The tangled web of applicant decision making

There was a time when higher ed institutions didn’t have to worry about exactly how many applicants they would get, where those applicants would come from, or what institution the applicants would ultimately enroll in.

This just isn’t the case anymore.

Questions about the future of higher ed and growing exposure to different PSE options have significantly broadened the horizons of prospective students. They are becoming savvier decision makers with every passing year. 

This growing scrutiny and access to information is ratcheting up the pressure on institutions to provide a valuable education to an increasingly diverse generation of learners and to communicate their value with effective messaging and program design.

Where are students looking, and what do they see?

Today, institutions are relying more on up-to-date data about their applicants’ changing needs and desires. Our internal research has shown that across Canada, as many as one in four university applicants are also applying to colleges. On top of that, Ontario college applicants with previous postsecondary experience now outnumber applicants looking to enter college directly from high school.

The lines separating Canada’s universities, colleges, and polytechnics are getting blurrier with each passing year. This blurring has caused a growing number of institutions to invest in accurate and timely data to see how and why students make the decisions they do.

The University and College Applicant Study (UCAS) is the largest and longest running Canadian applicant survey that goes out to 150,000-250,000 postsecondary applicants every year. We ask them about everything from why they chose to apply to the institutions they did to what factors influenced their decision the most.

Influential decision making factors can include:

  • Reputation (is your institution, program known for excellence?)
  • Academic (what’s the perception of your faculty, libraries, resources?)
  • Financial factors (do you offer sufficient scholarships, are you close to the student's home?)
  • Outcomes (do your graduates go on to get good jobs?)
  • Campus (do students tend to find your campus attractive?)
  • Extracurricular factors (do you have a good reputation for student experience, strong recreational facilities?)
  • Nurturing factors (how big are your class sizes? Do students get much opportunity to interact directly with their instructors?)

Each of these categories on its own can consist of many sub-factors, all of which can have a major impact on whether applicants ultimately decide to enroll in your institution. 

At one Eastern Canadian university with over 20,000 students, for example, our UCAS showed that a) having an attractive campus, and b) the campus being close to home were clearly the two factors that most heavily influenced applicants to enroll in an institution. At a Western Canadian college with more than 9,000 students enrolled, on the other hand, results showed that flexible course delivery was clearly the factor that had the most profound influence on applicants’ decisions.

What can an institution do to succeed?

Every year, PSE institutions put a lot of time and hard work into initiatives designed to get the word out about their offerings and to recruit students to meet their institutional goals. These initiatives can include campus tours, new academic offerings, branding campaigns, etc., but if institutions can’t track which of these factors influence students most, they have to rely largely on guesswork about where to spend their money and effort. 

UCAS data can be a game changing tool to effectively guide your enrolment strategies. 

A major university in Ontario recently discovered that its virtual online campus tour had a much greater impact on student decisions than a number of other factors it had expected to be more significant. Another institution found that a significant proportion of its incoming students were using websites like to determine which institutions they should apply to. 

As prospective students become savvier about their PSE application decisions, institutions need to invest in reliable intelligence to understand what they’re doing well and what they could be doing better to attract and serve their future students.  



At Academica Group, we’re proud to work with hundreds of committed, passionate higher ed professionals who want to drive improvement at their institutions. By providing enhanced research capacity and expert guidance, we allow these professionals to work beyond resource limitations and seize more opportunities to positively impact the lives of their students, colleagues, and campus communities.

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