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Insights from EAB's Latest Survey of College Freshmen

Episode 107

June 7, 2022 31 minutes


Pam Royall joins Madeleine Rhyneer to examine findings from EAB’s most recent survey of first-year college students. The two discuss what the survey tells us about overall student satisfaction with the college experience and about the impacts of test-optional policies on application activity.

They also highlight survey findings that show parents have greater influence over their children’s college search process than they did just a few years ago.



0:00:12.7 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to office hours with EAB. As another semester comes to an end and university leaders are hopefully taking some well-earned time off, two of our top enrollment experts join us to highlight findings from EAB’s latest survey of nearly 5000 Gen Z students, most of whom just finished their first year of college. The survey told us a lot about the impact of test optional policies on application activity, about overall student satisfaction with the college experience and about the direct connection between college costs and where or whether students pursue a college degree. There’s a lot to unpack here, so give these folks a listen and enjoy.

0:01:03.3 Madeleine Rhyneer: Hello and welcome to office hours with EAB. My name is Madeleine Rhyneer, and I’m the Dean of enrollment management for our company, and I’m joined today by the head of research for marketing and enrollment solutions at EAB. It’s my colleague, Pam Royall. Hello, Pam.

0:01:18.8 Pam Royall: Hi Madeleine, it’s so great to be back with you.

0:01:23.1 MR: I am really excited to have the opportunity to be with you to discuss the findings from your latest survey. And Pam has joined me today to share her latest research on EAB’s annual college freshman survey. So Pam, to get us started, would you mind giving our listeners some context around the survey, maybe explain the kinds of things that you were hoping to learn about student preferences and how it is that they conduct their college search.

0:01:50.2 PR: Now, the really exciting thing about this project is that we’re asking students during their first semester on college campuses to reflect back on what their college search process looked like. In part we’re trying to see to what extent what colleges and universities are doing during their recruitment and enrollment cycles are in fact setting expectations that can be met for students when they’re on campus. We started doing this study in 2015, and originally, we were going to do it every other year, but because of the pandemic, like so many other things that we are wanting to monitor throughout this extraordinary set of circumstances, we have been doing it annually since 2019. So we’ve done a number of these studies, and in this case, in 2022, we can reflect back on historic trends, particularly those that encompass the pandemic years.

0:02:55.9 PR: We’ve got over 4800 students that have responded to this survey, so a lot of data and that combined with the one and a half billion observations we have from the programs that we run for our partner institutions, we’ve got a lot of insight into what students are thinking, but perhaps more importantly, what they’re actually doing.

0:03:22.0 MR: So Pam, I really appreciate that. That’s one of the things I think is the power of EAB. It’s we not only understand through the survey work that you and others do what people tell us that they’re doing, but we actually get to see them do it in real time, and I love in particular this new college freshman survey, because students are actually reflecting back and before they were telling us what they thought they were gonna do, and now they’ve actually told us, what they did, and I feel like there’s some really rich nuggets in here, not just for enrollment leaders, but for campus leaders across the country, as they’re thinking about what are the most effective ways to meet students where they are and serve their needs. So actually the mic drop moment for me in your survey was one of the pieces of information at the end where you were measuring student satisfaction.

0:04:07.9 MR: So how happy am I with my choice of college where I’m currently enrolled? And the great news is, I think, is that the high student satisfaction level has returned to the pre-pandemic 2019 level, because we know that students were not thrilled a year ago with their virtual kind of experience. But then what I also think about is, it’s great that about 37% say, “Oh my gosh, I’m so happy, I love where I’m going to school,” but there’s a whole bunch of people in the middle that they don’t love it, they don’t hate it, it’s the enrollment version of the murky middle. Could you talk a little bit about that? What do you think are the important takeaways from student satisfaction and what might that mean going forward?

