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HE trends: How do students decide to study?

Attracting prospects from a variety of different countries and regions stops higher education institutions from becoming overly dependent on a single market, and thus less vulnerable to economic fluctuations and student mobility trends. It also ensures that your educational community and learning culture is enriched with a mosaic of different cultures, languages, and voices.

Read more: HE Challenges: Combating declining completion rates

However, prospective students in different places can have very different needs and goals, information search habits and decision-making processes. As such, it’s vital to have a robust strategy for dealing with potential applicants in several markets, rather than simply adopting a one-size-fits-all approach.

Student behavior when choosing the right education provider, study location or program is clearly shifting in today’s digitized age, and schools are modifying their recruitment strategies to meet the student demand in the two-way process of university admission.

In order to uncover the trends and attitudes of prospective students during university selection, higher education portal has conducted a study involving over 32,000 students of 192 different nationalities. The results allow us to observe a shift in the motivations that guide the choices of students and as well as the factors that determine their choices.

Changing trends in access to higher education

Researching and selecting a school is a huge life decision for most students – they are required to not only decide what and where they will study for the coming years, but also begin laying the foundations for their future careers.

Economic factors such as tuition fees and cost of living in the location of study have typically ranked highly as student’s top concerns – and still do. The study shows that financial considerations are the second most important factor for prospective students, ahead of admission requirements but behind program availability.

In terms of attracting students, reputation for academic quality, prestige and positioning on university rankings have also been typically strong influences on the student decision making process. Schools that cultivated a good standing through accessible rankings, clever PR campaigns and frequent campus open days have often been able to attract students with most ease.

However, the study indicates that these outlets are no longer the decisive draws they once were. Despite their convenience, a tour of a campus or even the most objective university ranking cannot deliver a comprehensive understanding of the higher education experience.

Above all else, today’s generation of students are increasingly likely to be guided by their own intuition and personal preference. Now, a prospective student’s search is based around matching themselves with the learning environment and program content that most closely fits their passions.

This widespread call for individualization in student recruitment is leading to many institutions finding that their grip on the market is gradually loosening, and it’s this phenomenon that is at the center of a broad strategic transformation that HE institutions must carry out.

Read more: Top 5 LMS benefits for HE students

What are institutions doing to keep up?

In an age characterized by digitization, new student demands have led to the development of less invasive strategies based on inbound marketing, with an emphasis on digital content development. HE institutions are now turning to new forms of education marketing that involve the creation of tailored digital campaigns for both domestic and international student recruitment.

The study highlights that the more a school’s web page or marketing content draws attention to specific program details such as choice of modules, external opportunities or any other unique benefits of enrolling on a program, the greater the influence on the students' decision. In light of this, it appears that schools are beginning to create content that aligns as much as possible with the interests of future students.

Many are also capitalizing on the branding and admission opportunities presented by social media. Recognizing its influence, schools are now publishing dedicated content documenting campus life and events in a way that gives prospective students a sense of the school environment before they’ve even visited. This enables students in the admission process to have a remote and prior university experience, which can differentiate the educational institution from its competitors.

At a time when prospective undergraduates are increasingly likely to cite video material of the university as a factor in decision-making, it is imperative that schools offer the visual information deemed essential by prospective students and bring the in-person, personalized experience onto the internet platform.

As indicated in the study, student fairs have also been important channels for student recruitment, but when it comes to searching for the right university or higher education program, today’s students prefer to find the information that will guide their decision online. According to’s report, 84% of prospective students are likely to use internet research as a basis of their decision-making.

The takeaway

A clear picture is emerging: while conventional influences on a student’s decision are still important, it appears that the more tech-savvy and personalized a school’s offering is, the more likely it is to capture hearts, minds and applications.

Prospective students are looking for a higher education experience for themselves and are less concerned about referral or recommendation. Social media, tailored digital marketing campaigns and other internet tech are great assets for universities to demonstrate what unique opportunities they offer and, more importantly, how they can keep up with the evolving academic and behavioral needs of new generations of students.

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