Method and Madness
What Students Expect From Different College Types And What You Can Learn From It.
by George C. Dehne and Dr. David Brodigan
George Dehne & Associates surveys about 10,000 college-bound students annually. When we survey after May 1, we know where a student will actually enroll. By matching the kind of institution in which they are enrolled with the characteristics they sought in their college experience, we can see how rational or irrational they are in their choice. We will look at variations of the Carnegie Classifications of colleges with a special look at the AMA - Higher Education Constituents - Liberal Arts Colleges I and II and Regional Public Institutions.
In each case, we will describe the marketing implications for the various groups.
We describe the institutions this way:
1. Liberal Arts Colleges and Universities I. These institutions are primarily undergraduate colleges with a major emphasis on baccalaureate degree programs. They award 40 percent or more of their baccalaureate degrees in liberal arts fields and are restrictive in admissions.
2. Liberal Arts Colleges and Universities II. These institutions are primarily undergraduate colleges with a major emphasis on baccalaureate degree programs. They award less than 40 percent of their baccalaureate degrees in liberal arts fields or are less restrictive in admissions.
3. Large Private Universities. These are independent institutions that have enrollments over 3500 students.
4. Flagship State Universities. These are institutions that are generally thought of as the premier public institutions in their state. Most states have one (Maryland, Vermont, Ohio, Minnesota, etc.). For some states, we named two institutions to the flagship category (Texas, Michigan, Florida, South Carolina, etc.).
5. Regional State Universities. For the most part these are state-supported institutions that do not fall into the flagship category.
THE PRIVATE COLLEGE OR UNIVERSITY STUDENT COMPARED TO THE
PUBLIC COLLEGE OR UNIVERSITY STUDENT
Size is one great factor. The students enrolled at a Liberal Arts I college or university are more likely to prefer a college over a university (40% vs. 25%) and an enrollment under 2,500 (70% Liberal Arts I & II vs. 16% flagship students vs. 35% regional state). As one can imagine, however, these figures have significant geographic differences.
Implications: In our national studies, we see that small size has become less attractive generally - a fact that makes recruitment for the smaller college more difficult regardless whether it is public or private. To compete with larger size, small colleges must be able to demonstrate greater flexibility that results in greater opportunities. This means the small college must make it easy to customize each student's educational experience through double majors, original research, collaborative research, study abroad, self-designed majors, independent study, and so forth.
The Major Field
While the vast majority of prospective students (over 80%) thinks a strong major in their field of interest is extremely important, students enrolled in private colleges are somewhat less likely to choose an institution because of the major field (65%). Fortunately for small colleges, the private-oriented students are as likely to believe a strong major can be found at a small college as at a large university. Public-oriented students do not necessary believe larger institutions offer stronger major fields.
Implications: The major field has become the coin of the realm, but small colleges cannot compete on the same playing field as the larger university regardless whether a private or public institution. As we wrote above, a smaller institution cannot use the number of courses or the number of professors to convince students of their strength in individual departments. Flexibility is the major advantage of the smaller college.
The Liberal Arts
Students who attend private institutions are far more likely to value the idea of a liberal arts education (40% vs. 15%).
Implications: Public institutions are far better served by describing their "general education" rather than liberal arts education. Private colleges can benefit by showing how their liberal arts experience contributes to their major field. This requires demonstrating how a core curriculum or distribution requirements can enhance or broaden the major field or show how the liberal arts provide the background for any profession.
Commuter vs. Residents
Privately enrolled students are far more likely to expect to live on campus while in college compared to their state-supported peers (90% vs. 70%). This partially explains why students who enroll in private institutions are far more likely to say the residence halls are the most important facilities to them when they visit a campus.
Implications: Public institutions must be prepared and eager to serve commuter students. In our national studies, we have found that commuter students act very much like non-traditional, part-time students. They are not particularly interested in the "college experience." They have jobs (part-time and full-time) that are important to them. They care most about their major field and require few services. The best way to endear these students to your institution is by making those clubs and organizations that deal with the major fields or a career extremely active and exciting.
Residential colleges, on the other hand, should do what they can to take full advantage of their residential nature. Over four of ten students enrolled in Liberal Arts I & II colleges, compared to under three of ten in regional state institutions, say a great deal of connection between their residential life and academic life is extremely important to them. This means, residential colleges must make sure that activities related to the students' academic, social and professional growth take place in an intentional way in the residence halls and in student life areas. If your residence halls are simply hotels to warehouse students, you are not living up to the expectations of your clientele.
