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How to Reach “Gen P” Students

Episode 182

February 6, 2024 26 minutes


EAB’s Tara Zirkel and Grace Anderson discuss a recent EAB survey that highlighted ways that pandemic disruptions continue to influence the college search process, as well as student preferences and academic readiness. The two focus on six key themes that emerged from the survey that are important for community college leaders to understand. They also offer tips on how they might adjust their approach to better serve students who may be thinking about taking classes during or after high school.


0:00:00.3 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today we’re going to be talking about ‘Gen P’ students. Those teenagers whose lives and education were most heavily impacted by the pandemic. Specifically, we’re going to examine how their college search behaviors and preferences have changed with a particular focus on how they view community colleges. So give these folks a listen and enjoy.

0:00:34.0 Grace Anderson: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Grace Anderson and I’m a director on EAB’s Technology Team. One of the primary areas of focus for my research is how colleges are designing a modern student experience to stay competitive. Recently EAB has done significant research into how the pandemic shifted the attitudes and behaviors of students who are thinking about applying to colleges. During the most intense phases of the pandemic student search behaviors changed dramatically in response to high school and college closures, fears about health and safety and increased financial hardships for families. With the darkest days of the pandemic now behind us we’ve been working to sift through which changes in student behavior were pandemic era blips and which are likely to be long lasting. Today we’re going to focus our discussion on how those changes are impacting community colleges and we’re going to talk about what leaders at two-year institutions should be doing differently to recruit who we’re calling ‘Gen P’ students. Those who were heavily impacted by the pandemic disruptions. So with me today to explore this topic is my colleague Tara Zirkel. Tara, could you introduce yourself and tell the folks listening what you do here at EAB?

0:01:50.7 Tara Zirkel: Thank you Grace so much. My name is Tara Zirkel. I’m the director of strategic research here at EAB and I have a focus on community colleges. My role here is really to research both promising practices and trends that are influencing how the two-year sector does business.

0:02:06.8 GA: Great, thank you. And could you share a little bit of background on the study that EAB conducted that produced the stats we’re going to be talking about today?

0:02:13.5 TZ: Grace I’d be happy to talk about that. So in early 2023 we surveyed more than 20,000 high school students from all over the country to learn more about their attitudes towards college, their college search habits and their preferences for how colleges interact with them. We supplemented these findings with research of how high school guidance counselors are perceiving students, surveys from parents data analysis from our Enroll360 partners and interviews with college enrollment teams. So one thing that I’ve been doing is actually looking at students who were part of this survey who expressed an interest in applying to a community college after they graduate high school. Today we’re going to focus on how leaders from two-year institutions might adjust their approach to account for changing attitudes and behaviors among students who are at least considering attending a community college.

0:03:07.0 GA: Thanks. And I know there’s so much rich data in this study but if there was one smoking gun finding from the survey that community college leaders need to understand what would you say that was?

0:03:25.7 TZ: Really good question so I think the biggest learning that I had was that flexible options are increasingly important and there was some variability among the students we focused on. So we kind of focused on three groups. Students who were fully committed to applying to a two-year school. Students who were considering applying to both two-year and four-year schools and students who were only considering four-year institutions. So one thing that was really interesting was of the students who are considering community college across the board 56% of them want at least some of their courses to be online compared to 40% of students who aren’t considering community college. And this is kind of actually I think a win for two-year institutions because this says to me that high school students associate community colleges with flexible options which is a good thing because we’ve invested so much time and effort into sort of evolving our online offerings. It’s also maybe a good thing because we already see this drive for online learning being reflected in current enrollment rates where we’re seeing growth in online enrollment in two-year institutions in Colorado and Virginia and other places across the country. We also saw in the survey that two-year prospects ranked overall flexibility higher than their peers. And this means interest in hybrid courses, part-time offerings, weekend offerings, evening offerings.

0:04:48.2 TZ: And what I think is really interesting about this is if anyone listening has spent any amount of time on any community college campus when we think about flexibility it’s often framed as something for in air quotes “adult students” or in air quotes “non-traditional students.” What’s really interesting is that we see two-year students… I’m sorry high school students really becoming more interested in this modality that’s really been earmarked as this thing that hasn’t been for them. So I think a good learning from this is that two-year institutions really need to frame online learning and flexibility as something that’s for everyone not just for the 30-year-old student, the 40-year-old student who’s maybe balancing young children and work. This is something that the 16-year-old student wants as well.

0:05:38.7 GA: That’s so interesting. What would you say are some other top findings from the survey?

0:05:42.2 TZ: Yes good question. So I’d say beyond this desire for flexibility there’s five additional themes that we teased out. So the first one being that students are eager for personalized attention. Second being affordability is still a top concern. The third being that students need a FAFSA support system. And I’ll stress on this one that we launched this survey prior to the current state of affairs where we are with the FAFSA. So really interesting things that we learn there. And then lastly students are career motivated but academically unprepared. And also that students who are considering two-year institutions some are more or less engaged with the college search process.

