A new survey breaks down the ways that under-represented students go about their college search, as well as their communication and technology preferences.

EAB has released a survey breaking down the college search, timing and communications preferences of minority, first-generation and low-income students, while also offering tips to institutions on how to best recruit these demographics.

The report, “Communication Preferences: How to reach the next generation of college-bound students,” surveyed 8,515 college-bound high school juniors and seniors from across the nation in the summer of 2015. The online survey was conducted by the Royall & Company division of EAB, and gauged a variety of topics relevant to the college search process including sources used to gather information about colleges, search timing, preferred communication channels and campus visits.

The report emphasizes that with affirmative action under fire, it is particularly important for colleges and universities to think more strategically and recognize the differences on how to best attract under-represented groups compared to their more traditional counterparts.

“We’re really looking for the best possible insights into how to help schools make the best efforts to increasingly recruit and enroll more diverse classes,” said Pam Royall, head of research at Royall & Company. “Everybody wants to create a campus that is a shape of the real world. First-generation students and ethnic groups bring critical life experience to college campuses that prospective students and their families look for.”

(Next page: An in-depth look at student preferences with demographic breakdowns)

“What we see in the survey underscores other research we’ve seen and what our own students tell us,” said Rachelle Hernandez, University of Minnesota Twin Cities associate vice provost for Enrollment Management. “We’re constantly looking at research, what students say is important to them, what spaces they’re in and what their preferences are.”

1.E-mail for Personal Correspondence

More than half of first-generation, low-income, African American and Hispanic/Latino students found personal letters helpful in choosing a school. This was 14 percent higher than their non-first-generation, high-income and Caucasian counterparts. Females also found personal letters slightly more helpful than males.

E-mails were also reported as the most helpful resources for college search. While this communication method was most popular across all demographics and ages, it is even more effective early on, with e-mails rated nearly 10 percent higher by rising high school juniors than rising seniors.

“So many colleges and universities don’t have the advantage of well-known sports teams or long-term public personas,” said Royall. “Many regional schools struggle to position themselves in the minds of really great students. The student search is so critical, and getting a personal letter or e-mail to a student and his or her parents can make all the difference. We believe that parental communication is critical as well”

2.Include Program Info Via the Website, Easily

Most students identified a school’s website as highly helpful informational resources for their college search. Information about majors and minors was rated by students as the most vital information they seek on a school’s website, with information about costs and other general information about the institution also ranking highly. The report notes that it is also important that school websites function intuitively and are well-organized, so than students can find the information they are seeking within a few clicks.

“Students first and foremost want to know if a college offers academic programs they’re interested in,” said Royall. “Schools should ensure that if a student goes to their website, that they can access that information. You don’t want a communication gap that will eliminate great institutions on a superficial misunderstanding.”

“First and foremost, our website is prospective student-facing, showing what it’s like to be on campus” echoed Hernandez. “We make it easy to navigate our programs…by making them searchable by subject and showcasing student opportunities. We want to make sure that when a student goes on our website they don’t just discover, but easily discover all the opportunities that are a good fit for their interests and passions.”

First-generation and Hispanic/Latino students were also more likely to search websites for information about college costs and financial aid than their counterparts; therefore, it is imperative that this information be as transparent and easily accessible as possible on school websites, says the report.

Also, students identified using numerous third-party websites to gather information, but institutions should be careful that their information is accurate on such websites, emphasizes the report. Collegeboard.org was by far the most used, as well as the most trusted.

3.Include Their Support Network

“One of the key things with first-generation students is their support network of parents, siblings and counselors,” said Hernandez. “So we include programs for both the student and their support network to make sure that all parties are receiving the same information…and to show how we support students and how we’re focused on the student in enrollment, retention and graduation. It’s not only about how we are recruiting students, but what kind of experience they are having when they get there.”

4.Consider the Timeline

According to the report, under-represented groups are more likely to start their college search earlier in high school. This is especially true of African American students, who were 9 percent more likely than Caucasian students to say they began looking at college options before their freshman year of high school. Hispanic/Latino students and first-generation students were also 3 percent more likely than Caucasian or non-first-generation students to begin their search early. Females were almost 10 percent more likely than males to begin their college search in their freshman year or earlier.

