HE Research Snippet 18 – Don’t ignore the subtleties of applicant decision making

Posted on 7th May 2015 by Youth

Research Snippets: Our monthly Research Snippets look at interesting and topical findings unearthed by the HE team at YouthSight. See all our HE Research Snippets here. If any of your colleagues would like to receive our Research Snippets, ask them to drop a line to: james.macgregor@YouthSight.com


The drivers of university choices among UK prospective undergraduates are well-researched. Reputations, course appeal, and employability figure prominently as they hint at how much a degree will contribute to an applicant’s life chances. A university might be tempted to continuously pump messages on how strong they are on these far-future factors into the growing collection of communication channels. Surely, emphasising how good you are at the most important things will attract the right applicants.

But, new research from Higher Expectations suggests this approach would ignore the subtleties of the decision-making process. At the time applicants are making their final choices, other things are top-of-mind. When considering their offers, applicants are first thinking about the experiences and practicalities of studying rather than a degree’s contribution to their life chances. It might be that these near-future factors are not given the prominence they deserve in universities’ priorities.

HE research snippet article image 1

The near-future is more prominent at decision-time

While factors that indicate the contribution a degree makes to an applicant’s life chances might be highly influential, it does not follow that these factors are prominent throughout the long application process. To reveal when different decision-making factors first emerge, we included a new question in this year’s Higher Expectations 2014/15 that captured when choice factors first figured in a prospective student’s decision. The answers of over 11,000 respondents offer an unsurprising finding. As prospective students move through the process, their attentions shift. ‘Reputation’ and ‘course’ first figure before the UCAS form is submitted. Later in the process, other things are occurring for the first time. Near-future-factors (like social life, ‘dealings with you’, and costs) first emerge prominently as applicants consider their offers. As these matters are front-of-mind at this crucial moment, we might expect perceptions in these areas to influence choices.

It’s the same for everyone

This phenomenon persists even when looking only at the top fifth of applicants by attainment. On these matters, high-attainment students applying to universities with the highest entrance requirements are no different from everyone else. The universities who seek to recruit the most accomplished students are under the same pressure as everyone else.

HE research snippet article image 2

Students are thinking about things that universities are bad at

Higher Expectations shows universities in general to be poorly regarded by applicants on these near-future matters. ‘Dealings with you’, in particular, is the area where many universities perform poorly in comparison to ratings on other choice factors. This weakness is particularly prominent among Russell Group universities. This presents an opportunity for aspirant universities. Those that do better on these near-future factors might expect their conversion rate to improve, even among the most able students



This analysis has been based on our annual Higher Expectations study. Higher Expectations shows HEIs how they compete at the individual level. It gives complete and transparent benchmarking across the whole sector so you can see where you’re going right, wrong and how to focus and improve. This year’s results are available now, with some major improvements. For the first time, all aspects of the study are delivered in your own simple, flexible, and secure online dashboard and Module 4 provides you with qualitative video reports. Please contact me if you have any questions or would like to place an order at james.macgregor@youthsight.com.


YouthSight owns the consumer access panel for higher education: 70,000 current students, 18,000 graduates and 17,000 applicants and 10,000 other young people. We’ve completed hundreds of projects for our HE clients, helping over 90 universities and HE organisations obtain the insights and data they need to drive important decisions. We’ve helped policy bodies collect evidence for ground-breaking reports, we’ve helped marketing directors develop winning strategies and we’ve helped Deans to create new early-stage course propositions that genuinely meet market needs. Our portfolio of products is based on a clear understanding of the needs of HE professionals combined with a sophisticated approach to the ‘tools of our trade’, including qualitative and quantitative interviews, regression & key driver analysis, Price Sensitivity Meter and choice-based conjoint or trade-off techniques. Here are some of our key products and approaches:

  • Higher Expectations – the most comprehensive survey of new students in the UK. It provides:
    • Competitive benchmarking – your performance versus your competitors – and nearly every other UK university
    • Single-year or multi-year packages
    • Key Performance Indicator scores
    • Now including FREE presentations
  • Helping you define your brand – an appealing and differentiated brand position is now an imperative
  • Course development, portfolio review and fee setting – time and again courses fail because they lack market appeal
  • Recruitment for in-house surveys (qual and quant) – we can help you interview
  • pre-applicants, applicants, students at competitor universities and recent graduates

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Clients and case studies

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