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How Higher Ed Can Meet Changing High School Student Preferences

High school students are often challenged when making choices about higher education. These choices are wrought with complex issues, such as planning a budget, choosing a major, making a short list of institutions to apply to, and numerous other aspects, which can make the process daunting.

Despite these challenges historically, students prioritize prestigious schools and seek ideal locations when setting their goals on applying to attend. This trend appears to be changing. According to 1,212 high school seniors recently surveyed by the Strada Center for Education Consumer Insights, high school students are altering their initial choices when narrowing down which college or university to attend.

As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and fluctuations in the world economy persist, students continue to deeply discern the value of a college degree. A thought-process that is reshaping high school students’ goals and priorities. Less than half (45 percent) of the same survey respondents initially felt the investment in higher education would result in significant financial gain and would justify the costs.

While this trend is troubling for proponents of higher education, the results of the Strada report results are not all bad news. One encouraging finding showed over 60 percent of student survey respondents felt they will be ultimately successful in pursuit of their college or career goals.

There have always been a gamut of complex factors involved in everyone’s needs and motivations for attending a higher-ed institution, but this new data shows most students are now zeroing in on three core areas. Based on the results of this recent study, these areas of interest are swaying high school student’s decisions related to attending college. Here are some key takeaways regarding how institutions can help meet changing student preferences.

Institutions must be transparent about tuition

Perhaps the least surprising survey result found students are focused on affordability. In the same Strada survey, 35 percent of students stated they are now looking for more affordable options compared to their initial goals. Consider that, just two years ago, the National College Attainment Network (NCAN) ranked only 23 percent of four-year public colleges, and 41 percent of two-year public institutions as affordable. The good news is, the data from NCAN additionally show that gaps in affordability are closing, improving the outlook for students. However, for most students the cost of attending college is still very much a front of mind issue.

No doubt, institutions that provide up-front pricing and transparency about the investment required to complete a degree are well poised to help students evaluate if a school is a good fit for them. In addition, students are looking to do more from their mobile device, such as understanding the cost to attend, without ever having to speak to a human being. Chatbots help immensely to accomplish this objective by eliminating barriers for many students. Students who are simply researching their options or might be intimidated by the notion of being “sold” a degree program may prefer a chatbot or AI assistant when looking at their options.

Focus on local recruitment

Closely related to affordability, students are reconsidering the total cost of attending institutions. This assessment includes any costs associated with choosing a school that is nearby, as opposed to out of state, or abroad. The location of colleges and universities is particularly growing as a key factor for students when choosing their preferred institution. While some students may be looking for out of state options, 31 percent of students in the Strada Center for Education survey reported changing their initial choice and are now looking for higher-ed programs closer to their homes.

With more institutions converting on-ground programs to online programs, location may become a forgotten obstacle for high school students applying to college. However, not all programs are suited for an online format.

Notably, many students during the pandemic reported being dissatisfied with the online learning experience. In a 2020 survey titled, “Suddenly Online” supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates and National Science foundations, only 19 percent of students surveyed reported being very satisfied with online course experiences. Compared to ratings from pre-pandemic lockdown courses taught on-site, 40 percent of students rated the online experience as dissatisfactory.

Highlighting the benefits from commuter students at an institution may help students see themselves as being successful at colleges closer to home. This is an area of recruitment that can sometimes be forgotten when planning how to present program information to prospective high school students. Often information specifically for commuter students is separated on a different webpage, brochure, or it may be missing from the total sum of promotional content. Institutions should ensure that students can always receive the most accurate, relevant information provided to them. Even if that information is stored on a different webpage.

Help students expedite their major

With the abundance of certificate and short-study programs being offered, compared to longer, more expensive four-year programs, high school students are also considering time to completion more frequently. The Strada Center for Education survey found, 18 percent of students began looking for degree programs with a shorter timeline than they may have originally planned for. An additional 21 percent of students reported looking for a different major of study altogether.

While new modular programs provide considerably more options and opportunities for students, the process of translating a credit to a degree has not become simpler. The complexity of understanding which credits, transfer credits, apply to the certificate programs, degree programs, and how a student’s studies ultimately apply toward a college credential is substantive.

High school students throughout 2020-21 are enduring historic disruptions and massive shifts to their lives. Making choices about college and career goals for all students has become challenging considering the shifting socioeconomic landscape ahead of them.

By focusing on the three core areas of concern and how these areas are evolving, education leaders may be better prepared to help students bridge the gap between high school and college.

Affordability, location, and time to completion have always been key factors for students considering school. However, the notable shift in considering value-driven alternatives is reshaping high school students’ original, intended goals, creating new objectives in mind.