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Findings from EAB’s Newest Survey of College Freshmen

Episode 199

June 11, 2024 30 minutes


EAB’s Pam Royall and Michael Koppenheffer discuss what colleges can learn from EAB’s newest survey of nearly 13,000 recent high school graduates. The survey examined the factors that drive college search behaviors and influence student satisfaction with the college experience. Pam and Michael explore how those factors vary by race, ethnicity, and income, and how colleges might adjust their recruitment and retention strategies.



0:00:12.1 Intro: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Our guests today share findings from a new survey of nearly 13,000, 18- and 19-year-olds to find out why they picked the college they did, what they like and dislike about their college experience, and why some chose not to go to college at all. The survey findings tell us a lot about what drives the college selection process for today’s students and about the institutional characteristics they encounter once they arrive on campus that determine whether or not they’re happy with the choice they made. So give these folks a listen and enjoy.

0:00:53.2 Michael Koppenheffer: Hello everybody. My name’s Michael Koppenheffer, and I am Vice President of Marketing and Analytics at EAB’s Enroll360 division. Excited to be with you today because one of the, my favorite parts of my job is getting to identify new findings and new best practices about student behavior, about family behaviors and interests on the pathway to college, and getting to share those with all of you. And today, I’m excited particularly to get to share some findings from recent EAB survey data. Data that gives us insight into what students are saying about their college search process and about what motivates them to apply and select specific colleges, even if they decide whether they want to go to college. EAB’s quite lucky to have a uniquely talented head of our enrollment services research team, trained as a consumer behaviorist and statistician worked for years as also as a university professor and researcher. I’m talking about my colleague and friend, Dr. Pam Royall. Pam, welcome back to Office Hours.

0:02:01.1 Pam Royall: Thank you, Michael. It’s always great to be with you and like you, one of my favorite things about my work at EAB is gathering insights for our partners. And in my group, we do this through our surveys of current and prospective students, along with a lot of their key influencers, like parents and high school counselors. I’m happy to have this opportunity to speak with you about one of our most recent research studies.

0:02:28.0 MK: Great. Okay. Well, Pam, you and EAB have been surveying first year college students for a number of years. Can you start by giving us a survey, a overview of this latest survey. So the first year student experience survey, perhaps talk about how the survey started, how it’s evolved, and how it shapes the advice that we at EAB give to college and university leaders.

0:02:55.0 PR: I’m happy to do so, Michael. We first envisioned this project in 2014, and we deployed our first survey with new college freshmen in 2015. Since then, we’ve conducted this research with new college students and basically every other year. We have an exception to that in that we collected data in 2019, and then we had this global pandemic hit. So we thought we better quickly go back in and assess the situation. So we did 2019 and 2020, and we knew because of the pandemic that things were very different for both students and enrollment teams. And one of the things I love about our work at EAB is that we’re agile and responsive to situations, and that’s what motivated us to step in and repeat this survey right away. While a consistent goal of any of our longitudinal studies is to track some data points over time, in this study, for example, we wanna ask students about their college search process.

0:04:05.7 PR: We wanna ask them about the most helpful resources they used when considering colleges. We wanna ask them why they selected the school that they’re attending, but we also prioritize emerging topics. As a consequence, we often introduce one or two new topics, something different that we believe that we will wanna track in the future.

0:04:26.8 MK: So what did you introduce this time?

0:04:30.3 PR: Well, that’s really important because we’ve been talking to our partners and learned that student sense of belonging on campus is really the thing that makes them click or not with their campus community. So we wanted to get a better handle on what sense of community or sense of belonging means to students. And what we learned is that this is a critical moment of bonding, let’s say, for students in year one. And those that expressed a stronger sense of belonging were more likely to be satisfied with that first-year experience. We also explored what students were thinking about the term safe when it referred to a college campus.

0:05:17.4 PR: For the longest time, we just assume that a safe college campus is one that doesn’t have a lot of crime, doesn’t have a lot of maybe no or low incidences of sexual assault and, and gun violence and things of that sort. But we suspected as more and more students said they were looking for a safe campus, that safety was being viewed differently. And we learned from this study that it was often issues related to psychological safety, including harassment and building a sense of identity through finding people like them on campus.

0:06:05.4 MK: That’s fascinating, Pam. And I wanna get back to a couple of those topics like safety and belonging, but I wanna start with one of the high-level findings for the survey. Because you asked students how satisfied they are with their college experience, and in your most recent run of this survey said that nearly 85% of the students who answered said that they’re satisfied, which is basically a rebound back to pre-pandemic levels. And so I’m interested in your perspective on the statistics. So if we are back to pre-pandemic levels, does that mean we’re basically back, back to normal after the blip of COVID, or is there more to it?

