What Do Prospective Students Really Want to Know?

Congratulations! Your well-crafted marketing strategy worked, and a prospective student has arrived at your institution’s website — the first step on their enrollment journey. Their presence on the landing page suggests they’re likely interested in at least one of your programs. But now what? How can you be sure your website is sticky enough to keep students from quickly leaving the site without navigating around? 

Understanding how to market to college students isn’t brain surgery, but it does require a deep understanding of what prospective students are looking for. Keep in mind that today’s college-bound students may be the most cost-conscious, practical, and savvy consumers you’ve ever courted. And because choosing a college may be the biggest and most expensive decision of their lives, your marketing strategy must prioritize what prospective students really want to know and what they’re looking for on your site. Providing prospective students with the right information at the right point in their journey can make all the difference in enrollment outcomes.

Fortunately, there’s plenty of data available to shed light on what prospective college students want to know before enrolling. Key among their considerations when choosing a college are cost, location, and flexibility, according to a recent article in Inside Higher Ed. 

College Is a Major Investment, and Students Need Help Navigating Financial Options

The average public university student borrows $30,030 to attain a bachelor’s degree, with national student loan debt topping $1.76 trillion in 2021, according to student loan debt statistics compiled by the Education Data Initiative. Given these eye-popping figures, it’s no wonder cost is top of mind for students when choosing a degree program. Our research bears this out.

How Much Will My Degree Cost?

Based on data collected by Archer Education from more than 20,000 prospective students from 2020 to 2022 who were asked, “What would you like to explore first?” tuition and fees and financing options topped a list of five things students want to know before enrolling.

Institutions should resist the temptation to bury cost information in the hope that students will fall in love with their schools and accept the price tag. Instead, they should offer complete and accurate information on pricing from the very start to avoid confusing or disappointing students. Tuition and fees should be available for each and every program on the relevant program page. Students should not have to toggle between their chosen program page and a separate page for financial information.

How Do I Pay?

Financing higher education can be complex. When addressing how to pay, all the relevant information likely won’t be contained on one simple page. This is all the more reason for higher-ed professionals to give students as much information as possible to quantify what’s expected of them, the kind of financial assistance they might receive — whether financial aid, loans, or scholarships — and where and how to obtain it. 

Again, there’s likely quite a bit of nuance in addressing this key component of the decision-making process, so don’t forget to provide alternative ways for students to digest this information — whether that’s providing direct contact information to follow up with your financial aid team or setting up a chatbot to answer questions. 

If costs and payment options are front and center on the homepage and program pages, as well as shared in your follow-up communications, and you’re still not seeing the enrollment numbers you’re hoping for, there are a few other key components to consider. For instance, what kind of an experience can students expect to have in your program? Prospective students are looking for information on program outcomes, the time commitment they’ll be making, and how to apply.

Transparency Is Key When Students Are Choosing a College 

It bears repeating that today’s college-bound and returning students are a practical bunch. They expect quality results (namely some guarantee of post-graduation success), flexibility, and service for their tuition dollars.

Program Outcomes

Good students are strategic thinkers who value results — in other words, a return on investment for the time and money spent on education. Make sure your content strategy prioritizes outcomes by painting a picture of their future. Show how your program will bring value to their lives, and connect the degree or certificate to a successful career.  

Time Commitment

With regard to success, students also want to know they’ll be successful completing your program. They need to know if this next big step is something they can balance with their lives, a particular concern for students with families and professionals returning to school. Reassure them by providing digestible information broken out into daily, weekly, and monthly commitments for class and study time. Setting these expectations at the start will ensure that each student who comes through your program is not surprised by their course load. 

Application and Enrollment

While quite a few colleges and universities blame outside factors such as the Common App for poor application numbers, each institution is responsible for making the application and enrollment process as easy as possible with the factors within its control. To facilitate the application and enrollment processes, create visual guides, break down the process step by step, create checklists, and highlight important dates. Your guidance could easily improve the quality of a student’s application and save time spent preparing it.

The Student Journey Should Be Top of Mind 

Achieving desired enrollment outcomes requires that you understand the search intent and needs of students at each level of the student journey funnel so that prospects have the information and support they need to take the next best step. While the quality of the content on your website is king, you also need to consider how it’s being received and what other levers you can pull to ensure you’re giving students the best understanding of your offerings and how the offerings may or may not fit into their future. 

With that, there are a few other considerations when building out the content discussed above: 

Make a Content Game Plan

Digital marketing agency Hileman Group describes strategic content marketing as “a marriage of what your audience wants to consume and what you want to communicate, prioritized by what will provide the greatest ROI.” 

When plotting an effective content strategy, it’s helpful to create an ideal student persona to optimize your content around. Meetings among the marketing team, administrators, academic staff, and other stakeholders to align on shared goals for the program and the type of student it best fits will help guide decisions about website and content development. 

Ensure Your UX Is Up to Par

Providing a superior user experience (UX) is table stakes in today’s competitive higher-ed market. Still too many websites fall short. To make sure your site isn’t one of them, the Nielsen Norman Group advises UX designers to “strive to eliminate, or at least minimize, extraneous cognitive load: processing that takes up mental resources, but doesn’t actually help users understand the content (for example, different font styles that don’t convey any unique meaning).” 

Consider these tips for minimizing cognitive load:

  • Avoid visual clutter such as redundant links, irrelevant images, or meaningless typographic flourishes that impair usability.
  • Build on existing mental models, which simply means patterning website labels and layouts on those typically encountered on other sites. Reinventing the wheel, so to speak, will require visitors to learn to use your site, a mental exercise they might rather forgo.
  • Eliminate tasks by looking for aspects of your design that require users to read text, remember information, or make a decision. Then provide alternatives such as showing a picture, re-displaying previously entered information, or setting a smart default. While you won’t be able to shift all tasks away from users, every task you eliminate will leave more mental resources for the truly essential decisions.

Don’t Underestimate the Power of Follow-Ups

The sheer amount of information on many program website pages can overwhelm prospective students or cause them to miss important details and information. Make sure to follow up to reshare vital information with students who have visited and explored your site. If possible, personalize your follow-ups with students based on the content they’ve engaged with. Consider automations such as chatbots and be sure to use analytics and reporting to inform your follow-up communications and take advantage of any potential optimizations along the way. 

Tailoring Your Website Marketing Strategy to Attract Students

When targeting prospective students with your website, it’s important to understand exactly what they’re looking for and to tailor your efforts to those specific touch points. While it may seem simple, a lot of institutions are building websites based on outdated insights and even gut instinct. Don’t waste time guessing, but rather use current relevant data to understand what today’s students want from your program’s site. The sooner you meet them where they are along their enrollment journey, the sooner you’ll start enrolling more of the right students for your university. At Archer Education, we partner with dozens of institutions to help them overcome enrollment challenges and help guide them through the current evolution of higher education through tech-enabled, personalized enrollment marketing and management solutions. To learn more about Archer’s full-funnel engagement strategies and digital student experience technology, click here.