0:06:26.8 GA: Those are all fascinating. So let’s dive right in. You mentioned personalized attention. What kinds of personal attention are students looking for?

0:06:40.0 TZ: Yes, so we really saw three different things emerge. So the first being that well let’s say overall two-year students were more likely to value spaces where they can potentially have one-on-one access to educators. So the first thing we saw is that these students were more likely to value smaller class sizes than their peers who are interested in four-year institutions. And again I think this is good news for two-year schools because we already do this really well and our class sizes already trend on the smaller side. So good news for us. The second thing that they reveal to us is when we toss them about what kind of recruitment events would they want to attend a large on-campus event, a small on-campus event, events that were close to home. And really what students told us is they wanted smaller events that were close to home. They didn’t want to be on campus with hundreds of people, they wanted to be on campus with maybe 50 people or they wanted to have maybe some hybrid offerings. And I think that’s really important to know because what it signals to me is they want these smaller spaces where they could potentially build stronger connections with the institution but maybe also interact with their peers. If there’s 20 of us in a room it’s easier to kind of make a friend which I think is something that’s really important for our students.

0:08:00.5 TZ: So again, that personalized interpersonal attention something that they’re really seeming to seek. And I think the last thing that we learned about personalized attention is that these students or students aspiring to attend a two-year institution were less likely to use their parents as a resource during their college search process. They were actually 20% less likely compared to their four-year aspiring peers. And where I think that fits into the personalized support sort of narrative is that when that home support or family or parental support is not there the institution then fills in and offers those supports to students. So we need to be really mindful that many of our students are coming to us expecting us to take the lead expecting us to be proactive and expecting us to really be next to them during this journey. And that requires personalized proactive support to make sure that we understand what that specific student’s needs is or needs are. And you might be thinking what does personalized support look like? We use that term a lot in higher education and I think there’s a couple of different ways to your schools can do that. And one way that we’re seeing our partners do this is by investing in navigators or coaches who are dedicated to the onboarding process that really walk side by side with that student from the point of inquiry to the point where the student is in their courses.

0:09:26.5 TZ: We’ve seen some of our colleagues among the Virginia Community College system do this really well and actually we’re seeing their enrollment grow by instituting that type of support.

0:09:40.4 GA: That’s wonderful. And I think a running theme in all of our work in terms of the modern student experience is that need for personalized support and really being able to understand exactly where a student is so we know what they need to keep going.

0:10:00.0 TZ: Yeah, that’s exactly right. They need their person. Every student on campus should have at least one person that’s their person that they feel comfortable going to I a 100% agree.

0:10:05.9 GA: Another thing you mentioned is cost. And we know that’s a perennial concern. What new insights did the survey reveal on this front?

0:10:15.0 TZ: Yes. So we know that community college students tend to be more maybe cost conscious than other students. And really what this research did was really confirm that and also confirm that these students are seeking out not just information about cost but information on how to defray that cost. So one thing that we asked outright too is why are you considering coming to a two-year college? What is your motivation? And over half of the students explicitly said it was to make their education more affordable. So the affordability narrative that we have used in two-year institutions for a long time is still really relevant. And some other things that we learned and I’ll kind of go through some little tidbits that are interesting is that when we compare the two-year aspiring students to the four-year aspiring students, here’s some things we learned. They were 7% more likely to list tuition as a top consideration, 8% more likely to search college websites for costs, 12% more likely to search for financial aid information and 6% more likely to say that aid packages influence their perception of the value that an institution can offer them. So across the board, these are students who are thinking about not only how much does college cost but what resources are out there to help me defray those costs.

0:11:33.8 TZ: And I think sometimes it can be difficult to connect those two things with students where when they come to a college website and they see tuition they might get a little bit of sticker shock. And I will say also for our students especially students that are living at or below the poverty line when they see our is $2,000 let’s say at a two-year institution to us that might feel affordable ’cause we know how much tuition can cost in other circumstances. To that student that $2,000 might as well be $20,000. So really highlighting the resources and tools that are available to help defray costs like completing a FAFSA, like scholarship opportunities, like funding that might exist for veteran students or TRIO students. These are things that we really need to put on the forefront to signal to students the costs that you see on the page might not be the cost that you’re actually paying. So really communicating that to students is something that I would encourage us as a sector to really consider over the next few years.

0:12:42.7 GA: That’s so interesting. You mentioned the FAFSA and I know the simplified FAFSA has arrived but I’m guessing it didn’t magically solve the problem for those who still need to complete it. What do we know about how students and families are reacting to the new forms?