0:06:44.5 PR: I think there is more to it, Michael. Some evidence of this in other results we found is that, there simply wasn’t a rebound in the sense that instead students have reassigned their priorities. So what makes them satisfied is a different set of factors or a different reality on campus than it was in 2019. And I will tell you that you quote, you cited the 85%, well, during 2020 we saw like 68% same year. So we had a, a big recovery to make. My belief is that things have really shifted since the pandemic and students are providing evidence of this, that they’re enrolling because of things that are, different things that are important to them as a result of their pandemic experience.

0:07:41.0 MK: That’s interesting, but also important because if your role as someone who works at a college or university is to figure out how to attract and engage those students, you have to understand how their priorities have shifted, which is again, why we do the surveys like this. It’s not just insightful about human behavior and about our society, but it’s also very actionable. Now I wanted to dig a little deeper into that finding of satisfaction, because in your survey, one of the, my favorite things that you do is you’re actually able to cross tabulate the findings by other dimensions. So understanding how, for instance, different populations reviewing the idea of satisfaction and whether some of the drivers of satisfaction actually differed depending upon who the student was, who answered. So I’m wondering if you could elaborate on some of those differences that you found.

0:08:32.8 PR: Absolutely. Most importantly, we learned that satisfaction levels are lower for historically underrepresented and under-resourced students. I mean, that is key. And in my earlier comments, I was focused on the pandemic, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that there was also this evolutionary social justice movement that occurred at the same time. And in light of that, we saw changes in attitudes and expectations specifically in terms of these differences by segments. Students of color were less likely to name community or sense of belonging as a source of satisfaction than white students. For students of color engagement with advisors and mentors, what we frequently call parental surrogates and other students support services were more likely to be drivers of satisfaction than they were for white students.

0:09:36.5 MK: That’s so important, that last point you just made. Because, again, that’s a finding that colleges and universities can actually act on. So ’cause I’ve… And when I’ve discussed some of these research findings with leaders on campus, well, in some cases we do hear that these universities have invested more in these services with a particular eye towards certain populations and making sure that they’re providing that. And what I wanted to just point out is that there are opportunities here to strengthen and support, not just once students arrive on campus, but even before they show up. So helping them understand the availability of support on campus, helping them see students like them, see faculty and staff who look like them, who identify like them, and trying to foster a sense of belonging even before students arrive.

0:10:35.2 PR: Absolutely.

0:10:37.8 MK: Now I wanted to dig a little deeper into some of the findings about satisfaction and belonging, because there was a really striking statistic that was, to me one of the big headlines from this round of the report, which is that one in three students who responded. So that’s a pretty, pretty large number. They reported feeling targeted, criticized or excluded based on their identity. So one, a third of all students, and if you did that cross tabulation by identity, non-binary students, black students experiencing markedly higher rates than that. And I’m wondering if it makes you think about what’s going on at today’s college campuses about intolerance, about campus protest and counter protests. Do you think this is about students and their perception or about their overall outer environment or both? Are students feeling less safe or less comfortable?

0:11:46.5 PR: Really complicated. And this was another new line of questioning this year, and we believe it’s gonna be very important to track in the future. While the survey was conducted in the early winter or spring term like February. Findings do provide insight into the sentiment on campuses that likely contributed to student protests later in the term. Students let us know that they want and expect administrative support for social justice and freedom from harassment. I mean, two thirds of the students indicated it was extremely or very important for institutions to have a stated commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice. And when we asked this question about what makes a campus safe, 55% indicated freedom to express my thoughts and values without harassment. And 44% indicated freedom to express my cultural identity without harassment. And even more than a third said, a school needed to have a stated commitment to free speech in order for them to feel safe on campus. These findings suggest very specific actions that could be taken on campuses to provide students with a greater sense of security and safety and belonging.

0:13:14.0 MK: I totally agree with you. These are complicated issues and it’s easy as an armchair quarterback to tell university administrators how to deal with some of this complexity. But there are specific things that seem like that they are directions that college and university leaders ought to go. And I actually think there is more, even more dimensions to this larger idea of wellbeing of which safety is a important component. Because in this most recent of your surveys, the first-year experience one, but also in other surveys we’ve done across the last year or two, we’ve seen a real spike in the desire for mental health support because of concerns about mental wellbeing, about resiliency, about some of these other issues like belonging you talked about.

0:13:57.6 MK: And again, like some of your other findings, we’ve found that these issues are even more prevalent in certain underrepresented populations, lower income students, first generation students, for instance. And I’m wondering have you looked at how mental health concerns are shaping college experiences for students and their satisfaction and whether students are really evaluating universities on the dimensions of things like mental health support?

