What’s the point of non-matriculant studies?

Mariah Obiedzinski

Mariah Obiedzinski

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A non-matriculant study reveals critical information about the factors that influence a student’s decision, how your institution compares with others (or, at least, how it is perceived in comparison), and how you can improve your recruitment process and yield marketing in the future.

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Mariah: I’m Mariah Obiedzinski, director of content services at Stamats. Joining me today on the Higher Ed Voices podcast is Grant De Roo, director of research and strategy at Stamats. Thanks for joining us today, Grant.

Grant: Glad to be here.

Mariah: As most of our higher ed marketing audiences can relate, yield in higher education is complicated. A lot of factors go into whether a student choses College A over College B. But you and your research colleagues offer a deep dive tool to get to the bottom of the “whys” associated with these choices. Grant, could you tell us about non-matriculant studies that your team conducts and what colleges can expect to learn?

Grant: Absolutely. First, it would probably help to define some terms. And non-matriculant is not exactly the most intuitive term. A lot of people call this an “admitted students survey” or “admitted students study.” And that also is not a perfect term.

Essentially the group of people that we’re talking about here that we’re trying to reach are students who are admitted to the college or university and ultimately chose to enroll somewhere else. That’s why they’re a non-matriculant. And yes, they were admitted, but admitted students study also could include those people who do choose to enroll, because they, too, were admitted. So, it’s a little bit confusing. So, I think it’s important to define terms here.

An admitted students study that surveys both those who intend to enroll and those who don’t is very valuable. We conduct that as well. But a lot of colleges find it’s sometimes more beneficial to understand who didn’t enroll and why.

When we talk about that, and we talk about non-matriculant studies or non-matriculant surveys, we are serving the students who chose not to enroll at the college or university. The ideal timeframe for this is really May or June. There’s a national commitment deadline on May 1. And so being able to survey those students after that is ideal for two primary reasons.

First is that memories fade, and we want to be able to capture accurate perceptions and accurate reflections on why a student chose College A over College B. So, being able to get that quickly is really important.

The second thing is logistical in nature—being able to reach these prospective students with the contact information the college has on file. So, a student likely goes through the college application process using a Gmail account or maybe even a high school-issued email address. But then, by the middle of the summer, they’re starting to get their college email addresses from the school they are enrolling in and starting to use that more.

They might not fully abandon their Gmail, but they might not use it with the same frequency they were previously. If they were using a high school issued email, they aren’t using that anymore. We want to be able to still reach them while they’re using the contact information the college has on file.

In this survey, we find a lot of really valuable information. From the very beginning, we’re going to look for what school are they going to and why. And the National Student Clearinghouse can provide really fantastic data on where students go—the schools they’re choosing instead of your institution. But they don’t get at why. And that “why” is critical for understanding if it was a matter of price or location or other factors. So, we start with that.

We also assess perceptions of your college relative to the school they chose to attend. We get into operational issues such as the application process, campus visit, admissions customer service, those types of things. We address what are the factors that are most important to a student as they’re deciding what college to go to. Who were their key influencers? Is it their parents? Friends? Counselors? All the above? And in what order do those people have an impact on the decision?

And then the information resources, too. We have a pretty good understanding of how students collect information about colleges early on, whether it’s website or a Fiske Guide for instance. But what is the information they are looking for when they’re actually looking to make their final committed decision, and how do they collect that information? All of that is really valuable.

Mariah: How is the non-matriculant study different from other perspective student studies that your team conducts?

Grant: We ask a lot of the same questions, “What’s important to you? What were the influencers? How do you collect information?” Like we were just talking about.

But the key difference is where these people are in their decision process. They went nearly the whole distance with you, right up to the point of even making their decision on April 30 or May 1. And these are students who not only collected information about you (or maybe their counselor recommended you), they chose to apply, they were admitted, they went through this whole process, and right up to the very end, then they chose to go somewhere else. This was a student who made a conscious choice to apply and was very intentional in that process.

So, understanding their perceptions of what was most important to them in making their final decision and understanding who influenced them, how they collected their information, how they’re perceiving you at this point relative to the school that they chose, all of that is really critical.

While the questions are largely similar, the student’s perspective and the time of year are so different that it’s really important to understand this non-matriculant student population.

Mariah: I’m sure there are a lot of reasons why a student would choose not to come to a certain university or college. You know, lots of different factors go into that. What are some of those more common themes that you see cited in your research?

Grant: So, the answers really vary. And some of what you might suspect, maybe the usual suspects of why a student chose a college over another, are prices. There’s location, there’s academic programs. Goodness of fit is hard to define, but it’s key in a student’s ultimate decision.

Generally, we find there are—in price behavior, in choice behavior—there are what’s called “compensatory” and “non-compensatory factors.” Compensatory factors are those things that can be compensated for. They can be changed, they can be augmented. So, maybe a college doesn’t offer biochemistry, but they offer biology and chemistry, and a student can kind of fashion his or her own major or choose one of those. Maybe they don’t have a club sport, you know, club water polo, but they provide avenues for the student to create that if he or she wants to. Those are compensatory factors, things the student can maybe get over, hurdles that can be overcome in choosing a school.

Non-compensatory things can be priced. So, there’s this conversation where the student sits down with his or her parents and they say, “This is what we’re able to provide. This is the gap. This is what you would have to make up for.” And price can sometimes be a non-compensatory factor because they’ll say, “You really shouldn’t consider any school above X price.” There’s a hard limit there.