0:04:48.9 PR: I think one of the really important things for us to consider is the role of our current students on campus. They are a great source of intel for prospective students. They’re really the best way for us to demonstrate kind of the authentic experience of a student for those in high school that are considering a college pathway. They are authentic and they’re not being effusive, everything is perfect here, everything is perfect here. Students don’t expect that. They wanna know the good, the bad and the ugly, when they talk to us about their college opportunities. They are looking for their counselors, their teachers, their classmates that are ahead of them to tell them what it’s really like, and I think that’s where we see the 60% that are saying, “Well, it’s not perfect, nor am I completely down on this because I’ve already made a decision I’m going to abandon,” but instead, they’re figuring out ways to make the most of the experience, yet, we all recognize that they are vulnerable to recruitment, they are not recruited once, they are recruited throughout the entire enrollment period, so every student on your campus is somebody that you need to be thinking about in terms of satisfaction and retention efforts.

0:06:29.8 MR: So I love the way you put that. It was very graceful. I call them flight risks because when you think about the change in the NACAC regulation, so imagine if I’m a student who is like, I don’t hate my school, but I’m not a 100%, I’m not wildly satisfied either, and I get a message from a school that I’d applied to a previous year, and they say, “Hey, Madeleine we hope that you are and having the college experience of your dreams and that you’re uber happy and everything is all that you hope for and more, but if you’re not, we wanna let you know that we will make just so simple for you to transfer and will reinstate the aid package that you had a year ago, and blah, blah, blah, y’all come back.” And I’m thinking, I know as an economist there are switching costs. When you’ve made a decision, you really do wanna make it work, because if you decide to transfer, you have to kinda start all over, you have to make new friends and in a place where people already have friends ’cause you’d be joining as an upper classman, but I think of them as flight risks, and I like the way that you describe it, that they’re authentic but that people need to pay attention.

0:07:39.4 MR: I often think that you’re actually re-recruiting your students each year, even for the currently enrolled. You need to continue to provide the things that they need to be happy and successful so that they’ll continue to stay enrolled.

0:07:54.1 PR: And we also know from surveying high school students that they are looking to these students on campus as an information source, so while we’re managing their own experience, we’re also well aware of the fact that they are influencers and really important ones, because they can attest to that authentic experience or that sense of belonging, or what we always refer to as Campus fit as being a key driver in the choice that many families will make.

0:08:27.3 MR: Yeah, I always think a student, the question they’re asking themselves, whether it’s implicit or explicit, is, is this a school for someone like me, whoever me is and me is a unique individual. So I love the way you put that, that they’re looking to people who went before them, even if they’re not people they know, necessarily, it’s like, “Tell me what you like, tell me what you don’t love,” and then you’re trying to suss out, are these things that matter to me, both on the plus side and on the maybe not so plus side.

0:08:55.8 PR: That’s exactly right.

0:09:00.1 MR: So then, what did we learn from the survey about how students approach their college search process? So looking in the rearview mirror, how was I looking for colleges and what kinds of information did I use?

0:09:13.2 PR: It’s so important, and this is another one of those annual surveys that we do, not only are we interested in the communication preferences of prospective students, but also their parents. And we’ve gotten into a pattern now with my group that we survey parents on their communication preferences, one year, and then next year we’ll do students and we’re in that alternating pattern because this is one of the really key drivers to college choice, what sources of information and what types of information are they gathering. In this study, we learned that over 50% of the students are looking at specific colleges’ websites, huge. And when we think about their looking at college websites, the top search terms that students are using, number one is academic major, and that’s like 82% of the students are using academic major as a search term when they’re on your college website. They also will search by your school name, so there has to be some opportunity in advance of that for a student to be thinking about you, and that’s why the non-web-related communications are also critical, 70% of the students are searching by a specific school name that they got from some other source.

0:10:35.1 PR: They also are likely to use a phrase like the best for something. The best school in the southwest or the best school for engineering, and that best term is used by 57% of the students that are looking at college websites as their go-to source of information, but importantly, and I know that we’re gonna wanna talk a little bit more about this, Madeleine, is the second source of information used by 48% of the students is their parents or other family members. The key influencers, and I say, key, we all know that parents are influential, but particularly now as there are greater and growing concerns about the cost and affordability of college.