0:12:56.9 TZ: Yes, and it’s timely that we’re having this conversation because we just learned that the ISRs will not be released to institutions until March now. So FAFSA rollout definitely hit some speed bumps this year. And one thing that we learned from the survey that I think should be top of mind for institutions is that again these are students who are telling us that they have less help when they complete their FAFSA. And one thing where we have a real opportunity as two-year schools is the survey asked students who encouraged you to fill out the FAFSA? Not necessarily who helped you though we asked that too, but who was your cheerleader when you filled out the FAFSA? Only 13% of students who were considering a community college said they received FAFSA encouragement from the community college. This is compared to a quarter of students who are interacting with in four-year schools. So basically students who are interacting with four-year colleges were twice as likely to receive encouragement from the four-year institution to complete their FAFSA. This is a massive opportunity for two-year institutions to think about when they go back to the conversation of personalized care and personalized communications how do we front load this conversation with students to say this is why the FAFSA is important.

0:14:16.6 TZ: These are the resources available to help you get through it, and these are kind of the benefits of potentially submitting this form. We did find some students who did not complete the form and we asked them why and it was typically because they didn’t think they would qualify for aid. So there’s work to be done to kind of dispel those myths about the benefits of actually completing the form. And one thing I can say is a promising practice that I’m seeing comes out of our partners at Holyoke Community College and they developed this initiative actually before the FAFSA roadblocks that we’re experiencing right now and I’m sure they’re really glad that they created this initiative. And basically what they do is they take students who have completed their orientation started a FAFSA but not completed it, and they issue an alert on that student that immediately connects that student to a financial aid advisor who actually walks them through each individual piece of paperwork that is missing things that the student needs to complete to actually finish the aid process and actually gives them a human being that’s going to walk them through their kind of unique case with their FAFSA completion.

0:15:31.8 TZ: So when we think about I think some of the roadblocks that we’re hitting this year we’re going to have that appetite again for students are going to have one-on-one questions about oof I’m missing this form. Did I do something right? Did I do something wrong? Because it feels new for families and it feels new for institutions. So again just really prioritizing that communication utmost importance this year.

0:15:58.6 GA: And investing like you said in those navigators and people who can help explain these processes.

0:16:00.6 TZ: Yes, agreed.

0:16:07.8 GA: Let’s talk a little bit about academic preparation especially thinking about today’s students versus say maybe 10 or 20 years ago. What’s changed?

0:16:16.6 TZ: Yes, and this is something we’ve been following at EAB for the past few months to maybe a year. And one thing we’ve been really following is standardized test scores for students who are of middle school age around 13 years old and some folks listening might be familiar with the National Assessment of Educational Process or progress some folks call it NAEP. And they’re basically kind of the nation’s scorecard for how students are progressing and performing through their K-12 experience. What we’ve noticed is that we’ve seen some drop-offs in attainment specifically for eighth graders. So we’ve actually seen math scores for eighth graders are down nine points since 2020 and 14 points since 2012. When we look at reading scores we’re down four points since 2020 and seven points since 2012. So some of this is perhaps pandemic related but also some of this predates the pandemic. Why I think this is important for community colleges is for a couple of reasons and here’s the reason why I actually think it’s most important. We’re looking at 13-year-olds. So students who in about three years are going to be your dual enrollment students. And when we look at community college enrollment on a national scale 20% of students nationally who are enrolled in community college are dual enrolled one in five of our students.

0:17:40.1 TZ: So just imagine now we have this cohort of eighth graders who are maybe having some struggles in writing and math who in three years are going to represent 20% of our enrollment. That’s something that gives me a little bit pause. And one reason why it gives me some pause too is that when we ask students in our survey again what are your motivators for wanting to attend a two-year school? A lot of them said one of their main motivators was to prepare academically for a four-year college. So we have kind of two ways that we can assess that students are academically unprepared the data that we’re seeing from NAEP but also the student’s own self-awareness to say I do need to take a beat and work on my academic preparedness.

0:18:27.9 GA: That’s a theme that I think came up in the four-year data as well and particularly the mental stress that that lack of preparation is also creating for students entering college.

0:18:35.1 TZ: Yeah and I can give you an example of a way that one of our partners is trying to help ease both that mental and academic stress. And one thing that Broward College has done and we have this example available in our EAB materials is they kind of revamped one of their college algebra courses and made it a five credit course versus a four credit course. And that extra credit is because students are receiving supplemental instruction study skill support. And this course was really designed for students who showed some indication that college algebra might be difficult for them. The other thing that they built into the course which I think goes back to that personalized attention piece is there’s three touch points in the course. One after an ungraded assessment at the beginning of the course, one after their first exam, and one at the 40% mark of the course. At each one of these touch points if the student is showing signs of difficulty, they’re immediately connected with an academic advisor that can help them really sort through what resources are available to them. So I think this model’s really important. I think this model is applicable to those dual enrollment students that might be hitting our doors pretty soon that might need this extra support.

