How can AI help students choose higher education?

Universities can use new technologies to appeal to prospective students – and reach new demographics

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4 Jun 2024
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Words by Anna Reid, director in customer practice at EY Australia

Never has there been a more competitive time in the higher education sector. In Australia, Canada and the UK, restrictive immigration policies are driving declines in high-paying international student numbers. At the same time, in many countries, the perceived value of higher education continues to erode domestic student numbers. In this environment, students are attracted to universities with a clear value proposition that are leveraging new technology to create a differentiated student experience.

Student expectations of universities have changed

The changes wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic mean the students dismissing or leaving higher education today are very different from those five years ago. To win them back, universities must better understand what students need from higher education.

Institutions can no longer rely solely on their reputation. In a 2023 EY and THE survey of 3,030 undergraduate and postgraduate students across eight geographies, 48 per cent of students said their choice of university revolved around a programme that would improve their career prospects. Only 29 per cent made their choice based on reputation. 

With more than 60 per cent of students having other responsibilities, learners want a flexible learning experience that can fit around their busy lives. Not just flexibility in when and where students study – that is expected. Students also want flexibility in learning design and pathways.

The invisible layer of potential students

The lowest hanging fruit for a university to convert to enrolment are prospective students. The ones wondering if a programme will get them the job they want, if they will fit in to university, if they can fit studying into their busy life? These are the people who have scoured websites, partially completed application forms and talked to friends and family about further study but haven’t taken the step to commit.  

This invisible layer of potential students is a university blind spot. How many of these possible students selected a competitor with a better offer or dropped out of a higher education pathway altogether? How many university websites and social channels genuinely address student concerns in a few clicks?

 Three things universities can do to win student choice more often

  • Clearly define and communicate your value proposition to target segments

    For students to choose you they need to quickly see why you best fit their requirements. This means deeply understanding which student segments you are targeting, with what courses and how your value proposition aligns to each segment. Universities should be making every effort to communicate their value proposition clearly and guide prospective students to choose the university and course that is right for them. Despite advances in technology, many university websites remain a maze of confusing programme information with limited real-time and predictive support.

  • Make the experience simple

    If students can’t find a pathway to something of interest within a few clicks, they are more likely to disengage. Experience prototyping with students can help universities design an experience that is intuitive, streamlined and builds progressively, serving them the right information and support at the right time. Universities can create AI-infused, personalised pathways to explore study and career options. Large language models (LLMs) can gently guide prospective students through a conversation that leads to a programme they are more likely to enjoy and complete, asking questions such as, “Tell us about yourself so we can show you programmes you’re likely a good match with to support your career goals”. Looking outside of the education sector into the banking, healthcare and consumer sectors are great ways to reimagine the experience.

  • Nurture prospective students

    The rapid advancement of marketing technology means universities can better target and nurture the invisible layer of future students, building progressive profiles that help to serve up personalised content. In a world of finite investment, undertaking detailed journey mapping helps universities to understand the “must win” moments across the student lifecycle. Automation and AI can generate and manage content, efficiently design and track campaigns, provide prospective students with predictive real-time support and surface new insight-based opportunities.

Despite the challenges, it’s an exciting time to test and innovate to both attract and retain students. By dramatically uplifting the student experience in this way, universities have important opportunities to recover their former ground.  

Find out more about EY’s education services.

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