0:11:29.0 MR: So I think that that is really interesting. Let’s dig into that parents’ piece for a moment, because especially with the statistic you shared about 53% of students are using individual college websites, so what that makes you think is, and we know this about Gen Z, they’re big into DIY. I control my destiny, and if I know the name of a school or somebody says the name of a school, or maybe I see a digital ad, I might go to that website and be searching around for my academic major, the thing that they’re kind of using as their entry point for searching, so it was astonishing, I think, in both positive and surprising ways that parents were so important this year, parents and family members, and when I say parents, I often use that as a proxy for the larger extended family, supporting the student in their journey to college, hopefully to college. So can you talk a little bit more about how you’re seeing the role of parents in this process, Pam?

0:12:28.3 PR: Well, the important thing to recognize is that parents have differing roles depending upon the family characteristics. So we know that first generation college students have less influence from their parents because the parents don’t have a college experience to draw on. We know that students of color, specifically Black and Hispanic students have less parental influence of the nature that we’re describing now and telling them where to go, why to go there, what the benefits are. They may have a more implied parental influence in that parents may not want them to go far away from home or parents may still have expectations for how they’re gonna contribute to the family, even if they are enrolled in college locally or far further a field. One of the things that we also know is that young men are more reliant on their parents than young women, and many colleges and universities are working on gender distribution of their incoming classes, so knowing that if you want to help manage the enrollment by men, you also have to think about the relatively greater influence that their parents have on that decision.

0:13:55.7 MR: So I really love that you said that because as you’re well aware, EAB for years has been encouraging partners to really develop robust parent communication programs, because we think even before the heightened influence of parents and family members, I think due to a lot of really good at home time during COVID, that they are influencers and that Gen Z students say with great comfort, we are going to college and they’re not kidding. It’s absolutely a family decision. So this notion that engaging parents in the process, providing helpful information to them regardless of their family circumstance, educated, not educated, affluent, non-affluent, to help them understand what are the opportunities, ’cause as you well know, there’s no parent who doesn’t want something great for their children, they want that so much, and I think sometimes some are more equipped than others to try and figure out what that actually is. So it’s a huge opportunity for enrollment teams to think about who are the students that we’re serving and what will help their families move forward and make a good decision in this process.

0:15:05.3 PR: And the reason why we’ve made this a priority in terms of our research agenda is that parents need to be brought into this recruitment process early, and they need to be communicated with routinely. So we’ll often say early and often, it’s not a one-time communication effort, and most importantly, it is critical that parents are involved in anything related to college costs, expenses, affordability, and unless we get that message into households early enough students and their parents will discount tremendous opportunities because they don’t understand or appreciate the fact that it could be affordable until they get beyond the process where they’ve narrowed their scope to those community colleges or state institutions or even discounted the possibility of their child being able to go to college at all.

0:16:15.0 MR: Yes, I agree, that often people in the absence of information and information that’s easily accessible to them and attainable, understandable, people create their own narratives, and their narratives are, you can’t go to far, private colleges are always too expensive. Everyone listening to this podcast knows the things that people believe. But let’s just switch gears for a minute and talk about testing policy, so we know that so many institutions in response to the student’s inability to test either became test score optional for a period of time, a test period during the pandemic, others made the jump to test score optional permanently. Now, we know that some institutions are returning to requiring tests or in many cases, it’s state systems, for example. What can you say about the impact of a school’s testing policy on application activity and perhaps DEIJ institutional goals based on the survey research?

0:17:20.6 PR: Well, the overall finding is that 70% of the students said that they had applied to a school that was test optional. Now, they didn’t say they applied to that school because it was test optional, but 15% did, and that’s still a huge number of students that are saying, I have this school in my application set because it is test optional. And as a consequence, that 15% required that we dig in a little bit deeper too, because it is a large number, and we wanted to look at the effects of test optional on students by demographics, key demographics, like their race and ethnicity, and we saw that it is more likely to influence black and Hispanic students than it is to influence White and Asian students. So test optionality is one of those mechanisms that give us greater access to students of color.

