Reporting on the connections between education and work

Online learning and career opportunities among the top asks for college applicants

A new survey by Anthology finds that would-be students’ top concerns center on whether they can succeed in college, time commitments, and finding a job after graduation. We talked to co-author Mirko Widenhorn about those findings and how institutions can respond.

A survey released today demonstrates the importance of online learning and career opportunities for college applicants—and also highlights green and red flags for prospective students.

The survey, “Student Feedback Informs Admissions and Enrollment Strategies,” included more than 1,400 American college students or prospective students and was commissioned by Anthology, an “ecosystem” of ed-tech solutions formed jointly by Blackboard, Campus Labs, Campus Management, and iModules.

The economy and potential career outcomes are heavy on the minds of many of the student respondents. Six in 10 respondents said that the current economy is a factor in not applying or enrolling in an institution.

Students are clearly also thinking about their career after college. About 69% of respondents said that their career outlook and options are very or fairly important in deciding what college or university to attend. And 38% of respondents said that as they consider enrolling in college, they are concerned about finding a job after completion.

Because of this, study authors advise that institutions make career services “part of their value proposition” and get strategic about using the AI-powered career service tools that have proliferated in recent years. 

In keeping with the times, students are not only wary about the economy but also becoming more inclined to hybrid, remote, and asynchronous modalities. When it comes to researching potential colleges and universities, 32% of respondents said the availability of online courses was either the most important or the second most important element.

Nearly half of students (48%) were concerned about their ability to succeed in college well before they arrived on campus. 

Search and selection

The survey found that the No.1 factor for students in determining where to attend was cost of attendance. The findings also provided insights into how students move through the application process—and what can hinder or deter that progress.

  • During the research phase of the application process, over 60% of respondents used internet searches and institutions’ websites to learn about the institutions and academic programs.
  • Only 17 percent relied on guidance counselors.

And about 4 in 10 said the enrollment process would have been easier if institutions had a dedicated enrollment advisor.

The white paper outlining the survey findings provides advice to institutions—including that they should be clear about online and hybrid options, highlight career opportunities and outcomes, and make cost of attendance easy to access on their websites.

We talked with Mirko Widenhorn, senior director of engagement strategy at Anthology and a co-author of the report, about differences between first-generation college students and those with college-going experience in their families, the importance of career outcomes in college selection, and what survey findings surprised him.

Respondents were fairly evenly split between first generation (49%) and continuing generation (51%). Did you notice any distinct differences between the responses from those two groups?
Mirko Widenhorn

A: First-generation students are more reliant on university websites and internet searches, as well as guidance counselors to learn about institutions compared to continuing generation students. Family and friends are a lesser source of information about universities than for continuing generation students.

First-generation students also are more likely to prefer completely in-person instruction, with lower interest than continuing generation students in completely online or hybrid programs. And they are more positive about the value of postsecondary education with over 50% indicating that their perception of value improved in the last year, compared to 30% of continuing generation students.

As we come out of the most acute years of the pandemic, should colleges still be cautious about their applicant prospects or is now the time to be more bullish in reaching recruitment goals?

A: Colleges should continue to be cautious about application and recruitment goals as the public sentiment around higher education seems to be shifting, which likely has an impact on enrollment. In addition, the decline in the number of high school graduates will also result in potential challenges for universities. Moreover, the cost of postsecondary education continues to be a concern, with 61% of respondents indicating that the current economic situation may impact their decision to attend college or continue their studies.

How have you seen learner reaction to online course availability change since before and during the course of the pandemic?

A: While Anthology did not conduct a survey pre-pandemic, looking at other data coupled with responses to this and a prior survey, students are more interested in online or hybrid courses now than prior to the pandemic. In a survey conducted in April 2022, 13% of respondents expressed interest in a fully in-person program. While that increased to 16% in this survey, it is clear that students prefer programs that offer at least hybrid components.

How do career prospects affect a student’s decision to enroll? How can institutions speak to this concern?

A: Based on the survey results, students consider the career outlook and career options during their evaluation process of universities. 

While not stemming directly from the survey results, colleges should highlight career outcomes of graduates to a higher degree throughout the recruitment process. This can be done through alumni profiles, as well as other ways to highlight success of graduates. Institutions should identify ways to highlight graduates’ successes in multiple ways. Institutions also could, for example, host college fairs that feature alumni, including alumni panels at open houses, and similar initiatives.

Another opportunity would be to highlight career support provided throughout the student experience, whether through career services, advisors, internships and other experiential learning, or more. This can be woven into a story about how students are supported from day one with a focus on ensuring their success both at the institution and after graduation.

How can colleges make the most of modern, AI-powered tools in career services?

A: The challenge here is to go beyond offering the variety of tools in the market to leveraging the tools to ensure that students are making the most use of them. It’s one thing to have the tools available; it’s another to have strategies in place to ensure students are benefitting from them. In an ideal world, some of these would be integrated into the curriculum in some way—or at least become an ingrained part of the student experience.

As a researcher and scholar in this space, what in the findings was the biggest surprise for you?

A: While the data on cost of education was not surprising, the impact it has on a student’s perceived ability to attend a university is a reminder of how important messaging about the cost of education is for the typical student. There is an opportunity to shift the strategy in how institutions talk about cost, but it is challenging in an environment where perceived value may be tied to the sticker price.

That said, the aspect of the findings that I keep coming back to is the expressed concern among almost 50% of respondents related to being able to succeed in postsecondary education. This is a high percentage and identifies an opportunity for institutions to develop additional ways to support applicants during the process. If institutions can help to reassure applicants at any point in the process, applicants will be more likely to enroll in postsecondary education.

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