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