0:14:33.2 PR: Absolutely. And we are asking that question in a number of different ways, in a number of different studies that we’re conducting for this first-year student experience, 61% of the students indicated that mental health was… The support for mental health was associated with a safe campus. And you talked about things that suggest the need for mental health support, but we didn’t mention stress and anxiety. And all the things that go with transitioning from being at home to being in this new challenging environment, living with different people and living a different routine. But in terms of that, that stat on students wanting mental health support for students from lower income households, it was ranked number one.

0:15:29.0 MK: Wow.

0:15:30.0 PR: So 61% did not make it number one overall for the full sample. But within that segment of lower income students from lower income households, it was number one. And that was above the traditional indicators of safety such as low or no crime. When we asked how important a school’s mental health support programs were to students’ college choice, more black and brown students and more first gen college students indicated it was extremely important to them. The best way for students to gauge the priority of any student support services at a university or college is to really look at their communications. What does the university’s messaging highlight or emphasize? How are they talking about these resources for students in virtual tours and campus visits? Where are these services housed? How accessible are they to students? I would encourage students to actually ask when they encounter people on college campuses, the staff and other students, what is being done to help us in this area? And knowing that students are being advised to check this out, very important priority enrollment team members should be prepared to answer that question and do so persuasively positively.

0:17:01.7 MK: I completely agree. I, it’s, so this is something that we’ve been talking a lot about internally with our marketing strategy teams and our creative teams, and it’s something that we’ve been talking about a lot with our Enroll360 partners as well. I think most of us, honestly, when we look at the communications that go to students could do better here. I think there’s a lot of opportunity. But this raises a larger question because one of your particular areas of expertise, ’cause you’ve been doing surveys on this part for so many consecutive cycles, is students communication preferences more broadly. I love this part of the survey because it offers a roadmap and in some ways an endorsement if we’re lucky for the marketing strategy that our teams put together on behalf of partners. I would love your capsule summary of how you’ve seen student communication preferences evolve based on this most recent survey and what that means for how colleges should be engaging with respective students and with current students.

0:18:04.5 PR: Yes. Thanks for the opportunity to talk about that. Not only do we ask about communication preferences in this survey, but every other year we do a student communication preferences with prospective students and a parent communication preferences study. So we have prioritized that at EAB. And the results that we saw here, the good news is that most communication channels that took a hit during the pandemic have rebounded to these pre-pandemic levels. The exception is College Fairs, which haven’t seen a full recovery may be suggesting that interest or influence of College Fairs is waning for some of the sources that students relied on when travel was restricted, and in-person contact was restricted by the pandemic. The resources that they could access from home became a priority. And 2024 results show a somewhat lessening of students’ preferences for those sources. And interestingly that includes parents. So if parents skyrocketed during the pandemic because students were living 24/7 with their parents. And now that they’re back out and about and interacting with more personal…

0:19:34.0 PR: Influencers parents have stepped back in terms of the overall hierarchy of importance, but it’s really important to recognize that students have a full arsenal in terms of information sources. They’ve got their friends and family members, they’ve got their counselors and teachers. They’ve got all the direct outreach that they’re getting from institutions. And this fact really highlights the fact that our partner institutions have to have a robust and multi-channel communication plan in order to be most effective with these students.

0:20:14.5 MK: Amen. Occasionally I get asked what’s the right channel or what’s the best channel for communicating with students? And my answer, which is maybe a little tongue in cheek, is all of them. I think if you have the ambition of actually trying to reach the right fit students or the… Who are prospective students for your institution, for instance, you can’t just try to email them. You can’t just try to post messages on Instagram or what have you. Or you can’t just send no. You really need to think about the fact that different students, different families have disparate preferences and these channels reinforce each other. So I think it’s important just like you said, to make sure that your communications plans, your strategies are robust and multi-channel are omni-channel as what we like to say.

0:21:05.8 PR: The channels that students go to also vary over the course of this process. And we know that students are thinking about their college options for two, three, four years or more in some households. So the idea that we have to come in at different moments in order to be most effective is not lost on us.

0:21:29.2 MK: Totally. Well one thing that we saw in the survey that was a little bit encouraging was the fact that there was a slight and only slight uptick in the percentage of students who said they believe in the value of a college degree, even though more globally, if you look at this survey and other ones you’ve done and other people’s surveys, cost concerns are still such a big deal. And I’m wondering what we found in this survey of first year students in terms of why students selected the school they did, how they weighed the different criteria, the different attributes of the school and maybe how value and cost fit in.

