Attracting Students: What Do They Want?

Attracting Students: What Do They Want?
Ivelin Radkov/
Summary: The education market is becoming globally competitive. Do you know what tools/policies/materials will be instrumental in student recruitment? Attracting students means knowing what students are looking for in their next education provider: This may help us better meet these expectations and increase student enrolments.

Attracting Students Strategies: Who Do Students Want?

Today we see a richness of offerings for online learning, from MOCC providers to open source systems, training companies, academic institutions, ePublishers, to various comprehensive online platforms. All offering different levels of collaboration, flexibility, and access to information. Technology, globalization, and new understanding about how people learn are having dramatic effects on diverse approaches to teaching and learning worldwide. eLearning has become a disruptive technology for many. Educational providers of today find themselves facing a changing education landscape with reduced levels of government funding and increased levels of competition that are largely due to the digitization of education. According to conservative estimates the worldwide eLearning industry is estimated to be worth over 40 billion dollars and there is a lot of competition in that space. New training providers are constantly popping-up offering targeted short educational programs to anyone with an internet connection. Subsequently, to survive existing educational providers need to position themselves strongly as relevant players with the hope of attracting more students. To best do this, educational institutions would attracting students by meeting their rising expectations, making improvements to the services they offer, and engage electronically.

Education And Expectations

But first we need to understand what students demand of a future education provider to know what services and expectations need to be accommodated. I looked into this issue using the scientific method in a paper I called ‘Which Master of Business Administration (MBA)? Factors influencing prospective students' choice of MBA program - an empirical study’, that was published in Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management. This work examines why students choose their study program and what led to, or influenced, their choice of course/provider to enroll in. In particular, this study examined the decision making factors by postgraduate students when choosing their Master of Business Administration (MBA) program.

We have a limited understanding in this area, as very little research on post-graduate student course selection behavior has been conducted. Complicating the issue further, few researchers are able to gauge whether or not students make selection decisions on their own (based on their own research), or whether they are overly influenced by family and friends, and to what degree, or even, how much influence popular ranking scales have? I was interested in how informed students were in their decision making processes? Given the absence of prior research on 'student choice', this study investigated how reputation, resources, post-study employment opportunities, and provider infrastructure attract students, if at all? This work, then, benefits advisors, policy makers and leaders of higher education institutions who all have their own bottom-line challenges and need to effectively attract new students.

In fact, a recent report Deloitte has identified the following issues impacting the higher educational sector: Globalization, cost, student expectation, technology, estates, talent and research (Mercer, 2015). Significantly, ‘student expectation’ is in this list, as students are now often high-paying customers providing secure income streams to their education providers. Given the external threats and competition in the sector it is, then, important to understand how to protect this income by attracting student enrollments and securing these vital economic sources.

It is globally recognized that to attract students, educational providers need to invest in teaching staff, infrastructure, marketing and career support. Understanding ‘exactly’ what students want will help us develop strategies to attract them. In my study I looked at why students make a choice for a particular Master of Business Administration (MBA) course in favor of another, the attributes that lead to the student’s decision making, and the variation in their relative importance in the eyes of the students. Seventy-six post-graduate students were interviewed and ‘reputation’ was found to be the single largest contributor to student choice when choosing an MBA provider. I found that prospective postgraduate students engage in a lot of research and are well informed about the program, in particular, when they are paying for it themselves. It is valuable to understand the reasons why post-graduate students choose their study program and what led to, or influenced, this decision. Interestingly, five key factors for choosing an MBA program were discovered as important to students, these include:

  1. The long-term reputation of the institution.
  2. The quality of its educators and courses.
  3. The flexibility of the syllabus (for national but not international students).
  4. The quality of the facilities.
  5. The ease by which graduates can start meaningful program related careers.

