The ‘typical’ student - Do you understand yours?

In 2018, 13% of applicants were aged 25 or over, and a fifth of those actually accepted at a university or college were not domiciled in the UK. It’s not news to marketers and outreach teams that a one size fits all recruitment and transitioning strategy is no longer enough. But, whereas strategic ambition might be on point – it’s essential to ensure that practical implementation aligns.

The first step is straightforward. Understand your own students.

At UCAS, we are in the privileged position of seeing an entire cohort of applicants through our data. And it reveals a lot about their potential needs – our application data allows us to see that, since 2014, the number of applicants declaring a mental health condition has increased from 7,433 to 17,520, and 12% of UK applicants declare a disability. We can also fully understand the diversity of students coming from a multitude of backgrounds: a record 23.2% of young people classified as living in the most disadvantaged areas of the UK applied by the January deadline this year, narrowing the gap with those living in the most advantaged areas.

Everyone is starting from a subtly different point, and with more choice for post-18 study, competition for options is great. With that knowledge comes an opportunity for you, as a higher education provider looking to recruit and retain students, to understand the influences on an individual’s decisions.

Spending time to understand the detail, and what this means for your own university, allows you to tailor your provision to fit – but also use this insight to ensure those you recruit are supported from the moment they first engage with you. The makeup of your student cohort will be unique to you, but will follow trends – understand those, and you are in a good place to plan for next year’s intake.

If you can understand these foundational elements, then the next steps are to use this insight to shape more strategic aspects, such as your portfolio. So, do you know how your cohort differs from the sector generally – or specifically, your competitors?

If, for example, you tend to receive proportionally more 19 year olds applicants than your competitors, the current demographic conditions will be challenging.

As increasing numbers of young applicants are applying aged 18, and they are also more likely to gain a place at university on their first attempt, fewer are left to re-apply the following year. You may therefore be inadvertently reliant on a cohort which is shrinking.

Similarly, when it comes to financial risk, if all your international intake comes from a particular country, or even one region, then you could be at risk if geopolitical conditions change. Using data to identify other prospective markets, that would also be a fit for your courses, may be a good strategic move.

Now is the ideal time to step back and assess your ‘typical student’. It could drive real changes in the way you run your business.

Sarah Barr Miller is Head of Insights for UCAS Media