Mapping the College Decision Journey

Mapping the College Decision Journey

Lately, I’ve been reflecting on how high school students and parents decide which college is the best fit for the student. We conducted extensive research into education for my book, Tuning Into Mom, and, as the mom of a high school student, I’ve been deeply involved in the process for some time.

For the student, choosing a college is usually the biggest decision she’s ever made, and the parents are often responsible for the financial commitment. Because of these reasons, students rely heavily on their parents (especially moms) to advise them.

When high school students and their parents embark on the journey to college, they typically follow four steps towards their decision.

1. Getting Started: Research

The theme of the research phase is TMI (Too Much Information). Starting in the junior year, students are bombarded with direct mail. Unfortunately, most of this marketing clutter doesn’t differentiate the colleges from one another.

In our experience, the websites and college guides weren’t much more helpful than the direct mail. The information was overwhelming and very general. Generic information can be worse than simple white noise, as my son observed, “If all you can say about your school is that it’s in a great location, that’s not very impressive.”

My son ended this phase with a list of schools, none of which he felt particularly knowledgeable about. There’s an opportunity for colleges to set themselves apart in this early research through personalizing their marketing communication and approach.

2. Realizing the Top Two Criteria: Academics and Cost

Purdue University has identified four major factors important to students in making the college decision:

  1. Strength of the academic program
  2. Affordability (cost plus financial aid)
  3. Social environment (including sports and Greek life)
  4. Professional success after graduation

In the early stages of the college research and decision process, the student will find it easier to look at the first two criteria: academic strength and cost criteria.

When marketing to students early in the search process, colleges should strengthen their marketing strategy to focus on these two criteria. St. John’s College did this well for my son—their marketing communication stood out through its design and by communicating their unique qualities.

3. Narrowing the Choices: Who’s on the Short List?

Students quickly realize that they can’t truly consider more than 10-15 colleges. They eliminate colleges from the list by considering factors such as social environment, professional success after graduation and distance from home.

Importantly, it’s easiest to eliminate a college the student knows little about. Students will have a better concept of colleges they’ve personally experienced or to which they’ve been referred. The college’s goal should be to start building the relationship early in the search process.

4. Touring: Hit the Road, Jack!

As all college admissions offices know, the visit is a make-or-break part of the decision process. Often, these visits are made with just one parent, usually Mom.

A typical quote from one student we interviewed:

“You could definitely see what students were like and you could definitely get a feel for what the lifestyle of going to that college would be like– to be honest, within the first five minutes.”

The main learning from this research is that students make quick judgments about the colleges they tour, partly because they might tour five colleges in a weekend. The college’s tour strategy must understand this fact.

Also, colleges will stand out who help Mom with trip planning advice and provide tips for how to participate in the college visit—even something as minor as places to get a cup of coffee while waiting for her student will be appreciated.

Once the tours are over, the student and her parents have a clear list of where she would like to apply. Mom is especially involved at each of these four decision steps, providing research, advice and guidance. Colleges should employ marketing strategies that place importance on Mom as well as the student.

Of course, applying to colleges is only one step toward ultimately choosing which college to attend. The process continues when students learn which schools have accepted them, and I will delve into that process in a future article.

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    Michal Clements

    Michal is co-author of Tuning Into Mom and an experienced consultant. Michal develops winning growth strategies and detailed go to market plans for some of the world’s outstanding organizations including McDonald’s, Gatorade, Abbott, Barilla, Tylenol, Clorox, Key Bank, Eagle Ottawa, Quaker and the Baker Demonstration School.

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