Vacant buildings, unhappy administrators and limited high-tech offerings: These are just a few of the things that can prompt a visiting prospective student to reject your school. Yet young people often hold back on negative comments when asked what they think of a campus, turning the task of recruitment into a game of mind-reading.
As enrollment declines, the need to understand what draws students to a school grows. A 2016 study from Longmire and Company, Hidden Influences, attempts to help administrators do just that. Longmire partnered with 36 four-year public and private institutions, who shared lists of students from their inquiry, applicant and enrollment pools.
Over 18,000 students responded to an online survey with questions that explored what recruiters most want to know: What are prospective students’ impressions of my campus? What might help us ensure more visitors leave excited about our school? What are students not telling us about their visit?
Here are the major findings:
- About 50% of students visiting a college encounter something unappealing.
- Only 13% of students said a counselor had actually asked them whether they found something unappealing.
- 20% of prospective students prevaricate about their reasons for rejecting a school. They say the school’s cost is a problem, when, in fact, it’s something else.
- Prospective students are more likely to volunteer positive impressions of a campus, but, if you ask them specifically, they will tell you what they don’t like.
- Most visiting students say colleges seem more interested in presenting data about their school than in learning about the particular needs of the students.
The study also garnered qualitative data, asking students to explain in greater detail what attracted them to a school or repelled them. When discussing what drew them in, students most often used the words “campus,” “program” and “home.” Many cited an “excellent program,” “the beautiful campus,” or the fact that the school “felt like home.” It also mattered to them whether the campus was close to home or far away.
When students discussed why a school seemed unappealing, they used the words “campus,” “students” and “people” most often. They said the campus “seemed gloomy,” either “too small” or “too spread out” and “unkempt.” They also complained of “empty” or “outdated buildings and facilities.”
When it came to people and students, prospective enrollees were most offended by things like “unfriendly people,” “people without passion,” “students who seemed tired or unhappy” and “stressed out” or “snooty” students. Some also complained of seeing students smoking or vaping on campus.
The most important advice the Longmire study makes: Ask students what they don’t like. Don’t settle for pat answers to classic post-tour questions like, “So, how was it?” Dig in. Get more specific. After a student tells you what he or she likes, ask, “What did you find unappealing about the campus, the students and the people?” It might be unpleasant for counselors or administrators to hear, but taking the time to explore prospective enrollees’ thoughts and feelings will yield critical insights that help you target changes, which will boost enrollment.