0:18:34.3 MR: I think that that’s a pretty important take away for our listeners, and then I recognize for those of you who work in public institutions and state systems, where they make decisions and you don’t, I’m probably preaching to the choir that you understand sort of what some of the potential trade-offs might be. I do think that that 15% is material. People are looking at 70% and thinking, “Oh yeah, no problem.” And I’m thinking, well, in a shrinking market, 15% is a significant number. And I’m not sure that we know the why of that, but we do know these attributes that Pam shared, and I think for every campus who’s interested in opening those doors of college opportunity to students who historically may not have come to their place in larger numbers, that just keeping that in the back of your mind is really important. You know Pam… Yeah.

0:19:24.8 PR: We’re trying to get more insight into what’s driving that from the student’s perspective. We have a survey in the field now, and I look forward to sharing those results soon, what it is that students understand about test optionality, because there is bound to be confusion, and they don’t know if they should be submitting their test scores only if they’re great or if they should be submitting them universally, if they should only submit them to schools that require them versus those that are test optional. So we’re trying to get a better handle on this, and it’s one of those topics, and one of the greatest pleasures of my job is that I get to survey students about the things that our enrollment partners are thinking about. [chuckle] Our ideas for survey research come from our partners, and that means we’re always looking at the things that are of most importance… Important to the schools that we work with.

0:20:32.7 MR: I think that’s a really important point, Pam, because my observation during the pandemic was there are many flavors of test optional, and you may be test optional, but not for certain scholarships or not if you have a GPA below X or not for a particular major or two. So there’s a great deal of what I would call confusion in the marketplace, and so I think that this is fabulous because hearing directly from students about how they’re feeling about test optional and what’s that really meant for them, I think that will share some important messages in the market as people think about, “Am I really test optional? Am I test blind as the UCs and the CSUs now are? Where do I fall in between?” And we make assumptions that students and families understand what that means, and my lived experience with families is, no, they actually don’t. And it’s not ’cause they’re not intelligent, it’s because it’s complicated, and they don’t wanna make a full-time job out of applying to college.

0:21:31.7 PR: And we also know that’s an even greater role now for all of those key influencers.

0:21:37.2 MR: Yes.

0:21:38.0 PR: But we talked about parents, that there are a lot of parental surrogates playing, particularly with our students of color and first-generation students, so their teachers, their coaches, their members of the clergy, their counselors, all need to understand this as well so that they can guide. One of the things that we’re always advocating for is strong communications with the counseling community as well, and that’s why what we’re doing at College Greenlight is so exciting as well.

0:22:07.0 MR: So let’s skip to something that you actually foreshadowed a few minutes ago, and let’s talk about what the survey unearthed about college cost, and how that impacts a student’s decision about where they will go to school. And what I’m really wondering is, you know, we at EAB we’re also researching what we call non-consumption, people who have just stepped away from college entirely, and you saw that in your survey results as well, but do you think… Are we at a tipping point where people are just saying, “Okay, enough is enough and we’re not gonna pay for it, we’re confused about the value?”

0:22:45.3 PR: I think what we’re dealing with is the ambiguity of what is affordable or what is expensive. The responses that we get, why did you select a school overwhelmingly, it’s because it was affordable, or why did you not enroll in a specific school, overwhelmingly, it’s because it was too expensive. So we’re trying to get a better handle on what it is that conveys value to students and their families, what is it that we can use in our communications that makes students and their parents recognize that this is in fact worth the cost of attendance. And as we’ve seen over the last several years and increasingly through the pandemic, it needs to be something that we can talk about in terms of concrete outcomes, “What do I get as a result of this education?” Because so many students, and in this case, with this study, 9% of those high school students that graduated in 2021 that we surveyed in the Fall of 2022, did not go to college. 9%, and that’s significant. And when we think about that, many of them are thinking that, “If I can get a job right now out of high school, I’m gonna go for it, because it’s something that I can easily assign value to.”

