August 10, 2021

Understanding the Needs of Prospective College Students

This whitepaper analyzes survey research data from college students on Bold.org, along with recent leading studies to help improve your school’s enrollment strategies

How do students decide which college is right for them? And how can you, as a college admissions officer, attract the best-fit students to your school?

Now more than ever, what matters to students is the overall utility that the college they choose provides them, as well as the affordability of their choice.

Take the story of Ronald Nelson, for example. Nelson was accepted to all eight Ivy League colleges and other select schools, including Johns Hopkins and Stanford. So where did Ronald Nelson end up going to school? The University of Alabama. He received a full ride to Alabama and entrance into its selective honors program. Rather than attend a more prestigious college or university, Nelson chose his best-fit school, a trend that is likely to continue in the coming years.

“The typical student does not unambiguously benefit from attending the most selective college to which he or she was admitted. Rather, our results would suggest that students need to think carefully about the fit between their abilities and interests, the attributes of the school they attend, and their career aspirations.”

           Stacy Dale and Alan B. Krueger in their paper, Estimating the Return to

            College Selectivity Over the Career Using Administrative Earnings Data.

The prestige of a school is no longer enough to guarantee interest amongst prospective students, as high schoolers are becoming more in-tune with their unique needs. So, what are high school students looking for in their future colleges? Keep reading to learn what students are prioritizing during their college decisions, and what marketing strategies will help you effectively boost enrollment.

What are the basic concerns of students?

During the 2019 fall semester, approximately 18.2 million students were enrolled in college. Most students attend public, 4-year institutions followed by public, 2-year schools, but there is still a considerable applicant pool for private schools.

Our research shows that the three biggest factors in college decisions are: tuition costs, the presence of highly ranked degree programs, and the social fit of the campus. These factors not only attract the interest of prospective students but can also deter applicants from choosing your school.

In 2016, 18.6% of students who were admitted to their first-choice school and turned down the offer did so due to the cost of attendance. The second most common reason that students turned down their top choice was the campus environment, which caused 9.4% of students to enroll in a different school.

Understanding the student debt crisis

The burgeoning student debt crisis is affecting an increasing number of students, with approximately 45 million Americans owing over $1.7 trillion in student loan payments. In 2015, the average cumulative loan amount borrowed for those completing a bachelor’s degree was approximately $28,600 at public institutions and $33,900 at private, nonprofit institutions.

Borrowers take an average of 18.5 years to finish paying off their loans, resulting in many graduates continuing to make payments into middle age. Furthermore, there are many older borrowers making student debt payments, as 2.3 million borrowers are over the age of 62.

Additionally, more than a million student loans are defaulted on each year, with 11% of graduates defaulting within the first year of repayment and 25% defaulting within the first five years. Default rates vary largely by race, with 17.7% of Black borrowers defaulting as compared to 9% of white borrowers.  

Due to the intimidating statistics surrounding the student loan crisis, many students want to limit their debt as much as possible. As a result, advertising scholarship and grant opportunities, as well as generous financial aid packages, can entice students who are looking to minimize their loans.

Rising tuition costs have made a college’s affordability the number one priority for students. Between 2008 and 2018, college tuition costs have increased by 31% at public institutions and 23% at private, nonprofit institutions. The annual cost of attending a public university is now approximately $18,000, while the annual cost of attending a private, nonprofit institution, is about $46,000. To be able to pay for college, students and their families must use a variety of resources.

As bachelor’s degrees become increasingly common, many students are pursuing additional degrees in order to stand out in their fields. Workers with a master’s degree earn an average $15,000 more per year than a bachelor’s degree holder, and doctoral degree holders earn an average of over $30,000 more than those with a master’s degree.

While advanced degrees can pay off, they can still feel inaccessible to students due to the significant costs. Many students rely on loans to finance their graduate degrees, as 40% of federal student loans each year are issued to graduate students.

The Importance of Accessibility

Another key strategy for bringing in more students is to work on the accessibility of your campus and programs. Student bodies are becoming increasingly diverse, and every student has distinct needs.

Providing flexibility is essential for attracting groups such as working students and students who are parents. Many schools are beginning to create programs to support single parents, such as the Single Parent Scholar Program of Wilson College which provides year-round, on-campus housing for single parents and their children. Keep reading for a case study on this program.

Allowing students to attend classes online can also help both parents and working students by allowing them to do their coursework on their own time. In light of the Coronavirus pandemic, an unprecedented number of students have experienced virtual learning and wish to continue learning online.

The flexibility provided by online courses can make higher education far more accessible to students with disabilities or with additional commitments, such as work, family responsibilities, or extracurricular activities.

College Application Statistics - At A Glance

A well-curated college list is typically made up of:

  • 25% reach schools
  • A reach school is when your test scores, GPA, and/or class rank are below the majority of accepted students
  • 50% target schools
  • A target school is when your test scores, GPA, and/or class rank are equal to the majority of accepted students
  • 25% safety schools
  • A safety school is when your test scores, GPA, and/or class rank are higher than the majority of accepted students


The College Board recommends that students apply to 5-8 schools. Our research indicates that students add an average of 6-10 schools to their college list. Information supplied by the Common Application in 2017 largely supported these claims.