Fraternities and Sororities
Fraternities and sororities are more attractive to students enrolled in state-supported institutions, but this is a bit misleading. Students who are generally attracted to Greek organizations are white, middle- to upper-income males and African-American students. State-supported institutions tend to have a great percentage of each group. Higher-ability students who attend small private colleges are far less interested in Greek organizations.
Implications. If you are a small college that does not have fraternities and sororities, seeking them out to improve your social life might be counter-productive. The greatest complaint about fraternities and sororities at smaller institutions is their propensity to make a small community even smaller. Moving freshmen rush until late in the year allows time for the community to jell. On the other hand, students at larger institutions see fraternities and sororities as a communal island in a sea of people.
Re-Inventing An Identity
Students who choose private colleges are far less interested than state-supported enrollees in attending a college where many of their high school friends attend.
Implications. Don't count on "feeder schools" for your private institution. Fewer than two of ten students enrolled at private, liberal arts colleges compared to more than three of ten in state-supported colleges prefer to attend college with many of their high school friends. The private college-oriented students tend to be more adventurous and more likely to want to "reinvent" themselves in college. This, of course, makes recruitment far more difficult for the private institution while public institutions, especially regional state institutions, can be successful by having special "town days," when all students in the area schools are invited.
Private institutions, on the other hand, must rely more on direct mail and recruiting one student at a time rather than trying to get more students out of a handful of schools. The private colleges with the most geographically diverse student populations should be able to take advantage of that characteristic.
Values and Ethics
Students enrolled in private institutions are more likely to care about a church-related college, but they do not necessarily place more importance on values and ethics. Interestingly, nearly four of ten students tell us that a college that stresses values and ethics is extremely important. Generally, only around two of ten students tells us they prefer a church-related college to a secular one, but most agree they would attend a church-related institution if it were the right size and fit.
Implications. The relatively high importance of "values and ethics" to all students puts state institutions in an awkward position. While few would say that state institutions do not care about values and ethics, it is difficult to demonstrate because of issues related to the separation of church and state. State institutions would be wise to highlight alumni who have demonstrated values in their careers, faculty who live by high standards, and point to their campus ministries.
Church-related institutions also walk a precarious line. They cannot usually forgo attracting students outside of their specific faith nor drive away students who do not necessarily value their relationship with a religious denomination. In this case, the private college must recruit each student in a customized rather than generalized way.
Distance From Home
Students enrolled at private institutions are more willing to travel more than a 100 miles from home to attend college, but this differs greatly between private university and private college students. Students who attend large private universities and Liberal Arts I colleges go the farthest distance from home to attend college. Liberal Arts II college students and those at regional public institutions tend to stay the closest to home. Of course, much of this has to do with personal experience and background.
Implications: To get students to travel over 100 miles to your institution is difficult for all colleges. More than six of ten students say they want to be within 100 miles of home. The key to attracting students at some distance for most colleges and universities is by creating "situational value." An institution creates a situational value when a student is willing to travel farther or pay more for some activity or program that is not found at other institutions, not found in the region or not found at a similar kind of institution. A state institution with an NCAA Division III program in a region where other state institutions play Division I or II might have created a situation value. A neuroscience program at small liberal arts institution might also entice a student to travel farther or pay more to attend.
Expectations After College
Expectations following college differentiate the public- vs. private-oriented students. About four of ten students enrolled in private institutions expect to attend graduate or professional school immediately following college compared to only two of ten students enrolled in state-supported institutions. There are some differences, however. Students enrolled at large private universities and Liberal Arts I colleges are far more likely to expect to attend graduate school immediately following college than those at Liberal Arts II Colleges.
On the other hand, about four of ten state-supported enrollees versus only two of ten students enrolled at privates expect to get a job immediately after college and then attend graduate school. (The difference is explained by the roughly four of ten private enrollees and five of ten state-supported enrollees who expect to get jobs after college and never attend graduate school.)
We see this difference elsewhere. Students enrolled at state-supported institutions are significantly more likely to strongly agree that getting prepared for a career is the most important outcome of a college education.
Implications. The Liberal Arts Colleges I and large private universities better have good graduate and professional school placement records. Regional state and Liberal Arts II colleges must walk a fine line. On one hand, they must demonstrate that they can prepare a student for a job immediately following college. In addition to career-oriented programs, it is also important that your career service area is highly visible. On the other hand, since graduate school-bound students tend to be of higher ability and higher income, it is important to demonstrate that your institution has a strong graduate school placement record or the "symbols" of access. Since higher education is basically intangible (you cannot taste, smell, or touch it or its benefits), colleges must develop symbols that demonstrate the college does what it says it does. A high-profile Coordinator for Graduate School Advising, a structured and obvious pre-professional path for pre-med or pre-law students, or a regular survey of alumni concerning their success in graduate or professional schools are all excellent symbols of your institution's commitment to post-graduate education.
