Forces of attraction: what students want from the US sector

Besides costs, applicants are swayed by a surprising range of factors, poll finds. Sarah Cunnane reports

May 19, 2011

Credit: Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
Games still afoot: Respondents' low rating of athletics provision may be a 'classic example of a socially acceptable response' - and therefore should be taken with a pinch of salt, polling firm says

The university that perfects the magic formula to attract the best, brightest and - cynics might suggest - most solvent students will be rich in more ways than one.

To help them, the College Decision Impact Survey of high-school students in the US is attempting to identify the factors that carry the greatest weight in university or college choices, with surprising results.

Now in its third year, the poll by consulting firm Maguire Associates and Fastweb, an online scholarship directory, poses questions on topics as diverse as the state of the economy, social media and sporting facilities.

Linda Maguire, Maguire's vice-chair, said that this year's poll, in which 21,000 high-school students participated, highlighted the effect that the recession was continuing to have on students' university choices. The proportion of respondents identifying the economy as an influencing factor has risen 7 percentage points in the past three years, from 61 to 68 per cent.

Despite this, Ms Maguire said, students' main priorities remained fairly stable, with the quality of courses, employment opportunities post-graduation and value - judged by a combination of quality and cost - identified as the most important factors driving applicants' choices.

Perhaps more surprising is the finding that the economic climate - although important in determining where to study - has not overtly affected students' choice of subject.

"The number of students stating they would want to study a vocational course has actually slipped slightly," Ms Maguire said. "They are a little more open to taking courses not necessarily linked to any particular job."

The results also show that the religious affiliation of an institution, its athletics provision and parental preference are the three least important influencing factors.

Bearing in mind the fact that athletics is a multibillion-dollar industry for US universities - where facilities and the success of sports teams are considered far more crucial to student recruitment than they are in the UK, for example - the second finding seems counter-intuitive.

However, universities should not rush to get rid of their multimillion-dollar-a-year sports coaches, Ms Maguire said, as the survey discovery had to be treated with caution.

"The low rating of athletics is a classic example of what we call a socially acceptable response," she said. "No self-respecting college-bound student likes to admit that athletics is important to them.

"But when we take this beyond top-line results and do some modelling, we often find that (athletics) will rise up to be much more influential than it first appears."

Another example of survey respondents giving an "acceptable" - but misleading - response is the question of parental preference, which Ms Maguire said had a far greater bearing on institutional choices than most teenage applicants were willing to admit.

Real vs 'sticker' price

One area that most survey respondents agree is important is the availability of financial aid and the total cost of obtaining degrees.

In the past it has been difficult to work out the precise sums involved before enrolling. But a new federal government initiative, which will become a legal requirement from October, will mean that institutions must provide an online "net-cost calculator" to show how their actual costs compare with the "sticker prices" advertised on many institutions' websites.

Ms Maguire said that this change in the way universities promote the price of degrees was causing trepidation in some quarters. "Universities are worried that it will be used by students to compare their various choices, and they are concerned that they won't compare positively with other institutions that students may be considering."

However, the results of the survey suggest that would-be undergraduates' prime concern is finding out about costs at one particular institution, rather than comparing different universities.

"Transparency is a good thing and I would encourage institutions to use the calculator as a positive recruitment tool, not bury it just to meet the minimum federal requirements, which some institutions are considering doing," Ms Maguire said.

"It should not be viewed with fear: it should be viewed as a way to help families make good choices."

Peter Stace, vice-president for enrolment at Fordham University in New York, agreed that the calculator was a major, but welcome, shift in the way universities market themselves.

"We view the net-cost calculator as an important opportunity to balance the equation so that the cost of attending an institution is as evident as the benefits to be gained," he said.

However, Dr Stace said that institutions faced difficulties as they attempted to explain net costs to families.

"The problem is that we can put things on the website about costs and financial aid, but it is difficult for students to evaluate how that would relate to their individual circumstances," he said.

"It's important that the net-cost calculator is shaped to convey an accurate impression of what the net price will be for each family."

Dr Stace added: "The biggest worry is that the net-price calculator will have that title regardless of the information and data that go into establishing the net price. So some people may think it has a uniform meaning across institutions and discover later that some are more accurate than others."

Connecting communities

Another aspect of marketing that the survey touches on is the use made by colleges of social media to attract and engage students.

The potential that such tools have is clear: 83.8 per cent of respondents say they log on to the social-networking site Facebook at least twice a week, with 57.6 per cent logging on several times a day. In addition, more than 20 per cent of students say that an institution's presence on social-media sites made them more interested in applying.

Ms Maguire advised that, despite the temptation to use social-media websites purely as marketing tools, universities needed to embrace the wider "social" aspect of the networks.

"Institutions should avoid using social-media sites for sales attempts and instead see them as ways to connect communities with each other to their advantage," she said.

Murphy Monroe, executive director of admissions at Columbia College Chicago, said such sites helped to make future students feel part of the university community before they arrived.

His institution has developed a Facebook application that allows new students to access a password-protected environment to meet other freshmen in relevant groups, from those studying the same subject to people from the same part of the country.

"From the moment we launched it, we were averaging 500 conversations a day," Mr Monroe said.

He added that he could see why some institutions were still reticent.

"Sometimes the words 'social media' get in the way," he said. "Social media have just opened up some established communication channels and we sometimes get caught up in thinking of them as things only for the young, things that are less than professional.

"Over time, (social media) will be seen as no different from established communication channels that universities grew comfortable with over time, such as advertising in journals or on billboards."

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