Using Market Research to Improve Communication with Prospective Students

by Christopher Small

Want to know the best way to communicate with prospective students? Good luck! We are frequently asked questions such as, "should we put our money into a Web site or a view book?" or," what's better a personal letter or a nice brochure?" etc. In an attempt to provide more definitive answers to such questions, we turn to the surveys that GDA Research does annually with approximately 10,000 college-bound students. We often ask a series of questions about the impact of various communication methods on the student's college decision-making process. Not surprisingly, just as there is no universal student, there is no single, best way to communicate with all prospective students. Gender, academic ability, major field of interest and type of institution as well as individual personal and demographic differences often determine the best communication mix to use.

Below, we look at some of the things we have learned about what students are looking for in their communication with colleges, and some of the strategies that colleges can employ to enhance the effectiveness of their communication with prospective students.


More and more colleges are turning to advertising in the mass media to attract students. While this is a necessity for reaching non-traditional students, it has little impact on the traditional age college-bound students. In fact, in all our studies, more than ninety-five percent of the traditional age students said they had never requested information from a college after they had heard a radio or television commercial or newspaper advertisement. Save your money and try other means like direct mail - especially if you work at a private institution. Students who eventually enroll in a private institution are more than three times as likely to say they learned of their college through unsolicited mail sent to the home than media advertising. We all know that most prospective students are introduced to their college choices through word-of-mouth. However, about two of ten students who enroll in private institutions compared to about five percent of those who enroll in state-supported institutions first learned of their final college choice through direct mail.

Talk To Me

Our research shows that regular and varied personal contact with students during the college search process pays dividends. One fourth of the students we interview say personal correspondence from the admission counselor had a great impact on their decision to apply to an institution. Seventy-five percent tell us they prefer a personal letter to a printed pamphlet.

Despite the interest in receiving mail and the tremendous increase in email, teenagers continue their love affair with the telephone. The annual Roper Youth Report indicates that roughly one-third of 13 to 17 year-olds has a telephone in their bedroom. A recent national New York Times/CBS poll reported that ten percent of teens have their own cell phone, and seventeen percent have a private telephone number. Not surprisingly, when GDA asks students in an open-ended question how colleges or universities could communicate more effectively with prospective students, without hesitating, two of ten suggest more telephone calls - by far the answer most often volunteered.

In our research, prospective students prefer telephone calls to printed material. If offered a choice between a call from an admissions counselor or a publication, more than three of five (63%) opt for the telephone contact.

Roughly one-fourth say a telephone conversation with an admissions counselor had great impact on their decision to apply to a college. Urban students in particular rated telephone contact with the admissions office effective, with roughly half (48%) indicating calls had a great impact on them. While roughly one-fourth (23%) of suburban or small town residents also felt that telephone contact had a great impact, two of ten of these same students suggested colleges could communicate more effectively with more calls.

When asked to choose from whom they would like a telephone call, half of the college-bound students say current students. The other half were divided evenly between a call from an admissions counselor or a professor. We also learned that current students have a greater impact in converting admitted applicants to enrollees, while admissions counselors have a greater impact in the stage between inquiry and prior to actual admission. The reason, we surmise, is earlier in the process prospective students seek accurate, objective investment benefit information (graduate school placement, quality of major, career placement, prestige, etc.) thus the preference for an admissions counselor. Later in the process, they care more about what we call the consumption benefits (Will I fit in? Will I like the other students? Will I like the social life?) thus the interest in talking to current students during the yield period.

What's the message? A teenager in the middle of his or her college search clearly gives a high score to the opportunity for a conversation with a reliable source of instant information.

The Web Changes Everything

Eight of ten students that GDA interviews have access to a personal computer at home, with roughly the same number having access to electronic mail and a CD-ROM.

Eight of ten also say they have access to the World Wide Web at home or at school. In our studies, seven of ten students with higher SAT scores and five of ten with lower scores visited the Web site of their first-choice institution. Overall, students give passing grades to many Web sites they visit, with six of ten rating college sites as "excellent" or "very good" and three of ten as "good." Interestingly, despite the attention being paid to the Web site, eight of ten students do not yet expect to apply over the Web.