Another non-compensatory factor for a lot of prospective students is location, ultimately. Sometimes it’s proximity to home. Sometimes close or far, depending on the student, but sometimes it’s just a matter of climate. And so, that can be a non-compensatory factor as well. So, we are able to suss those out in the research, as well as being able to determine how important those things were in ultimately guiding the student to his or her decision.

Mariah: And your non-matriculant studies cover parents as well, correct?

Grant: Generally, no. Although it can be a survey audience. We find that parents are really important—the No. 1 influencer in guiding a student’s decision. Counselors often are a close second. But generally, we don’t include parents in the survey process at this point. We often find it is a more self-deterministic process for the student in choosing his or her school, even though the parent is a key influencer.

And one thing we do find when we do survey parents, if the school chooses to survey them at this point as well, is along some of the lines that you would expect, the things that are most important to parents in guiding their student’s decision at this point are price and outcomes. What are you getting for the value of your money? And what is that going to ultimately lead to in terms of a job or graduate school in the end?

Mariah: Could you share a success story with us, Grant? For example, a college that took actionable data from their study and used it to affect their enrollment?

Grant: A couple of things, I think. There’s one case in which we collected responses from students that pointed to difficulty navigating the admitted students section of the school’s website. This is something that a lot of schools still don’t have. They have sections for prospective students, but there’s nothing that really clearly caters to those students once they’re admitted.

And by that point in the process, they’re now starting to think much more concretely about what it’s actually going to be like to attend the school, what it’s going to be like to live there. So, they want information on orientation. They want information on housing, on advising, on course scheduling, on whatever it is that might give them a better picture of what it’s like to actually live and be a part of this community.

In this one particular case, we learned from the non-matriculant audience that they were seeking that information and weren’t able to find it for this institution. And they ended up developing that web page as part of their admission site—they found it to be really helpful in follow-up research in the successive year to determine how many students were actually visiting that site and its role in guiding a student toward enrollment.

Mariah: Yeah. Lots of long-term actionable things instead of just one-hit marketing campaigns like you might be…

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Grant: Absolutely. And that’s just one small example. I think there are a lot of operational things around the length of the application or the clarity around the financial aid awarding process. There’s a lot of operational things that become really clear.

Campus visit is another thing that is really hard for an institution to control, right? And many schools are working with dozens, maybe even a couple hundred student admissions tour guides or ambassadors, whatever they call them. You can’t do quality control on all those students all the time. And they play such an important role in giving the prospective student an idea of whether they can see themselves there. It’s really hard to control, but it’s so important.

But getting really good feedback on the campus feedback process and experience is really valuable in terms of, “We didn’t get enough information. We got too much information. Campus tour is too long. Campus tour is too short. We didn’t see a dorm room.” All these things are really important for a school to be able to collect. So, there’s a lot of operational things that they learn as well.

Mariah: So, if a higher education marketer is interested in investing in a non-matriculant study, what should they do first to get prepared?

Grant: So, first would be clarifying the goals. Surveys can only be so long. And the longer they get, the more you increase your chances of people dropping off. Clarifying what you’re looking to get out of this, whether it’s operational, whether it’s perceptual information, maybe a little bit of both, maybe you’re more focused on your own institution, or you’re more focused on how you compare to the school that the student actually chose to go to. And clarifying some of those things is really important at the onset.

Determining when it’s going to be optimal to conduct the research is really valuable. Yes, there is a May 1 commitment deadline, but maybe you as an institution have a little bit more flexibility with that in letting students enroll after that date. If that’s the case, then we might want to wait until June to conduct research, for instance.

And then, also, thinking about whether you’re interested in just the non-matriculant audience or the admitted student audience at large. Again, remember that admitted students could be those who choose to enroll and those who don’t. And so, profiling the contrast between those two audiences can also be really important.

One additional thing that we would recommend that can be really informative is conducting follow up interviews with just a handful, maybe 10, 15, maybe 20 students who took part in the research. And being able to do 10- to 15-minute conversations with them to clarify certain things, to be able to get some color commentary on why they chose this versus that, or why they shared this response can be really valuable and really telling.

And then, lastly, just a couple of things to keep in mind as well is that the survey itself has to be optimized or mobile. We’re finding that about two-thirds of our prospective students survey respondents are taking the survey on a mobile device. So, that’s really critical. Make sure the questions are mobile-friendly and optimized for mobile.

And then, the very last consideration I would add is how you conduct the research. There’s a lot of schools that will do this themselves. There’s a lot of schools who will work with a partner year over year. In terms of minimizing selection bias, it’s really important to work with a third party. Because what happens is that when a college or university distributes that survey to a non-matriculant audience, it’s coming from XYZ University. And it’s immediately biasing those people who are likely to take it.

And you can think about your most recent flight. Most airlines, Delta, United, what have you, they’ll send a follow-up survey right after. And there’s two types of people who are most likely to take that survey. It’s the people who loved their experience and got upgraded to first class, and the people who got stuck in a middle seat and the flight was delayed, maybe cancelled, and they had a terrible experience. They have an ax to grind. So, being able to get a broader cross section of the audience is critical in this type of study. Using a third party is really important for that.

Not to mention the fact that there is also, whether we like to admit it or not, there’s going to be analyst bias in how you interpret the responses and in how you calculate certain things and how you analyze them and then share the findings with the Board or with the administrative leadership at the college. Using an objective, neutral third party is really important in terms of minimizing analyst bias as well.

Mariah: Thanks for joining us today, Grant.

Grant: Thank you.

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