Students who are neither accepted nor rejected can be placed on a waitlist. According to a 2019 survey conducted by the NACAC, 43% of four-year colleges and universities reported using a waitlist in 2018. Of the students that accepted a spot on the waitlist, only 20% were accepted. At the most selective schools, that number dropped to a lowly 7%.

From 2000-2018, total undergraduate enrollment rose 26%. That increase is reflected in the 27% surge in the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred between 2008-2018.

Increasingly, choosing a college is like buying a house. It’s an investment in the future, with the promise of high returns. And like any responsible homeowner, students are looking for a college or university that will provide them with the highest return on investment. It’s time that schools recognize the changing landscape and focus their efforts on finding the best-fit students.

Outdated marketing strategies

Because of the financial burden of college, the marketing strategies that colleges and universities previously employed are no longer going to cut it. This U.S. News article details some of the outrageous schemes that colleges and universities have used in an attempt to attract students to their school:

  • Long Island University in New York hands out iPad minis to all full-time freshmen and transfer students
  • At the University of California-Davis, residence halls have their own swimming pools, spas, and private outdoor courtyards
  • Meal plans at High Point University in North Carolina allow students to eat once a week at the school’s steakhouse, 1924 Prime
  • New York University offers student discount tickets to sporting events, Broadway and off-Broadway shows, and admission to New York City’s major museums and galleries

Another misconception is that a school’s prestige is the most important factor in choosing a college. This 2014 article written by The Atlantic contends that schools that make the U.S. News top 25 list see a 6-10% increase in their application rates. This may seem like a sizable percentage, but that statistic is incredibly misleading. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey of 1,364 four-year colleges and universities found that the schools featured in the U.S. News top 25 list account for just 4.1% of total student enrollment.

In reality, many students are drawn to less competitive schools, with some students turning to community colleges as affordable and flexible options. The average community college tuition for in-district students is only $3,400, allowing many students to avoid loans.

Essentially, amenity-type gimmicks and promoting a school's prestige are no longer successful college enrollment strategies. Students are becoming more informed about their college choices, selecting their best-fit schools, and giving themselves the greatest chance of success. So, how can schools effectively market to prospective students?

Improved Marketing Strategies

Keep in mind the key factors in a student’s college decision: affordability, campus atmosphere, and reputable degree programs. Advertise the strengths of your school in each of these categories to attract applicants and to entice accepted students to enroll.

Be explicit and detailed about the financial aid offered by your school. Disclose the average financial aid package offered by your school in addition to the average cost of attendance after aid. Ensure that students are informed about all of their aid options, including work-study, grants, loans, and any merit-based scholarships that are available.

Additionally, highlight the school’s campus environment, social scene, and how the location and size of the school benefit the students. Make sure to inform students about resources offered on campus, such as tutoring or mental health services, as well as alumni networks or programs that help graduates in their future careers. Furthermore, advertise well-known or successful clubs and organizations on campus.

Finally, be open about the most common or most successful majors available at your school. Highlight any impressive information, such as reputable professors and faculty within departments, unique classes or programs offered, and any research or job opportunities offered within the field. Additionally, share the success stories of alumni working in different fields so that students can see what is possible for them with a degree from your institution.

Steps Forward for Your School’s Enrollment

Clearly, students are changing and so are their needs. If you want to bolster your enrollment, then your admissions strategies need to change, too. Think about the needs and doubts of prospective students in order to build the most effective plan.

Ensure that the unique qualities of your school are advertised in order to distinguish it from other, similar schools. Additionally, be sure to advertise your financial aid opportunities as affordability is becoming a critical factor in college decisions.

Overall, demonstrate the worth of your school by showing students what you can do for them. Advertise extracurricular activities, campus resources, and academic programs to draw students in. Additionally, showcase the graduation and employment rates of alumni to demonstrate the worth of your school to prospective students.



Wilson College Single Parent Scholar Program - Case Study

Wilson College’s remarkable Single Parent Scholar Program is allowing parents to complete their degrees without compromising family life. This program allows students to live on campus with their children between twenty months and ten years of age. The program has been helping single mothers since 1996 and began accepting single fathers in 2015.

Students in this program may live on campus year-round, even if they’re not taking classes during the summer. Single parents who are part of the program live in two-room suites on floors with other families. Each floor has 7-8 families who share kitchens, playrooms, and study rooms.

By allowing families to live together and use campus resources such as the dining hall together, Wilson College helps student-parents spend time with their children while focusing on their studies. There are playrooms throughout campus as well as kid-friendly activities, such as family movies and visiting the college farm.

The Single Parent Scholar Program also helps single parents out financially by allowing their children to use their meal plan with no extra cost. Additionally, childcare costs for the Wilson College Child Care Center are paid for by Wilson College and a list of local daycares is provided to single parents.

Furthermore, in Fall 2020, Wilson College began waiving housing costs for Single Parent Scholars. The program helps fifteen students and their children each year and makes college more affordable and accessible for student-parents.