The New Student Enrollment Journey



New research indicates that today’s students make faster enrollment decisions and focus more on program affordability and potential career impact.


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From the rise of AI to the resuming of long-paused student loan repayments, the last 12 months have brought sweeping changes to higher education. But even as we continue seeing headlines questioning whether the experience is worth the cost, 71% of students participating in a recent research survey say education remains a high priority in their lives.1

What’s changed is what they’re seeking from their educational journeys. Factors that resonated with learners in the past aren’t necessarily top of mind today, given recent changes such as the climbing cost of education and an increased focus on a program’s ROI. These developments have made it tougher for colleges, universities, and other learning providers to understand how best to reach students and motivate them to enroll in their programs.

But how exactly are student journeys and program prioritization changing? And what can universities and education providers do to reach students in the moments that matter most?

To answer these questions, Google partnered with Ipsos on a research study exploring shifts in student mindsets and enrollment priorities. The study, conducted in August 2023, surveyed 1,857 U.S. students enrolled in or considering higher education programs or non-degree options such as certificate programs and boot camps. The findings revealed clear key commonalities in enrollment journeys and priorities among current and prospective students in both degree and non-degree programs. Institutions and education providers would do well to keep these takeaways in mind as they plan their enrollment efforts.

Takeaway No. 1: Adjust to shorter student enrollment journeys.

It wasn’t that long ago that students would take at least six months — and sometimes more than a year — considering multiple universities and learning providers before choosing a program. Today, the student enrollment journey is becoming shorter for degree and non-degree programs alike. The survey revealed that 59% of current or prospective degree students took less than four months after conducting their initial research to enroll in a program.2

These findings indicate that education providers have a limited amount of time to influence students to consider their programs. That, in turn, makes it more important than ever to have both the right plan and the right tools in place to reach students during that period. Once institutions have outreach strategies aligned to connect with students during the consideration phase, they can leverage additional resources, such as AI-powered tools for marketing campaigns, to personalize how they engage with prospects.

Takeaway No. 2: Proactively address student concerns about affordability.

Another overarching takeaway from the study: Students are becoming more pragmatic. Practicality isn’t new, but we’ve seen an increased focus on affordability as students consider the high cost of education. More than half (55%) of students interested in degree programs ranked affordability as their top consideration during their research phase.3 Similarly, 43% of surveyed students said they would need tuition discounts from institutions to complete a program, while 37% said they would require more financial aid options.4,5

As student loan repayments resume and education costs continue to rise, affordability is top of mind for students as they make enrollment decisions. While many institutions have made strides in prioritizing affordable tuition and improving their financial aid programs, plenty of students remain confused about or unaware of the options available to them.

Universities and education providers now have a clear opportunity to help students better understand their pricing and financial packages and to communicate about those factors in their outreach efforts. Providers that emphasize affordability in their outreach campaigns will have a clear advantage over those who don’t because they’ll be able to address a critical and often overlooked factor in student program consideration.

Takeaway No. 3: Clearly communicate the connection between programs and career progression.

Closely tied to the theme of practicality, survey findings reveal that today’s students are hyper-focused on how their education decisions will impact their career development. More than a third of surveyed students — 37% — said an institution’s job placement rate is a top factor when evaluating degree programs, while 53% cited another important consideration: the ability to apply skills learned from the program to advance their careers.6,7 That finding doesn’t mean that quality academics and other critical factors aren’t important, as they still rank highly in terms of how students evaluate their education options. However, the fact remains that learners are looking to make educational decisions that are tied to clear line-of-sight outcomes and career impact.

To ensure that outreach efforts align with what’s most important to prospective learners, recruitment offices need to communicate measurable outcomes in their campaigns, including job-placement rates, career services, and job-support programs for alumni. When students can connect a program to its potential impact on their career progression, it’s easier for them to see themselves as part of that program.

As learners’ priorities and approaches to program selection evolve, universities and other education providers must ensure that their outreach to and engagement with prospective students aligns with those shifts. Institutions that focus on more effective ways of reaching students during the short consideration window and communicating the value of their programs — from the standpoints of both affordability and impact on a student’s future career — will be best positioned to address the priorities of today’s students.

Patricia Velázquez is the strategy and insights lead for the education industry at Google. Lesley Chou is the industry research lead at Google.

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1. Google/Ipsos Student Survey, August 2023; n=1,136

2. Google/Ipsos Student Survey; n=762

3. Google/Ipsos Student Survey; n=1,550

4. Google/Ipsos Student Survey; n=828

5. Google/Ipsos Student Survey; n=828

6. Google/Ipsos Student Survey; n=1,550

7. Google/Ipsos Student Survey; n=1,381