By Senior Analyst, Evan Grenier
Not so long ago, it was in vogue for colleges to encourage entering freshman to hold off on choosing a major until sophomore or even junior year. Prospective students would choose a college based on its overall reputation and campus culture and experiment with course selection until they found something that “clicked.”
At most schools, this is no longer the norm. According to our survey of more than 30,000 students admitted to the class of 2018, only 5% indicate that they either “Don’t Know” or are “Unsure” of the academic area they are interested in pursuing as a major. Not only do 95% of this year’s admitted students think they know what program they want to study, but our data also suggests that the perceived strength of a specific program is five times more impactful as an enrollment driver than institutional reputation alone.
It can be tempting to dismiss the impulses of 17-year-olds. We know that the popularity of certain academic programs varies in each admissions cycle. Just ask an admissions counselor how often they heard the question, “Do you have Engineering?” on the road this year, “How’s your Nursing Program?” last year, or “Can I study Crime Scene Investigation?” a few years ago. In a given year, prospective students’ academic preferences can be influenced by any number of shifting factors, from the highest rated television shows and movies, to the perceived strength of the job market in a particular field, to their friends’ interests.
The variability that stems from these fleeting influences aside, this matters a lot to enrollment leaders. The bottom line is that even if students change their mind once they matriculate, our data shows that at the time of enrollment, they are fairly certain of their academic plans. While students may not declare a major upon enrollment, the perceived strength of their desired academic program is the single most important factor in their decision making. If you’re not an elite institution that can attract students on reputation alone, you must demonstrate distinct programmatic value propositions to improve your yield. The data makes clear that program strength can also be a differentiator in a student choosing one elite institution over another. Every school needs to be able to clearly articulate the overall strength of their academic programs.
Articulate How Your Academic Program is Stronger
It’s no longer enough to offer a major in a specific field. Students are not just looking for institutions that offer their program of interest; they are looking for engaging content that is easily and quickly adaptable to the demands of the “real world” beyond college. Institutions must be nimble in their course offerings and able to adjust courses and add specializations to stay current as demand rises. Stagnant degree programs that refuse to innovate will no longer be able to survive on the institution’s overall academic reputation.
It is increasingly important to be able to link a specific program to outcomes.
Demonstrate value in students’ chosen areas in these three steps:
1. Highlight exactly how the program’s delivery is superior. In order to articulate a program’s value, engage campus stakeholders to pick out features that differentiate it from similar offerings. I’ve yet to find an institution that doesn’t trumpet engaging faculty and internships. Use each student interaction as an opportunity to stand out. Rather than just mentioning engaging faculty, tell each admitted student about a relevant faculty member that he or she could study under. Also, since other students are important influencers, feature current students’ stories, focusing on their relationships with particularly impactful faculty members.
2. Demonstrate that the program’s outcomes are superior to comparable options. In Principal Analyst Heather O’Leary’s recent Wake-Up Call, we learned that career preparation and outcomes are more important than affordability to prospective students. Institutions must do a better job tracking outcomes by major, even if graduates are not working in the same field as their degrees. Outcomes information is incredibly valuable at any step in the process. Other opportunities to stand out with outcomes include career services programming and connections to alumni networks.
3. Target Communication to Each Admitted Student. Mass emails have got to go. Every communication with an admitted student is an opportunity for differentiation based on his or her preferences. These students have grown up with personalized communication—think of the recommended purchases you see when you log on to Amazon. Today’s students and their families are savvy consumers that expect the same level of personalization in their communication with colleges, especially on the subject of academics. A simple welcome from the Dean won’t cut it. Segment yield communication populations based on program of interest so that you can drill into what really makes a specific program great with a captive audience.
Have a question about this post or a related topic? Contact Senior Analyst Evan Grenier directly or share your thoughts in the comment section below.