A Competitive Global Knowledge Market

Perhaps we should spend a second to discuss why this is important. We can ask ourselves, why should we concern ourselves with what attracts students? Does it really matter? Well, yes! The globalization of education through the use of online learning, which effectively decentralizes schooling, means that out-of-date educational providers will (are) losing students to those that invest in their facilities/staff/courses. These investments help them successfully attract new student cohorts. The thing is, a student now does not need to leave their home to enroll, and study, in any country of their choice given Information and communications technology (ICT) application. This means that the student has much more choice, and, the educational provider has much more competition. And, in a knowledge economy students are, and do, discriminate, as they are well aware of what they are getting into. Santiago et al. (2008) in Hazelkorn (2011) noted ‘because education and graduate outcomes and lifestyle are strongly correlated with higher qualifications and career opportunities, students (and their parents) have become savvy consumers’ (pp. 12).

As a consequence, higher education has become a competitive global knowledge market, as institutions position themselves against international challengers, consequently, the education arena and options available to students has dramatically increased in size. This provides both dangers and opportunities to educational providers. Improving their prestige promises to increase student enrolments. A recent article on the future of universities by The Economist (2014) states, ‘The universities least likely to lose out to online competitors are elite institutions with established reputations and low student-to-tutor ratios.’ Providers of educational services, then, need to be smarter and better at marketing themselves … promoting their reputation. Thus, we need to better understand student choice of education program and what factors are key influences of their decision making.

We now know that reputation and the prestige of the educational provider are the largest contributing factors to student decision making when considering their choice of study, more so than the reputation of any individual department/school by itself. My research shows us that ‘reputation’ and place on ranking tables is more important to students than the quality of teaching, degree content, quality of facilities, or cost. Today’s students have a huge amount of information available to them, and, they spend considerable time researching their options as part of their decision making process. Interestingly, ‘reputation’ is a factor largely external to an educational provider’s control, whilst content, quality and price of programs are factors that educational institutions can change. This is valuable information for us because educational providers want to know what students are looking for and how they make their choices. These discoveries will certainly be of interest to policy makes and staff in the development of tools/policies/materials that will be instrumental in their future student recruitment campaigns.

What We Still Do Not Know

There is still a lot that we do not know. For example, we still need to know more about what influenced these students’ decision making, and, are these findings universal? Do students globally have the same thoughts regarding reputation? Is reputation as important to all students (career beginners, seasoned professionals, etc.)? Having a better understanding of the influencing factors of prospective students in their study-choice decision making may prove valuable to educational providers in effectively targeting various demographics within their prospective student populations. More so, if we understand these influencing factors globally (perhaps they differ per geographic region?) we can devise strategies to attract students who are not traditionally in our enrolment cohort. To find this out we need to explore further with students across a range of educational providers, in several countries. Once we know more, we will be able to tailor a provider’s marketing activities/spend, and design course content and syllabus proper - along with facilities to meet students’ needs and entice the maximum possible amount of future student enrollments. So, more research is needed.

Key Factor Of Choice

So we see that there are numerous factors, which influence a student's choice of program, and, that students are well informed when making their selection decision. Reputation of the educational provider appears to be a key factor in this choice. These conclusions hold a distinctive interest for policy makers and providers of higher education. To attract the best students, educational providers seek an advantage over others, the structuring and marketing of courses is critical. Understanding the influential factors involved in the selection of a program across different categories of student and engaging them could provide educational providers with the tools they require to target specific student demographics.

Technology, an uncertain funding environment and global competition are among the biggest drivers of change within the education market. To develop a successful student recruitment strategy, then, requires thinking about ‘what you communicate, to whom, and in what manner.’ Understanding the features that attract students is valuable in developing successful marketing strategies that actually attract. To do this best we need to understand the audience and their wants/needs. Knowing this helps us deliver messages that are consistent, clear and authentic. Key to attracting students. So, educational providers that seek out and ask the right questions are more likely to provide students with what they really want.

For a complete report of the study, see Blackburn, G., (2011). Which Master of Business Administration (MBA)? Factors influencing prospective students' choice of MBA program - an empirical study, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 33(5): 473-483. DOI:10.1080/1360080X.2011.605222