interesting to see the impact of more widespread policy changes and closed testing centers has on how many students take an exam. So far, 58% of students reported that they’ve already taken a standardized test; but of those, 36% reported that they do not plan to submit their scores when applying for admission. 

The share of students who have already taken a standardized test range significantly, and expectedly, according to household income. Only 47% of the students from the lowest income quintile reported that they have already taken a test, while 72% of those from the highest income bracket have. Most other demographics behave similarly, with Hispanic or Latinx students serving as an outlier. Just 43% reported that they had previously taken a standardized test, and of those that have only 46% reported that they plan to submit those scores. Overall, only 42% indicated that they plan to apply with test scores being submitted for consideration. 

What you can do now… 

  • For prospects and inquiries who haven’t applied, send them a short, personalized email from their admissions counselor – no push to apply. Consider a subject line such as “Wondering what’s up?” In a conversational tone, recognize the current situation and focus on figuring out where they’re at in their college search and how they’re feeling. If, for example, you find out they’re struggling to put together a list of schools because they haven’t been able to take campus visits or get help from their high school counselor, offer them some tips on how to get started. 
  • Instead of asking students, “Do you have any questions?” it’s important to be more direct and intentional at all stages. Consider asking them questions about things like fear, distance from home, what the perfect college looks like in their mind, and how the coronavirus has changed their college search.
  • Fear, in particular, is a meaningful talking point because it’s controlling so many of the decisions that students make during their college search. Those fears and concerns have only multiplied because of the pandemic. Once a student shares what they’re scared, worried, or anxious about, the next step is figuring out how you can alleviate their fear or concern. One of the most effective strategies involves filling in the blanks via storytelling. Provide them with a concrete example of someone who felt the same way, and show how they overcame (or how you or someone at your college or university helped them overcome) that fear or concern.
  • If your college or university is test-optional, explain in layman’s terms what that means when it comes to evaluating a student’s application and considering them for scholarships. And in your communications, instead of saying you’re test-optional, consider using clearer language like, “your SAT and ACT scores are not required.” 
  • Open the door earlier in a personal way that encourages students, parents, and families to have a 1-1 conversation with their admissions counselor about cost, financial aid, scholarships, and their plan to pay for college. Keep in mind that this topic should never be a one-time conversation. Students and families continue to say that financial aid and the FAFSA are the hardest, most confusing parts of the college search. Because it’s overwhelming and there are so many moving parts that contain 301 and 401 level language, consider breaking things into a bunch of single, easy to digest, 101 level conversations based on a student and family’s knowledge of the process.

Students’ Experience with Virtual Events

“Virtual” has become a buzzword on par with “unprecedented” in 2020. Technology had been opening up opportunities for students and their families to research and experience colleges they had never thought of before for years now. This year certainly hastened the adoption of virtual visits by colleges, and many students are taking advantage of the opportunity. So far, 56.1% of seniors report participating in a virtual event or tour. Adoption is lagging with rural, low-income, and Native students. More than two-thirds of students do say that they are interested in attending virtual events and information sessions, so there is more demand than there is participation still. Providing unique opportunities, both live and asynchronous, will help students find their place at your college this fall. Even the majority of students who say that they are comfortable with in-person events are interested in attending virtual events. 

What may be even more telling is that 84.3% of students who have attended an online event say that it was helpful and only 3.9% disagreed. While there has been concern about burnout and student interest waning, they are not. They may be growing tired of events that aren’t meeting their needs, but they see them as helpful and appealing. 

Students are most likely to attend afternoon events on the weekend. In general, they preferred weekend events 2:1. Almost half of the students prefer afternoon events as well, the rest are split evenly between morning and evening opportunities. When planning live events, be sure to provide the biggest opportunities when students prefer, but don’t forget to make them available on-demand and to provide other events to support students who do prefer other popular times, such as weekend mornings or weekday afternoons and evenings. 

If you’re not seeing the attendance or engagement from your events that you want to, make sure you’re providing what they want to learn about and in the format they want. Events should be less than 45 minutes and are best presented as a combination of live and recorded content. Recorded content is great for a la cart session offerings in between panels and live Q&As. Students are the least likely to attend long sessions or those that are only pre-recorded. If you only offer that type of content, you’re best off putting it on YouTube or a landing page that can be accessed at any time, not behind a lead capture form.

Students most want to hear about student life, financial aid, student housing, or what you consider for acceptance. They are least interested in hearing about arts and athletics opportunities, but that shouldn’t deter you from holding smaller targeted events for those students to speak directly to their interest. By holding more focused events you should also be able to better engage students and ensure a better experience for faculty and current students who are involved as well. Students want to engage and ask questions, only 2.9% said that they would not be comfortable asking questions. Most students said that they would prefer to ask questions and connect with their counselor after the event rather than asking during a live chat or video during the session. Only a third of students reported that would be their preferred way of engaging and having questions answered. So when planning events and info sessions, build in a follow up from counselors to connect and talk more rather than pressuring students to engage during the event.

When it comes to scheduling speakers stick to what works: admissions counselors and students. More than three-quarters of students agreed that they were the ones who matter. Less than a third of students want to hear from either college leadership or alumni, so no need to bring them into your events. Faculty split students, 41.7% want to hear from them. You could focus their attention on major or college-specific events that will attract students who are most interested in hearing from them; or by using them for more candid recorded content that can be consumed on-demand. 

