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Prospect Diagnostics: How Undergraduates Select Colleges and Universities

In this blog series, we discuss how undergraduates select colleges and universities, the different types of prospective students, and understand the factors that lead to their decision. We will explore what they are thinking, the process they are going through, and the questions they ask along the way. We will then explore the factors that ultimately determine their decision and what we as strategic partners can take away.

The State of Undergraduate Enrollment

Undergraduate enrollment decreased significantly as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Higher Ed Drive states that during the Fall of 2022, enrollment among undergraduate students aged 18-20 increased by only .05%. Institutions that are primarily online saw a slight increase in enrollment in the fall of 2022, increasing by 1.2%. Undergraduate enrollment in community college for students aged 18-20 grew 1.4%. Highly selective colleges saw undergraduate enrollment increase by 0.5% over last year [1].

What Undergraduate Prospective Students Are Thinking About

In the midst of making one of the most important decisions of their life, prospective undergraduate students are likely feeling incredibly overwhelmed–they are thinking about all of the schools they have had every ounce of interaction with. They are thinking about their visits–trying to remember the unique qualities that each campus had that made it feel like home.

When undergraduates select colleges and universities, a huge factor they are thinking about is the cost of higher education. A new NORC survey found that 75% of Americans believe that people do embark on higher education journeys because they cannot afford it [2]. Cost will ultimately be a deciding factor in which college or university these prospective students choose to enroll in, but the biggest thing on their minds is likely what college or university they will enroll in.

The Factors at Play in Their Decision

Undergraduate prospective students face many factors that influence their decision as to which college or university they will enroll in. There are of course factors such as location and program offerings that will influence their decision, as well as the social environment. But there are other factors that play a role as well.

Inside Higher Ed found in their latest Student Voice Survey that students at four-year institutions had a wider variety of reasons for choosing the college or university they did. The top responses were that their major or program of choice was offered, the school had a good reputation, was close proximity to home, price of tuition and financial aid packages awarded. This was in contrast to students at community colleges who overwhelmingly chose based on location and overall cost. [3]

The parental and relative influence will have an impact on their decision as well as influence from their peers and social media. A research study conducted by Encoura revealed that academic strength was listed as the most important factor among survey participants, followed closely by affordability. Career preparation was 3rd, and closely behind was the academic environment [4].

The Queries They Are Using In Search Engines

Prospective undergraduate students are thinking about where they will spend the next few years of their lives. They are going to be comparing financial aid awards and packages, comparing the overall costs and return on investment. They are going to be asking what classes are like, what they learn in their academic program, and if they’d feel welcome.

We published an analysis of a college search behavior study that revealed that academic program pages drive the most website traffic and are the most highly sought-after content for prospective students.

What We Can Take Away as Digital Partners

When thinking about how undergraduates select colleges and universities, higher education marketers can count on their interest in academics. The optimization of these pages and pages similar can have a positive impact on undergraduate enrollment.

Academic program pages such as major and minor pages are the most sought-after content on higher education websites over all other navigational hotspots. Students that apply to a college or university likely have visited the academic page of their interest multiple times throughout the admissions funnel.


Thinking about how you can best target prospective students in your marketing funnel? Let us know, we’d love to start a conversation about it.



[1] Higher Ed Dive5 enrollment trends to keep an eye on for fall 2022

[2] NORCSurvey: Americans See Cost as the Biggest Barrier to Higher Education

[3] Inside HigherEd Students Approach Admissions Strategically and Practically

[4] EncouraWhat Student Enrollment Decisions Say About Melt, Retention, Risk, and the Next Recruiting Cycle


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