Savvy Students Use an Array of Resources to Find the Right SchoolKaren Thomson | Vice President Marketing and Strategic Enrolment Management, George Brown College
Today’s students are experienced consumers, and they bring that experience from purchasing cars and houses to their college selection process. No longer swayed by rankings alone, prospective students make use of the resources at their disposal to research their postsecondary options and find the institution and program that’s right for them. In this interview Karen Thomson shares her thoughts on the role college marketers play in this environment and reflects on the value of rankings for prospective students.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What impact do college and program rankings have on prospective students’ decision making?
Karen Thomson (KT): Program rankings contribute to the perception of the reputation of both colleges and universities, but they’re not the dominant influencer on the decision to apply to an institution.
According to the research we’ve done, the number one factor students taken into account when selecting a college is the ability for graduates to gain employment in their areas of interest. A close second and third are the reputation of the institution and the reputation of the program, which can be influenced by rankings.
College Ontario conducts a study among all of the applicants to Ontario colleges once a year and there are about fifty different factors indicated in the survey. Among those 50 factors, rankings are the in the bottom quartile. They do impact some prospective students, but the level of impact varies depending on the prospects. Someone who is older is less likely to be influenced by the rankings than someone that is younger. Prospective students pursue a wide range of resources to make their choice, digital being the most important—whether it’s the institution’s website, marketing collateral or social media presence.
Prospective students pursue many different sources of information and rankings may be among them but they generally aren’t the most influential in isolation.
Evo: Given the access to information today’s students have through the Internet, are rankings as important for prospective students as they used to be?
KT: Most colleges in Ontario are no longer strictly two-year colleges. Many colleges deliver one, two, three and four year degree programs. The world has dramatically changed from 50 years ago when colleges were first launched in this province. Rankings are more important with the university category, because they had been around longer, but there weren’t as many rankings for the college system. Interestingly, prospective students don’t consider university or college in isolation. When they make a postsecondary decision they are considering both universities and colleges and you’ll find very few rankings that actually include both colleges and universities.
Over time, as information has become more plentiful, logic would suggest that a prospect might be more inclined to use the rankings to help guide them through this information overload, but the truth is that even the rankings are fragmented. Different systems rank different institutions in different ways. This could become even more confusing for prospective students, so they grow to rely on their own research because it speaks to their own personal criteria in a way that this whole range of rankings does not.
Evo: Does this focus on personal research signal a level of consumer intelligence from prospective students that may be relatively new to this generation?
KT: Prospective students do have more access to information and we are seeing a difference in the ages of college-going students compared to university-going students. Our average student, for example, is 23 years old, so they can be more mature and more confident in their own ability to make program selections based on the information that they gather. They are not necessarily 100 percent reliant on referrals or on the counsel of a generation that came before them.
I think students today are more independent in their acquisition of information, but I think part of the reason for that is they’ve been provided tools that previous generations didn’t have. They have access to so much information and they use it.
Evo: Do college rankings provide students with a fair assessment of the experience they are likely to have at a given institution?
KT: The question of a fair assessment depends on the specific ranking. Some rankings are created based on perception, so the publishers will do perception studies and perception does not always consist of informed opinions. Rankings that are based on perception are a little bit worrisome.
Rankings that are based on facts collected consistently across all institutions are more reliable. Any ranking that is created in partnership with the institutions is a ranking that would have more reliability and validity and be something that prospective students can look through a little bit more seriously. We encourage any organization interested in rankings to consult with us so we can be sure to give them information that’s going to be helpful to prospective students. Our goal is to ensure students have all of the information so they can choose the programs that are going to allow them to achieve their career goals and be successful.
Evo: How do rankings impact the approach college marketing departments take to engaging with prospective students?
KT: There hasn’t been a great deal of interest in rankings for the college system. You won’t find the same number or diversity of rankings for colleges as you will for universities—in Canada at least.
Having said that, interest in enrolling at colleges is increasing as the college system has evolved. The role of college marketers has been to ensure that we work in partnership with whoever it is that is interested in creating a ranking and ensure that the methodology of creating that ranking is going to reflect reality. That’s been our primary mandate, role and emphasis.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the capacity of rankings to change the way that institutions operate but also how institutions market themselves?
KT: Institutions should not have a fear of rankings. There’s a place for rankings in the public realm as long as the criteria for the ranking is very clear and consistently applied in terms of the information. Finding the ideal institution requires more than looking at any one ranking and saying, “That’s the de facto answer,” because education is very personal in nature. It’s a combination of a student’s individual goals, what the labor market trends are and what their personal strengths and weaknesses are. There are a lot of factors that rankings can’t possibly capture, so while they are important tools to look at to help prospective students become informed on their choices, they can’t be used in isolation.
We want to contribute to providing that information to students and so we work to support that in a broader sense. Education is an investment that has a long term return in terms of job satisfaction and employment, so people should take choosing an institution seriously and avoid taking shortcuts to making that decision.