What you can do now… 

  • Aim to have your virtual events and information sessions for prospective students last between 25 and 45 minutes. And be sure to emphasize that shortened length in your pre-event communications.
  • To help increase registration and avoid no-shows, make sure your pre-event outreach is personalized and explains how being a part of the event will help them figure out if your college or university is a school they should seriously consider. 
  • Segment your virtual events based on a student’s stage (i.e. sophomores, juniors, seniors who haven’t applied, seniors who have applied) or groups such as out-of-state students, first-generation students, and parents/families. And instead of talking about the same three or four things each time, shape your content based on your audience and the issues they’re dealing with.
  • Prospective students want a virtual event to be informative and fun. Consider ditching the PowerPoint slides and “fluff,” and focusing more on storytelling. Along with that, think about incorporating a short, low-pressure activity. Finally, remember that your speakers need to be excited and authentic, not robotic sounding and scripted.
  • Incorporate more visuals (pictures and videos) related to what’s being talked about during the event or info session. In particular, prospective students want to see what different dorm rooms and residence halls look like, and where the popular hangout spots are both on and off-campus.
  • The current student point of view is a must in your virtual event. Have those students share things that the audience can relate to and find helpful. Examples include how they put together their college list, why they applied, how they made their decision, why they felt comfortable to choose a college that’s far away from home, and what their student experience currently looks like.
  • Almost 67% of students in this survey said they aren’t comfortable asking questions during the live chat/Q&A part of a virtual event. As a result, you need to have a defined strategy for personalized outreach after the event, such as an email or setting up a quick phone call or a short video chat. The goal should be to figure out how their experience was, if there’s anything they were hoping to hear about but didn’t, and if they’re ready to talk about the next step.

Advice for Communicating with Students

The top ways that students want to learn about you, if in-person events and visits aren’t an option, are through virtual events and information sessions or your website. Once they know that they want to know more about you they go straight to the source. The next two responses are in the same vein, but more personal: they want to talk to an admissions counselor or current student. If you want to connect with rural students you’re best off building relationships, however. When we look only at their responses the top choice becomes 1:1 conversations with counselors, and virtual events fall. 

Social media is a popular outreach channel, in part because of the low barrier to entry and perception that it’s free to use. But how do students use social media for their college search? TikTok is the latest shiny object that colleges are flocking to in order to recruit and engage students. Just over two-thirds of students say that they have looked up a college on social media, and 89% of those that have did so on Instagram. Beyond Instagram, no other network had more than 50% of students using it for college research. In fact, after YouTube at 43%, every other network was below a quarter. So if you want to use social media to communicate with and recruit students, invest heavily in Instagram and keep YouTube updated. Beyond that, you’re not likely to see much value if you have limited resources. 

  • 31.2% – Have not looked up a college on social media
  • 61.5% – Instagram
  • 29.3% – YouTube
  • 16.0% – Facebook
  • 15.2% – Twitter
  • 14.2% – TikTok
  • 7.5% – Snapchat
  • 3.4% – Pinterest
  • 2.5% – LinkedIn
  • 1.1% – ZeeMee

What you can do now… 

  • It’s critical that all of your communications feel personal and not purely transactional. Personalization is the number one thing prospective students want more of throughout their college search. When you personalize your outreach, you help create feelings and emotions that impact decision-making. 
  • Have just about all of your emails and letters 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 go-to person and primary communicator throughout the process. 
  • Knowing that email is most student’s preferred method of communication, pay extra close attention to your subject line. It’s important to stand out, create curiosity, or say something that sounds helpful, feels personal, or sounds exciting/interesting. Don’t be afraid to be different.
  • Make sure your emails focus on one topic only and highlight one or two value points within that topic versus cramming in every fact, figure, and piece of information you have. Less is more. Cut out the fluff, and avoid using lots of bullet points, bolding, multiple hyperlinks, and pictures or videos in between paragraphs. The busier and more put together your email looks, the less personal it feels. 
  • The language and tone you use in your emails or when you communicate in any medium should be more conversational and less formal. For example, don’t start your emails with “Dear.” It’s outdated language that screams “mass message” to this generation. Instead, use “Hi <Name>” or “Hey <Name>.” And don’t be afraid to start a sentence with the word and or because, or use a … to continue a thought. Finally, it should always feel like you’re talking with the reader, not at them. 
  • Your email should have one clear call to action, and it shouldn’t be the same transactional push every single time. When you do that it often comes across as pushy and disingenuous. Instead, I encourage you to ask the prospective student for their feedback or opinion on something. That question can even tie in with the message from the body of your email. Make sure the question you ask is easy for the student to answer and doesn’t require a lot of thinking.
  • When it comes to social media and creating content for prospective students, focus on “day in the life” video content from the current student point of view. Authenticity is extremely important, and that video content can be repurposed for multiple platforms, namely Instagram and YouTube. Social media should not be used as a dumping ground for press releases, event flyers, and the same generalized information that’s on your school’s website. 

Will Patch

Will Patch is the Enrollment Marketing Leader at Niche and helps clients with their enrollment strategies and digital outreach. He also shares insights and research on the Enrollment Insights blog and through webinars and a monthly newsletter. Prior to coming to Niche in the summer of 2019, he served Manchester University for 9 years in roles including Digital Strategist, Social Media Coordinator, and Associate Director for Admissions Operations. Outside of Niche, Will also coordinates the #EMChat community on Twitter, with weekly chats Thursdays at 9:00 PM Eastern.
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