While participants in our studies still prefer a telephone call to email, with three of five choosing telephone contact compared to two of five who prefer email, GDA research shows that higher ability and higher income students are already leading the movement toward email. For example, a majority (52%) of those with high SAT scores prefer email contact to a telephone call compared to one-third (33%) with lower test scores who said the same. One-half of the students reporting a household income of $75,000 or more prefer email to telephone contact compared to one-third of students reporting a lower household income who agreed.

National research shows that many teens embrace new technologies for communicating. For example, the 1999 AOL/Roper Starch Youth Cyber Study reports that 78 percent of nine- to seventeen-year-olds are interested in sending or receiving photographs online, 70 percent share an interest in participating in live video conferences with friends, and 63 percent are interested in watching short video clips online.

We anticipate that software developments, continued improvements in interactive Web customer service, and email enhancements will continue to redefine and shape the importance voice communications. When asked in a 1999 national survey what attributes they would like to have on the Internet in the future, a majority of teens indicated they want the ability to "talk over the Internet like a phone." National surveys report that the most popular online activities for teenagers involve communicating - emailing friends, instant messaging or visiting chat rooms. In one recent report, three-fourths of participants described the Internet as "mainly an important connection to my friends."

What's on the horizon? It's about grabbing eyeballs and eardrums.

While the future of the Internet and the World Wide Web is certainly exciting and the clear marketing tool of the future, don't get ahead of the technology of the prospective student. More than nine of ten students who have access to the Internet access it through telephone modem. As you all know, modems are painfully slow compared to most college Internet speeds. The biggest complaint prospective students have with college Web sites involve those that require downloading software or have very slowly loading graphics. Nearly seven of ten prospective students said they had disconnected with a college Web site because the procedure of interest took too long by modem.

Print Still Matters

Students are divided on the issue of how they like to access admissions publications with half expressing an interest in receiving materials via electronic devices such as the Internet or CD-ROM and half who would rather receive print publications.

Roughly two-thirds of lower income students and half of higher income ones believe all colleges and universities seem largely the same in admissions publications. With information available everywhere and at any time, this is no time to be subtle. One of ten tells us they skim the publications they receive from all colleges. Three of ten students say they carefully read all the materials from colleges of interest. Three of ten reporting an income above $75,000 say their parents read the materials of all the colleges in which they were interested.

Overall, students want admissions publications to highlight what makes a college or university different - in fact students reporting higher SAT scores are more likely to look for such distinctions. As a way to build a level of trust and to stand out in the crowd, institutions must point out these distinctions directly and specifically. Posting this important message on the college's Web site is also a step toward integrating an institution's online and offline marketing message. A link on the home page would give a brief description of the institution's distinctions so interested readers could click through to a more detailed discussion of the topic.

Over the years, GDA has collected students' input on how they would describe the ideal admissions publications. Some of their insights include the following.

The bottom line is that only 15% of college-bound students we interview strongly agree that admissions publications had a great impact on a decision to seriously consider or enroll at an institution. A customized approach will make your publications more critical in the decision-making process of inquiring students.

The Focus of Information

When asked about the focus of information, nearly six of ten prospective students said the college "should provide materials based on their specific interest." Compare this to the three of ten who say a college "should provide information the student needs to know." This is the era of customization and these students want colleges to respond in that way. This is the reason why, at the very least, GDA Integrated Services recommends including a customized table of contents with the Viewbook, so each individual student will know where to look for the information of greatest importance to him or her.

When asked to choose among three options, about four of ten prospective students said they preferred to know about "the benefits you gain from college," and an equal percentage said they preferred to know about "the criteria for being admitted." About two of ten said they "just wanted the important facts about the college or university." In our view, far too many colleges let students infer their benefits rather than state them outright. Even more prevalent is the reluctance of most colleges and universities to honestly explain their admissions criteria in their literature. In some cases, this is done because they do not wish to frighten students off, but in more insidious cases, it is to generate more application to make their acceptance rate look better.

Again, when asked to choose between three options, there was nearly an equal split among a preference for learning about the "kinds of students who attend a college," the "kinds of students who succeed at the college" and "the kinds of students who graduate from the college. This tells us that students want to know admissions criteria, what admitted students are like, who thrives at the institution, and what percentage of those who enter four or five years earlier actually graduate.