0:22:16.4 PR: Students are hearing from everyone and everywhere that college is too expensive. So of course they’re focusing on cost and even given their number one reason for selecting a school, which is location, the financial implications of that location are often driving students’ decisions. Is it going to be easy, I.e. Less expensive for me to get to and from home, and I live in that city or town without things being exorbitantly expensive? But if we think about the significant financial implications of location, we also recognize these very concrete financial factors like affordable tuition and the financial aid offer that students are getting. Those are the top three reasons that students made their college choice. But so many of us are focusing on how to express that value proposition and for colleges and universities focusing on outcomes of the educational process, not just getting a job at when you graduate, but what you’re learning through the process is probably the best way of promoting the overall value that students are getting for the costs that they’re paying. And it’s not just the financial costs, it’s the time that they’re taking, some students are being really kind of wooed by the prospect of not going to school because they get a job and recognizing that by going to work directly from high school instead of going to college, they’re gonna miss out on some of that valuable development that is so critical to a student’s college career is imperative.

0:24:10.0 MK: Yeah. I mean, I know you and I believe that so strongly. I was just talking to a group of EAB partners about this yesterday, in fact. And very similar conversation, but one of the things I shared with them is that you’re exactly right. You have to find a way to communicate the long-term benefits of a college education because it is true. You might be able to go to a trade school or work in a factory or something and get a good salary right now without ever going to college. But if you look at the 10, 20, 30-year time horizon for Americans when they do do the research no matter what, a college degree pays off over time. The challenge there is that when you’re trying to communicate this to a 16-year-old, a 16-year-old thinks the age of 21 is a lifetime away, let alone the age of 50. And so some of the nuance and some of the art here is how you get Pam’s point across about the long-term value of education, but do it in a way that is meaningful and accessible to someone who’s still in the throes of their teenage years and has a very short time horizon and not that much life experience. So that is something we… I don’t pretend to have a silver bullet answer to, but it’s something we are thinking a lot about and working a lot about.

0:25:30.1 PR: The things I think about is what you can get students jazzed about that are gonna happen in their first, second, third, and fourth year of college. The internships, they’re gonna have the experience.

0:25:40.6 MK: That’s right.

0:25:42.0 PR: Opportunities, the people they’re going to meet the professionals that are gonna come into the classroom and talk about opportunity. I mean, those are the things that are not postponed until they’re 21, but are gonna happen next semester when they’re enrolled on campus for the first time.

0:26:00.4 MK: That’s right. I think that’s the key. You identify the things that are proximate that don’t seem so distant, but that are also proxies for the larger value. And I think we all need to redouble our efforts, those of us who work with colleges and work with students on communicating those. Speaking of what we need to focus on, Pam, I would love your thoughts apart from what we’ve already talked about, the most important takeaways for college and university leaders particularly those who work in the enrollment and sort of student affairs studies, like what should they be taking to heart, most particularly from your survey as a gear up for the next year and the next recruiting cycle?

0:26:44.2 PR: Well, what I took away from me, and I hope it applies to them as well, is that we really have to keep monitoring student behaviors and preferences. It’s not something that is one and done with each survey we conduct. We uncover important new insights that institutions really need to know about in order to direct what they do to respond to students’ evolving needs. I think this is particularly important given that we’re all trying to serve more diverse student bodies. We really need to recognize this rich diversity that we are working so hard to achieve on our college campuses, that it challenges us to be more perceptive, more informed, and more versatile in how we do things, what we say and how we design the processes that we have on campus once we get students there. So, this study showed us that the historically underrepresented students will benefit from added support. It showed that with added support, they are more likely to be attracted to your institution and they’re more likely to be successful there. And that begins with the application process. We haven’t talked about that, but we learned that students really do respond positively to anything that we colleges and universities can do to streamline that application process for students, reduce some of the anxiety and stress some of the unknown, and make that whole process more attainable and successful for students.

0:28:31.8 PR: The benefits of direct college outreach are clear. I mean, there’s no better way for institutions to show students what they are, what they value, what’s important to them, recognizing that they’re responsive to students, that they’re trying to provide a welcoming and supporting environment for students’ academic careers. That messaging is the thing that’s going to carry the day in terms of speaking in a fashion that says to a student, you have the prospect of being successful at this institution. It is a place where you can belong.

0:29:10.1 MK: Yeah. I have to say, Pam, you just inspired me to leave this podcast and then go do my day job because I could not agree with you more passionately. I think that there is both a big need that you identified in your survey, a need for providing more support for helping with belonging for supporting mental health challenges and resilience and reducing or ameliorating, targeting, exclusion, all those things. But there is a big opportunity, and the opportunity starts even before students arrive on campus, which it is inspiring because actually something that we all could do something about. And I’m grateful to have the time to talk about your research and your findings. I’m even more grateful to have the ongoing opportunity to take advantage of some of these insights as we continue to build out and enhance the campaigns for our partners. So thank you again for spending the time together. Thanks to all of you who’ve listened to the end of today’s episode. Hope you’ll join us for another episode soon.

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