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How to navigate ‘The Great Opt-Out’ in higher ed

With 11 ‘wow moments’ you can create for prospective students

March 5, 2024, By Autumn Baggett-Griggs, Analyst, Product Marketing

Last week I heard a Buffalo Wild Wings commercial that blatantly stated, “no one can afford college.”

I thought this reference was a little out of place, but as a marketer, I also know that commercials like these are market-tested. Though it was a casual reference, it is still a research-backed reflection of how their target market—including students and families—is feeling about college. In less than 15 seconds, the winged buffalo on that TV spot nailed a sentiment that has permeated the national conversation for several years now—that college is unattainable.

The higher education landscape is still undergoing a transformative shift, with an increasing number of students now opting out of college entirely. Affordability is often cited as the reason for this, but in our own market testing, we’ve learned that there are other motivators steering students away from academia.


Are parents pushing Gen Z away from higher ed?




Why are more students opting out of college?

EAB experts Paul-Anne Robb and Brian Schueler recently discussed the rise of non-consumption on the Office Hours with EAB podcast. The podcast details a shift in challenges faced by higher education, where a college’s biggest competitor may not be another college, but rather, no college at all.

Here are some key takeaways from that podcast:

  • Affordability isn’t the sole culprit of non-consumption.
  • Higher-income households are increasingly more likely to opt out of college.
  • Many students feel driven to pursue alternatives because of social media influence.
  • There are still multiple ways to engage with students who may not opt into the traditional enrollment processes.
  • “Wow moments” are more important than ever.

Listen to the full episode

The significance of ‘wow moments’

As today’s students progress through the proverbial enrollment funnel, many are still looking for traditional information from colleges on programs, cost, and value. But, for those on the fence about college, they’re most notably seeking interactions that make them feel good.

  • From the podcast

    “[R]esearch that we’ve looked at across, inside, and outside of higher ed suggests that actually changing behavior requires creating much more of these positive, unique memories. How do we bring [the ‘wow moments’ that already exist on campus] into our enrollment funnel so that we can help shift those behaviors, help make those changes and help these prospects see, “Wow, college is a place for me, college is a place where I could gain a lot, benefit a lot, and it could help me throughout my life.”
    -Brian Schueler, EAB Office Hours Podcast, Episode 180

Creating “wow moments” for prospective students is a familiar imperative for many of us who have worked in college enrollment. Now, because of the hostile culture around the value of higher ed (remember the buffalo?), it is more important than ever that these moments happen for every prospective and admitted student.

If you’re looking for inspiration, I’ve compiled a list of 11 ideas and resources that can help you and your team reinvigorate these exciting moments for prospective undergraduate students. These activities can help you engage today’s prospective students, address their top concerns about college, and generate positive, unique memories for those unsure about attending college.

Wow moments for students


  • Student-Led Social Media: You’ve probably heard of student social media takeovers. But have you seen universities with student-led social media accounts? These accounts, See an example from Temple University
  • Student Journey Podcast Series: Launch a podcast series where students, alumni, or faculty discuss their journeys, projects, and experiences related to student life. Dedicate time on the podcast to admissions-related topics, like application requirements and the application process.
  • Live Q&A Sessions: Stream live Q&A sessions with staff and current students, providing an open forum for questions and insights into student life and wellness.
    Related blog: 3 ways to engage admitted students on social media
  • Virtual Art and Innovation Exhibits: Showcase virtual exhibits featuring art, design, and innovation projects created by students, providing a glimpse into the innovative and creative spirit of the campus. Here’s an example of a virtual art showcase from Salt Lake City Community College.
  • Virtual Campus Tour: Virtual tours have become a standard recruiting practice since the pandemic for many universities, but a lot of schools underutilize their tours. can be much more than campus maps—they are the perfect platform to tell your campus story. Feature student and alumni interviews, where they can share how your school helped them bring their innovative ideas to life. And most importantly, make your tour easily accessible on your .edu.
    Related Blog: Crafting a Standout Virtual Tour


  • Personalized Campus Tours: Customize campus tours based on a student’s interests and potential major, offering a more tailored experience. Feature courses that integrate innovative projects, real-world applications, or opportunities for students to pursue their passions within the curriculum.
    Related Partner resource: Campus Visit Resource Center
  • Fly-In Campus Visits: Fly-in programs and all-access weekends give prospective students and their parents an opportunity to explore campus, meet staff and students, and envision their potential life on-campus. These are especially impactful for traditionally underserved students.
    Listen to one student’s memorable fly-in weekend experience on the EAB Office Hours Podcast.
  • Faculty-Led Sessions and Road Shows: Conduct webinars led by faculty members, discussing program highlights and answering questions. Additionally, support and join faculty visiting nearby high schools to get students excited about their area of study. Here’s a great example of a faculty member making an impression on prospective students during a road show.
    Related Partner Resource: Campus Partner Primer



Wow moments for parents and families

Today’s parents want to be more involved, and there are opportunities to “wow” them, too. Here are a few activities you can include in your recruitment plan to impress and engage parents:

  • Customized Information Packages: Provide personalized information packages for parents that include details about academic programs, campus resources, and success stories relevant to the student’s intended major.
    Related Insight Paper: Engaging Students’ #1 Influencer in Recruitment
  • Family-inclusive Campus Tours: Offer campus tours that cater to student aspirations, allowing parents and family to witness firsthand the environment where their child will thrive. Also consider offering after-hours tours to include working parents.
    Related insight paper: Supporting Parents of First-Generation Students
  • Family-Friendly Campus Events: Plan family-oriented events on campus, such as parent appreciation days and family weekends, where parents can engage in activities, meet faculty, and form connections with other families. A great example of this is Aggieland Saturday at Texas A&M University. This event provides opportunities for family members, including younger siblings, to connect with the university. Check out their 2024 event agenda for more details.

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Autumn Baggett-Griggs

Autumn Baggett-Griggs

Analyst, Product Marketing

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