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What Matters Most to Prospective Students in 2023–24

Hanover’s National Prospective Student Survey highlights crucial insights about recruitment and enrollment trends for the next academic year.

With the plethora of postsecondary opportunities and the public’s growing skepticism of the value of a college degree, it’s imperative for higher education leaders to understand the perspectives of college-bound students to build an informed and effective enrollment strategy. Hanover Research’s 2023 National Prospective Student Survey offers vital insights on the top concerns of nearly 1,000 high school students aged 16-19 polled in August 2023. By understanding the full scope of barriers that prospective students face in enrolling in college, institutions may adjust course to guide more prospective students to matriculation. 

College Affordability Remains a Top Concern for Prospective Students 

While 46% of surveyed students say they are very likely or extremely likely to enroll in an institution, 34% of respondents with higher education doubts cite financial barriers as their primary concern. With federal student loan repayments having resumed in fall 2023, prospective students may feel even more hesitant to take on substantial student debt. Moreover, other barriers linked to financial well-being such as employment obligations or family obligations also risk some students’ enrollment. 

Addressing college financial barriers for traditional-age students requires reaching students and their families earlier. High school students need support to start their financial planning efforts well ahead of graduation and ensure their families understand all avenues of financial assistance to achieve their children’s higher education goals.  

Use the following insights to strengthen awareness around financial aid options for prospective students:  

  • Adjust outreach, recruitment, and marketing efforts to prioritize messaging about affordability, financial aid, and support systems.  
  • This may include using social media to broadcast important deadlines for FAFSA and other third-party scholarships, or events such as targeted workshops or Q&A sessions with financial aid experts.  
  • Consider increasing meaningful, strategic partnerships with local or regional K–12 schools to connect with students and families as early as possible and identify populations that may benefit from increased support around college access. 
  • Ensure messaging is as accessible as possible by avoiding jargon, providing translations for multiple languages, and using more than one channel of communication.  
Learn more about what issues affect students after their college acceptance with our National Admitted Student Survey.  

Growing Concerns for College Preparedness: How to Begin Higher Education 

32% of high school students with doubts about attending college say they are unsure of how to get started in the college exploration process, and more than 25% are unsure if they would be accepted for admission. Addressing prospective students’ insecurities or lack of preparedness for college involves acknowledging that student needs vary based on demographics. Prospective students who struggle to get the ball rolling on college admissions tasks need to receive messages about what support services are available to them now and in the future. 

Hidden Barriers of Entry

Learning interruptions and stressors associated with the COVID-19 pandemic have left many families feeling especially unprepared, with some demographics experiencing more vulnerability than others. For some, preparedness issues may be related to disability, language barriers, technology access, or other challenges in addition to the process of recovering from unprecedented times. For example, research suggests as much as 13% of U.S. students ages 12-17 live with ADHD, which heavily impacts mental well-being, in turn affecting school-related tasks and achievements. This may put students with ADHD and other mental health, learning, and developmental disabilities at a disadvantage when it comes to higher education readiness.   

Consider these insights when aiming to reduce barriers of entry for prospective students:  

  • Survey prospective students and ask what might hold them back from applying or attending. Be sure to include messaging that promotes accurate and inclusive responses, especially regarding language and disability.  
  • Promote awareness for institution’s student support systems, so prospective students can see themselves attending your institution regardless of background, identity, or ability.  
  • Consider showcasing stories of current students who benefit from support services or hosting live Q&A sessions with volunteers who work in the admissions or student life offices.  
  • Emphasize the range of credentials available beyond the traditional degree model, promoting more inclusive admissions messaging. Partner with local organizations, such as community support networks, peer groups, and mentorship programs, to ensure this messaging reaches the prospective students who need it the most.  
Support and retain all students regardless of background, identity, or ability by learning more about their needs and concerns in our 2023 Higher Education Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Survey 

More Convenient Course Scheduling, Formats, and Locations   

Prospective students’ learning preferences are changing, in part, due to the societal changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and rising financial pressures.  

A significant number of students surveyed express interest in nontraditional programs. When it comes to how far from home prospective students are willing to attend college, most want to stay within 2-4 hours from home. This may be related to the nearly 50% of students who cite interest in part-time studies, which could indicate they plan to juggle college with work or family obligations. Similarly, 35% of respondents cite interest in hybrid learning formats. 

Revising enrollment and recruitment strategies to highlight hybrid and/or part-time options may translate into increased recruitment and retention rates, as students begin their studies fully informed of their learning options at your institution. Here are some additional insights and tips to help you understand the learning preferences of prospective students at your institution.  

  • Regularly survey prospective, admitted, and current students about their learning needs and preferences. Comparing these survey results to enrollment and retention numbers can highlight vital insights on specific student behavior preferences.  
  • Consider using geolocation research to identify prime zip codes of matriculated students and uncover untapped markets where you could boost your institution’s recruitment presence.  
  • Work closely with student life and academic affairs teams to identify sustainable ways to build campus engagement opportunities for students who require part-time or hybrid learning opportunities.  

Enrolling Students Within a Changing Landscape  

With growing skepticism of college as a worthy investment, the public’s dwindling expendable income, and the impending enrollment cliff, institutions must adjust their enrollment strategies to meet the concerns of prospective students. While these external factors may present challenges for institutions, they don’t need to hold your intuition back entirely. Data and research insights allow institutions to compare their current understandings and strategies with prospective students’ perceptions and needs to foster more effective enrollment management plans. Understanding the full extent of the interests and concerns held by your potential incoming students is the best way to accommodate them, boost their interest in your institution, and reach your enrollment goals.  

Learn more about how to accommodate and enroll more prospective students with our 2023 National Prospective Student Survey report.  


Learn more about how to accommodate and enroll prospective students in 2024.

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