Distinctive Majors

In our national research, while students rate the campus visit first in impact, receiving information on the major field of interest is rated second: half of the students we interview indicate this has a great impact on their decision to apply to a college or university. The importance of the major field information is reinforced by the fact that four of ten say receiving such information is the single most important kind of information sought from admissions publications. A strong department in the major field is essential to most students during the college search.

Students also have a definite preference concerning how they would like this information packaged, with three-fourths preferring a separate publication for each department compared to one-fourth who want a single publication with all majors. This means your institution must work with department heads and faculty to highlight how every major field is distinctive and exciting. We recommend that each major department develop a departmental brochure or fact sheet, a home page on the Web site, and a hand-signed letter from the department chair outlining the distinctions of the department.

Another strategy we often recommend is to pair upperclassmen in the major with prospective students. The upperclassmen would be prepared to describe the department, including how they have taken advantage of distinctive programs and options. This one-on-one between current and prospective students can take place by telephone or email. One way to give a prospective student the opportunity to initiate such a dialogue would be to include a current student link on the Web site home page of each major. For example, prospective students investigating the Biology Major Home Page could click on pictures of biology majors. This would open a brief statement from the biology student describing his or her interests and activities in the field. A prospective student could email the current student with questions via the admissions office.

Enhancing The Campus Visit - The Million Dollar Walk

We all know that the campus visit is the most critical part of the admissions process and the only real predictor of enrollment. In one of our national polls, seven of ten students surveyed said campus visits were the most useful strategy in helping them choose a college. In fact, more than half regretted not visiting more schools than they actually did.

The campus tour is frequently referred to as the "million dollar walk" - and students and their parents are wearing their best consumer glasses while they are on it. This is the student's opportunity to bond with the institution.

In GDA research, roughly half (47%) of students consider a campus visit as the only way to know if a college is right for you. Three-fourths said the visit to campus had a great impact on their decision to apply. Indeed, GDA research shows that a majority of students with higher SAT scores visited all the colleges or universities to which they applied. Those living in the suburbs and reporting household incomes above $75,000 are more likely to visit four or more colleges before applying.

In our research, students want colleges to make tours more interesting, more personal. They want tour groups to be smaller. Time should be allotted to interact with faculty and students along the way. And above all, tour guides should be honest.

Keeping all of the above facts and figures in mind, GDA Integrated Services has become increasingly convinced that it is time to take a closer look at the campus tour and ways to enhance it. For example, a college might consider designing several "stations" during the tour that supplement the patter of the tour guide. An installation in the foyer of the science building could include a revolving kiosk that has visuals about successful science alumni and talks about what makes sciences distinctive at your institution. This display could also include examples of internships or facts and figures for graduate school placement.

The computer center could have a "gee whiz" technology station that highlights the facilities and describes the many ways technology is used on campus. For example, clicking on icons would show scenes from a wired dorm room, a classroom and a research capability. In addition, a graduate school dean and a local CEO would "tell the tour" how technically prepared graduates are.

There might also be a station in the student center that lists all the student activities and has a short video on why it's fun and valuable to get involved.

Such interactive displays and exhibits ensure that all prospective students get the vital information on your institution's programs and services - something not guaranteed with a tour guide. In turn, these displays also can serve as a cross-reference training program for the college's tour guides - ensuring all guides are at least somewhat familiar with all programs, major fields, facilities and so forth.

Where To From Here?

So, should you spend your resources on the development of a Web site or put it into your viewbook? Unfortunately, as the research so clearly shows, you have to do both. One size does not fit all and no institution can afford to rely on a one-dimensional approach to its communication with the multifaceted prospective student market. The institutions that will be successful for the foreseeable future are those that understand what students generally want from the recruitment communication process and then provide it to them in a personalized and customized way through a variety of mediums. No one can afford to dismiss the growing role of technology in this mix, but a high quality introductory brochure, a comprehensive viewbook/catalog and a good personal letter followed by a helpful phone call will continue to play an important part in the student recruitment process for a long time to come.

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