[Editor’s note: This story, originally published on April 29th of this year, was our #9 most popular story of the year. The countdown continues tomorrow with #8, so be sure to check back!]

According to a new report, student survey data reinforces that higher education institutions must place greater emphasis on their digital presence, engaging students with digital communications that are most in line with their preferences in order to boost enrollment.

The report, titled “The Digital Search for Education,” was commissioned by G/O Digital and is based on the results of a 2016 survey of over 1,520 U.S. adults enrolled in either full or part-time classes. The research study was conducted to understand how learners interact with colleges and career schools prior to enrolling, and how those interactions influence their decision to communicate with, and enroll in, a particular institution.

The report comes at an appropriate time, with many universities and community colleges suffering from recent enrollment declines and more and more students using mobile devices to seek out and engage with education institutions. Since digitally savvy prospective students usually have access to a massive amount of information on institutions thanks to the internet, it is more important than ever for colleges and universities to gain insight into what the choices and preferences of learners are.

Enrollment 101

According to the report, institutions must first understand what draws a student to enroll in higher education. According to the survey, 37 percent of students said that career enhancement is their top motivator, and that the programs offered at a school were the most important deciding factor. 17 percent said that cost of the program was most important, and 14 percent said location was most important.

With those factors in mind, an institution must then strive to be clear and consistent with their digital presence and communications, emphasized the report. Numerous prospective students are always at some stage of the decision-making cycle, the report points out, with time-to-decision varying greatly: 21 percent of students take more than 12 months to make a decision, 14 percent take less than one month, and the rest fall somewhere in between.

(Next page: The digital preferences of prospective students and what institutions should do to boost their digital presence)

Maintain a Positive Digital Reputation

The survey revealed that institutions should take great care in having a positive digital reputation. In fact, 58 percent of students said online reviews were highly important in their school selection process, and 20 percent of students polled said online ratings and reviews were the online channel that most influenced their decision when picking a college or career school. Similarly, 38 percent of students first looked into certain schools because of word-of-mouth referrals.

Have Good Navigation

The most popular online channel when it comes to influencing a student’s decision is a school’s website, said the report. It is so powerful that a third of prospective students said improper website navigation alone turned them off of a prospective institution completely. When on a website, 56 percent of students said they looked primarily for information about the program in which they were interested.

SEO Everything

Institutions should also be mindful of how easy they are to discover on search engines, revealed the survey. Search engines reign supreme when it comes to research, with 53 percent of students turning to search engines most often when researching schools. The key with connecting to students through search engines is to ensure that information and unique strengths on a an institution’s website are presented clearly, as 43 percent of surveyed students reported being most influenced to click on search results that included information most relevant to them.

Incorporate Social Media

The report also noted that social media plays a big role in the school selection process today as well. Of the students surveyed, 32 percent reported following colleges and career schools, including those they were interested in, on social media while making a decision. Facebook is still by far the most popular social network, with 62 percent of students most likely to follow schools on Facebook over any other channel. The second most popular social network is LinkedIn, with 13 percent of students. 52 percent of prospective students said that relevant information about their desired program were the most important posts a school could make, regardless of the social network.

Personal Still Matters

Despite the openness of a school’s website or social media channels, though, many prospective students still prefer to connect with schools on a more personal level, they said. The report reveals that 41 percent of students connected to schools through e-mailing directly. E-mail is also overwhelmingly the preferred method of contact for prospective students, with 75 percent saying they preferred to be contacted by a school via e-mail over social media, phone calls or text messages.

Digital Can’t Replace All

Furthermore, the report also emphasized that it is important that digital communications have not completely replaced the tried and true methods of face-to-face recruitment. On-campus visits remain the deciding factor for prospective students, with 31 percent of students citing their visit as their primary deciding factor in choosing a school.

For even more in-depth information, click here to see the full report.

About the Author:

Ronald Bethke is the former assistant editor for eCampus News.


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