0:19:46.8 GA: What’s changed in terms of the way that today’s students conduct their college search?

0:19:53.7 TZ: Good question. So one thing that we noticed in the study was that there’s really two types of students who are considering attending a two-year school. Students who are all in all their researching is two-year institutions and then students who are researching both two-year and four-year options. Who have a foot on either side. They could go either way. For our students who are just considering two-year colleges their college search behavior is that it’s coming really really late and they’re kind of the most disengaged group. And one thing that I found a little, I’ll use the word shocking, was of those students who were only considering two-year schools, 26% of them so one in four don’t start their college planning process until their senior year. When we compare those students to students who are considering both two-year and four-year colleges and I started to kind of call them the movable middle. These are students that could go in either direction. Those students start their college search as early as their freshman year and they’re more likely to use college search tools like websites, your social media account, your individual college website. So what this really means for us is that we need a plan for both scenarios. So we need a plan for students who start researching early and we need a plan for students who start researching late.

0:21:17.5 TZ: And I think what this really means for two-year schools is building relationships with students as early as their freshman and sophomore years in high schools could be really transformative both for the student who is researching early and for that student who’s researching late because that student who’s researching late might be doing that because maybe they felt like college wasn’t on the table for them. Maybe they felt intimidated, maybe they felt like this wasn’t going to be a path that was accessible for them. By those early interventions we could I think create an environment where maybe some of those students do see that pathway earlier and it’ll increase their likelihood of actually attending college or some kind of post-secondary education. And one other thing that I’ll say kind of on the note of those early connections and that movable middle one thing we asked students was how many colleges are you applying to. Students who are only considering community college are applying to half as many colleges as their four-year aspiring peers. So if you are trying to attract students in that movable middle we need to know that they’re on average applying to five to six colleges. And those early connections starting in that freshman year or sophomore year is what’s going to help you remain competitive because some of these students have made up their mind by their junior year of what institution they’re going to attend.

0:22:36.8 TZ: So again, really having a scenario for both how do we connect with students earlier and then for the students who are applying later how do we have a streamlined onboarding process that’s going to allow them to enroll in the institution rapidly, confidently and with the tools that they need to turn around that process in a way that has as little friction as possible.

0:22:58.3 GA: Yeah. Well I know that we are getting close to time so I want to close by asking what are the top pieces of advice for community college leaders about how to recruit and engage ‘Gen P’ students more effectively and then support them throughout the application and enrollment process?

0:23:17.5 TZ: Good. Good question. And off the top of my head there’s kind of about 10 things coming to mind but I’ll try to narrow it down to about three. So doubling down on the flexibility value proposition with students that online learning, flexible learning, hybrid learning is not something that’s just for working adults. This is something that’s for everybody. And really trying to change our mindset about who is a good fit for these courses and also who we market these courses to. There I think is an untapped kind of strategy of marketing these courses to younger students. That is something to really submit for consideration. The second thing I would kind of encourage institutions to do is to really think about how long the recruitment on-ramp can be and how do we think about the recruitment on-ramp as something that’s not weeks long? How do we make it months and years long? Because some of the other problems that we’re seeing creep up. So the academic preparedness, the barriers with the FAFSA, confusion about affordability. Those things can be addressed if we extend the on-ramp that students have when they’re learning about the institution. So building those relationships in that sophomore year of high school. So those conversations happen over a long period of time as opposed to a short period of time.

0:24:35.0 TZ: And I think lastly kind of conversely, we know some students are going to have a condensed admissions process. We know some students might make a pivot in June or July where they thought they were going to another institution and now they want to come to the two-year school is thinking about how do we make that onboarding process as streamlined, personalized and focused as possible? How do we remove extraneous steps that the student doesn’t need and how do we make sure that that student has access to a human being who can actually really support them and guide them along the way? I think those are probably my key three recommendations. And I’ll also say in the paper associated with this project there’s a number of recommendations for each one of these topics.

0:25:28.5 GA: Well you mentioned the paper. I’m going to give you a chance to tell people where to find it at the end. But thank you so much Tara for your time today. You managed to pack a lot of information and great advice into a short amount of time. So can you tell people where they can learn more about your research?

0:25:48.8 TZ: Yes. So the full paper is available at and it’s called Supporting ‘Gen P’ what we know about the next generation of community college learners. And I will say also in a few weeks we’re going to have a blog that comes out that accompanies this that talks specifically about that movable middle dynamic. So those students who are kind of on the fence between a two-year and four-year institution and specifically what we learned about them.

0:26:14.1 GA: Well I really look forward to reading that. Thanks again Tara. It was wonderful talking to you.

0:26:14.3 S1: Thanks again Grace. I had a great time.


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