Insights for a Challenging Economy:
Volume 2 – Bulletin #5

Five Insights from our College Decision Impact Survey
of High School Seniors
And Three Ways to Think about Them

Maguire Associates partnered again with Fastweb to survey high school seniors on their college decision making.  The findings of the 2010 College Decision Impact Survey (CDIS) this spring reinforce the continued, pervasive role of the economy in shaping student application choices. 

While the recession has officially ended, and conditions are certainly improving, the coming admission cycle will in many ways be the third full year in which students and parents are navigating economic uncertainty.

Five findings from our study reinforce this view:

  1. Concerns Remain: Two-thirds of graduating seniors are very concerned about the economy, with one in five respondents indicating that a parent had lost a job during this recession.  In this context, two-thirds of seniors said their families’ economic concerns “greatly” or “somewhat” influenced where they were applying.

  2. Increasing Private Orientation:  As before, the survey revealed that the majority of students were interested in attending a public college, especially those who said that financial issues had colored their application decisions.  However, a notably higher percentage of seniors expressed interest in private education than in last year’s survey.  For example, 38 percent of seniors with GPAs of 3.5 or higher expressed interest in attending private institutions versus 29 percent in 2009.

  3. Growing Focus on Net Cost:  Among respondents preferring to attend a private college or university, the listed tuition had less impact on whether or not they would submit an application in 2010 (33 percent) compared to 2009 (42 percent).  Students who preferred a private education agreed most strongly with two statements: 1) they would weigh each college’s financial aid package (particularly the ratio of grants to loans and work-study opportunities) when making their decisions, and 2) they were more concerned with net costs after financial assistance from all sources had been determined.  It seems that the “word is out” about the importance of net cost, more than ever before.

  4. Net Price Calculator in Play:  Well over one-third of respondents (37 percent) said they had already used a net price calculator on a college website, and almost half of seniors (48 percent) said they were interested in having that opportunity.

  5. Search for Quality:  The most important institutional quality factors rated by seniors are the variety and depth of courses in their fields of interest followed by the quality of academic facilities, percent of students employed after graduation, graduation rates, and student-to-faculty ratios.

There are many ways to assess and apply these findings.  Three thoughts on quality, retention, and the Net Price Calculator come to mind:

  1. Make Your Quality Arguments, but Make them Specific:  Families are willing to invest in colleges and universities that they perceive to offer the greatest value and return on investment.  This places a considerable premium on differentiating your message at a time when so many institutions are saying the same things.  Specifically, you will want to develop persuasive facts and meaningful stories that defend and demonstrate your “quality” arguments.  Institutions without well-developed messaging systems that articulate and animate their unique value proposition risk being unable to separate themselves from the competition in demanding times or, for that matter, at any time.

  2. Organize for Retention and Student Success:  Seniors indicate that they and their families believe graduation rates and employment after graduation are important college-selection criteria.  A major challenge here is that retention, satisfaction, and success issues are addressed by many departments – from Enrollment Management and Student Life to Academics and Athletics – and are often undertaken by committees.  Unfortunately, this approach can mean that responsibility for retention actually belongs to no one.  

    Ask yourself whether your institution is well organized to address retention challenges on a more strategic and systemic basis, if there is a shared understanding of who has responsibility for retention, and whether that individual or department has the needed authority and funding to make a difference.  If undertaken well, thoughtful approaches to retention can help institutions achieve significant revenue and reputation gains.

  3. Choose the Right Calculator, Now:  The Net Price Calculator (NPC) is not just coming; it’s here.  The U.S. Department of Education requires that colleges and universities provide a Net Price Calculator on their websites by October 29, 2011. The NPC is intended to help students and families acquire an indication of the amount of financial aid they could expect to receive at an institution and, therefore, to understand the potential net price of an education at that college or university.

    As we advised in the last edition of Insights which focused on the Net Price Calculator, don’t procrastinate in choosing, testing, and deploying your Calculator.  After all, 37 percent of seniors told the College Decision Impact Survey that they have already used a calculator while another 48 percent expressed an interest in doing so.  While advising our institutions not to procrastinate, however, we are also urging them to exercise extreme caution in choosing the right calculator.  As indicated in the previous Insights, for example, we have concerns about the accuracy of Department of Education’s Net Price Calculator template. This concern is especially true for colleges and universities with even the most modest measure of sophistication or variance in financial aid awarding practices.

Taking the Good with the Bad

The results from the 2010 College Decision Impact Survey remind us of the sobering times we have all experienced over the last several years.  Students and their families remain justifiably concerned about the economy and cautious in deliberations and decisions about higher education.  While the economy continues on a slow and steady recovery course, it is fair to say that the feeling of recession lingers in higher education.  This may owe in large measure to our market’s reliance on two of the most lagging of lagging indicators, employment and credit.

Still, we find encouragement in the growing level of sophistication being displayed by students and parents.  They are emerging from the economic crisis with a greater understanding of net cost, greater focus on matters of retention and student success, and greater engagement with tools such as the Net Price Calculator.  Better informed and more highly engaged consumers emerge from most every economic downturn, and today is no exception.  The key question becomes whether colleges and universities view this change as a problem or an opportunity.

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