A Balanced Experience
By a healthy margin, students enrolled at private institutions are more likely to strongly agree with the statement "I want to balance my college experience among academic, extracurricular and social activities." Nearly half the students at large private universities compared to only one of three students enrolled at regional state institutions, strongly agree with this statement.
Implications. Demonstrating that it is easy to get involved in clubs and organizations, showing that it is inexpensive to attend on-campus entertainment, and describing the activities in residential units are the best ways to demonstrate balance. Too often, private colleges, in an effort to look "more academic," go to extremes to diminish their social and entertainment dimension. Yet students tell us that they expect colleges to be concerned for the development of the "whole person."
The fact that students at public institutions care less about a balanced experience has a great deal to do with their backgrounds. Students who attend Liberal Arts I Colleges, large privates universities and large public flagship universities report higher incomes, which means they can afford to seek a balance. Also, students at public schools and Liberal Arts II colleges are more likely to be the first in their families to go to college. These students see career preparation as the real benefit of college with a balanced experience being somewhat of a luxury.
Prestige And Name Recognition
Both prestige and name recognition are more important to students who attend private institutions. (As we note later, this is particularly true of students enrolled in private universities.) Interestingly, to both groups, a nationally-known institution is more important than a prestigious institution (although our studies show that prestige is largely determined by name recognition).
Implications: We have come to believe that name recognition is nearly as important as an effective student recruitment operation. As we noted above, name recognition defines prestige to many students. Name recognition also creates a "brand name." Students perceive less risk when the institution is thought of as a brand name. Direct mail is far more likely to be read if the student recognizes the college's name. Finally, students who request information on their own are the most likely to enroll. Of course, they must at least know the name of an institution in order to self-initiate a request for information.
For these reasons, we urge clients to find ways to gain visibility in schools, be seen with other highly-regarded and highly-visible institutions and to actively develop a word-of-mouth marketing campaign.
Finances, of course, play a role. About four of ten students enrolled at state-supported institutions are attending the institution that costs them and their families the least amount of personal funds, compared to only two of ten of those enrolled in private institutions. On the other hand, those enrolled in Liberal Arts II colleges are as likely as those enrolled in public institutions to say they chose the least expensive option.
Implications: Perhaps most striking about the financial issue is the relatively small proportion of students who are enrolled in the college that takes the least amount out of their or their parents' pockets. Six of ten in state institutions and eight of ten in private institutions could have chosen less expensive alternatives but didn't. This should remind us that students chose an institution for a whole bundle of reasons, not just cost. In fact, private colleges must seek ways to increase their perceived value rather than simply discount in an attempt to "cost the same as a state institution." State institutions must not assume that their lower price is necessarily going to attract the kind of students they seek. Demonstrating everything from amenities (recreation facilities, nice student center, residence halls) to track records in job and graduate school placement is still needed for successful student recruitment regardless of the institutional control.
"Shopping For College"
Students in private institutions "shop" more for colleges. They request information and visit more campuses than students enrolled in state-supported institutions. Because of their shopping habits, private institution enrollees are less likely to learn of their enrolling institution by word-of-mouth - although seven of ten of all students learn of their enrolling college by word-of-mouth.
Implications: Since word-of-mouth is less important to the private college-oriented students, students in private institutions are more likely to learn of the college in which they will enroll later in the college-search process - usually in their junior year or later. Of course, since those in the private-oriented group are greater shoppers, a private institution competes with more institutions of all types. The good news is the private-bound students are more likely to learn of their enrolling institutions via direct mail (i.e., Student Search Services, NRCCUA). This means an effective direct mail program can have an impact on the private college-oriented students.
State institutions, because of their obligation to the state and their likely visibility in the state, can rely, for the most part, on the traditional high school fairs and visits.
Based on our research, the competition for students among college types has more to do with the perceived similarity of characteristics than it does with institutional control. For example, Liberal Arts I colleges compete with Liberal Arts II colleges on small size and a supportive environment. But Liberal Arts I colleges compete with large private universities on prestige. Liberal Arts II colleges compete heavily with regional state institutions on the ability of the student enrolled, the student's interest in career preparation, and a student who wants to stay close to home.
Large private universities tend to compete with flagship state institutions on attracting suburban students, attracting males, creating connection between out-of-class and academic life, and prestige.
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