However, under-represented groups, in general, do not physically visit college campuses until later in their search process. First-generation students were 8 percent less likely to report visiting a college campus before their junior or senior year of high school than their counterparts. Also, Hispanic/Latino students were 5 percent less likely, with African American students 4 percent less likely, to visit a campus in their freshman or sophomore year of high school than Caucasian students.

5. Send Out a Campus Visit Invitation

Campus visits continue to be the ultimate recruitment tool. Increasing the number of students visiting an institution may be as simple as inviting them to campus, as 61 percent reported they would visit a school because they were invited to a special program there, or to visit a school official or student they know who invited them there.

Campus visits were rated especially helpful by rising seniors. The main reasons students visited were because a school was one of their top choices, because it was close by to them, and again, because they were invited or it was recommended to them.

“It’s important to show what campus looks and feels like: here’s who we are and who you’ll be taking classes with and from,” said Hernandez. “But it’s not show and tell, it’s an experience. We do a lot of focused and customized visits. We have targeted community events for admitted African American or Asian and Pacific Islander or Latino or American Indian students. They want to meet other students like them, so these are visit options. We want to make sure that however a student wants to visit us, they can.”

The report reveals that rising seniors who have not yet seriously begun their search are more likely to consider personal one-on-one experiences such as campus visits, high school counselor sessions, college fairs, and friends already in college as more helpful compared to rising juniors.

(Next page: Students’ technology preferences)

6. Mobile-Enable Your Info

More and more students are accessing college information by mobile phones, as Smartphone ownership has boomed from 22 percent in 2010 to 87 percent in 2015. As a result, institutions should provide mobile-friendly content to enhance student experiences, says the report. For instance, e-mails and especially school websites should be optimized for mobile viewing.

“We’re not afraid to change, because our students change,” said Hernandez. “We can’t recruit them the way we did 5 years ago. We live in a different world, so we’re responding to new and different technologies. If it’s not of value to them, we aren’t relevant, and we aren’t going to see students attend.”

7. Know that They’d Like to Text You, Not You Them

Under-represented groups are more open to text messages from colleges and universities. More than 75 percent of students said they want to be able to text schools directly. On the other hand, a lower number, 56.7 percent, of students are open to receiving texts from colleges. This is because they do not want messages to be excessive, unnecessary or annoying, to breach on their personal space, or because they prefer a more formal or efficient method of contact.

Instead, says the report, students want the messages to be timely and relevant, such as deadline reminders, confirmations of information the student provided, a response to a specific question they asked, reminders for events that they registered for, and information on financial aid. Additionally, males, first-generation students, African American and Hispanic/Latino students, and students from low-income households were slightly more open to receiving text messages from colleges than their counterparts.

8. Use Social Media Post-Engagement

Only about 10 percent of students surveyed found social media to be helpful when gathering information about colleges. Still, even if social media is not an optimal recruitment tool for under-represented groups, it does offer a compelling way to share authentic insights into the character of an institution and to encourage conversations with and among students once they have expressed interest in a school.

For example, watching a YouTube video created by a college was the most popular social media interaction, with following a college on Facebook as the next most popular, then Instagram, and, finally, on Twitter. While Facebook remains the most popular of the three main social media sites, its popularity has fallen by nearly 12 percent on average in the last 3 years.

“Social media is like posting your message on a billboard; it’s not personalized or customized to the student” said Hernandez. “It’s not really getting students to think about us, but once they are, they can stay connected through social media. We want to convey to [high school] students what the student experience is like, and this is away to create conversation and allow students to be involved.”

9. Skip Traditional Media

Radio, TV, newspaper and magazine advertisements were found to be the least helpful resources by students for their search.

10. Don’t Wait to Engage

One of the final recommendations made by the report was the importance of being ready to communicate with students as soon as they inquire and throughout their high school career.

“Students don’t always know how successful they are, particularly first-generation and minority students,” said Hernandez. “A first-generation student thanked me for admitting her today, and my response to her was that I just got to say yes. She faced lots of obstacles from her financial background, but was a major contributor to her community and is an outstanding individual. We’re lucky to have her. It’s important to work with students like her to let them know that they have a lot to offer, and that their perspectives are important for learning, teaching and the educational environment.”

For the full report and an infographic on students’ communications preferences, visit the Royall & Company blog.


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