Every year, applicants and their parents are getting savvier about the choices they make for postsecondary education.
More than ever, it’s not enough for institutions to track enrolment alone. They need to know all the reasons why students choose them, don’t choose them, stay at their institution, or don’t stay at their institution. And they need to track these factors from year to year if they want to keep up with fresh cohorts whose preferences can change over increasingly short periods of time.
Applicants change, and they change fast
What if applicants to your school cared a lot about how nice your campus was five years ago, but now they care more about flexible course delivery, your recreation facilities, or the job outcomes of your graduates? What if fewer of them are relying on your website for information and instead are reading Twitter comments from current students before deciding to enroll in your school? What if the applicants who chose some other school don’t really care about any of these things?
According to our work with the University and College Applicant Study (UCAS), the reason students most often cite for attending PSE is “to prepare to enter my chosen career.” But it is important to know that “personal and intellectual growth” and “to learn more about my chosen field of study” often don’t lag very far behind for both university and college applicants. And the weight of these factors can vary a lot depending on applicants’ preferred program of study. On top of that, all of this data can—and does—change over time, and these changes will provide you with significant information about why applicants choose or refuse your school today compared to only a few years ago.
It’s better to know why they prefer another institution
It’s always nice to hear about the main reasons why students choose to apply to or enroll in your institution. But as you can probably imagine, this information doesn’t tell the whole story. That’s why the UCAS also tracks the factors that are most likely to influence applicants to choose another institution. It’s hard enough to have students enrolling at a comparable institution, but it’s even harder to continue on without knowing why.
A customized UCAS report tells an institution exactly where it stacks up against comparable institutions according to a set of general factors and more precise sub-factors. In the sample graph below, the yellow bars illustrate School A's net advantages and disadvantages compared to School B according to thousands of prospective students.
Unique, but connected
Any expert will tell you that data doesn’t mean a whole lot if it is taken out of context. Data only takes on meaning when it’s situated in the broader environment where your school operates. More and more, institutions are researching what institutions similar to them are doing and how it might affect their efforts. In almost all cases, institutions that hire consultants to support their enrolment efforts will ask how well they are doing in relation to a set of comparable institutions. This research allows them to better understand both the students who choose them and the ones who choose someone else.
In one recent instance, Academica performed UCAS research for a mid-sized Canadian university that was looking to increase the quantity and quality of its applicants. When compared to a set of similar institutions, the school learned that it had a significant perceived disadvantage among prospective students in the category of co-ops and job placements. The school was happy to learn, however, that it was outperforming these other schools in “nurturing factors” such as small class sizes and professor-student interaction. It was clear to the institution's stakeholders that moving forward, they would need to improve student perceptions of their school in the necessary areas.
TAKEAWAY: It is only by collecting data on why students do and don't prefer your school that you can begin to get a clearer picture of what your school is doing well and what it can do better.