0:24:21.1 MR: I really appreciate what you said about affordable and showing value, because one, as you know, I always worked in the private college sector and yes, they’re always expensive. And I think that in many cases, families make decisions about what they’re willing to afford or defining what is expensive based on the perceived value of their investment in that institution. So I really like what you’re saying about how is it that we demonstrate value in ways that will be material to the families to whom we’re speaking. If we know anything about Gen Z, they’re incredibly pragmatic and they’re frugal. Frugal doesn’t mean cheap, but it means, “I’m gonna be careful about where I choose to invest.” And we also know that Gen Z do not want parents to impoverish themselves with big loans to help them get to the college of their dreams. So it’s all these sort of complicated pieces, but I’m very excited that you’re actually looking at how do you help people understand value, ’cause I think that’s been a place that’s been hard for colleges. We talk about the transformational impact of education, and we know that that’s there, but that’s not, I think, what a family always wants to hear at this moment in time.

0:25:31.0 PR: And value is one of those messaging opportunities for an institution to uniquely position itself, so there’s a competitive advantage in describing what it is that you bring in terms of value to a student or the specific outcomes that you can guarantee as the pathway that these students will follow as a consequence of enrolling at your institution.

0:25:57.9 MR: Exactly right. So, Pam, as you look over sort of the entirety of the survey, what are a couple of key actionable takeaways that you’d wanna share with our listeners today to really make real, the insights that you gained through the research work that you did in this survey?

0:26:18.6 PR: Several of them are the things that we did have a chance to talk about, and the idea that young people are self-directed or self-service in their approach to college search, and we can help them by recognizing some of the data that I shared regarding the search strategy, the search terms that are used when they go to websites. If we look at academic programs and ask ourselves, “Are they truly searchable on our college website? And do they in fact resonate with what it is students might be looking for?” And I have lots of age-old examples of how the way we call programs, name programs on our college campuses are really working against us in terms of students identifying opportunities. They can’t find the program because of the way it’s named or labeled.

0:27:21.8 PR: I also think that this parent communication is something that we need to be thinking about with our enrollment strategies, that parents have told us not only do they welcome specific communications targeted to them, but they also wanna see what it is that you’re telling their son or daughter. They want to be privy to that conversation, those insights, they wanna be part and parcel of that conversation that you’re having with their child because of their critical role. And I also think that the point we made earlier about recruitment is no longer something that stops once a student enrolls on campus, we need to think about what it is that we can be doing in terms of monitoring student satisfaction, thinking about specific retention efforts, being mindful of the fact that students are operating as marketers on behalf of their institution because they are a go-to source of information for high school students.

0:28:38.7 MR: So I think that those takeaways are super, super helpful. Just a couple of top notes. Students applied on average to one more school this year than they did a year ago, so from six to seven. That comes as no surprise to enrollment leaders, but in a world of sort of flat to diminishing opportunities for students to actually enroll, growing your applicant pool seems really important, and I think some of these key takeaways that you have shared will really help enrollment teams be able to think in very practical terms about how to achieve those goals and form the kinds of connections with students and families that will be meaningful and help them make the good decision, so they end up in that 37% that love their school after the first semester.

0:29:28.8 PR: And Madeleine, that personalized responsive marketing that tracks with students is so effective, it’s really recognizing that when students have a question, we have an answer and we’re living through that process real time with them.

0:29:47.5 MR: Exactly. Well, it has been great talking with you today, Pam, I know we have only just scratched the surface of your survey, and I feel like we could spend a couple of hours talking about all of the rich detail, but we’re gonna be sure to add a link to the whitepaper at the end of this episode. So for those who are looking at the full data set and additional insight, we will make those available. I wanna thank you so much, Pam, for making the time to speak with our listeners today and to share your insights and the great research work that you do, and I hope to be back on the podcast with you soon talking about one of your new surveys.

0:30:26.3 PR: Thank you, Madeline, it’s always great having a conversation with you.


0:30:34.8 Speaker 1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week to hear from the president of Northern Arizona University, Dr. José Luis Cruz Rivera talks about NAU’s new initiative to provide a tuition-free college education for every undergraduate Arizona resident with a household income of $65,000 or less. Until next week. Thank you for your time.


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