Co-written with Pamela Lee, Market Research Consultant, Noel-Levitz
This is the first of a two-part series. Read Part II here.
How do human beings make decisions? Neuroscience tells us that humans have both a logical, conscious “system” and a non-logical, unconscious “system” that provide input as we make decisions. We like to think of ourselves as highly logical creatures, but in fact our choices represent a mysterious blend of influences. Many researchers suggest that the subconscious is actually the dominant driver of human decision-making. (Here’s one study on the subject.)
On the topic of college choice by traditional-age students, the logical factors have been well researched. UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, Noel-Levitz, and other organizations have investigated top student choice factors such as institutional location, academic reputation, available majors, cost and financial aid, educational outcomes, faculty teaching and credentials, and enrollment size.
Why emotions matter in college student choice
Given what science says about decision making, enrollment managers need to understand—and respond to—what students are feeling as well as what they are thinking. To ignore this key component of student choice would render our understanding incomplete.
We know anecdotally that emotions play a significant role in the college decision. How often have you heard a student use emotionally charged language such as?
“I fell in love with the campus.”
“It just felt right.”
“I knew I would belong here.”
This research study shows just how completely the decision process is awash in emotions such as excitement, anxiety, stress, and hope.
How we studied the emotions and college choice
For this study, Noel-Levitz was invited to include questions in NRCCUA’s “Mapping the College Search” survey, deployed online in January 2014. Our quantitative sample included 5,240 students who expected to graduate between 2014-17 and who also planned to attend four-year institutions, community colleges, or technical/career colleges. In addition, we completed 16 qualitative follow-up queries to explore specific emotions in more detail and add “color” to our research.
The study revolved around this central question we posed to students:
“Which of the following best describes your primary emotion about the college choice process during the last week?”
Because students were recalling a recent timeframe, we had confidence that the self-reported emotions would be reasonably accurate. We were also able to cross-tab reported emotions with specific stages of the college-choice process.
We looked at 16 self-reported emotions, based on standard social science research categories of emotion. Eight of the emotions were classified as positive and eight as negative. Students chose the emotion that best reflected their emotional state related to college choice:
|Positive emotions||Negative emotions|
In addition, we asked them:
“How strongly did you feel the emotion you selected?”
These two questions together gave us a sense of both the emotional valence (positive/negative) and arousal (strength of emotion) experienced by students, the key components of emotion research.
Is college search a positive or negative experience? Students are split down the middle
The most remarkable finding of our research was the degree to which students reported their college search as being stressful and anxiety-provoking. We certainly expected to observe some of this unease in our research population. But for high school seniors, 51 percent reported positive emotions and 49 percent reported negative emotions as their dominant state.
Across all high school class levels in the full sample, 84 percent of responses fell into the following categories:
- Excited (16 percent)
- Stressed (15 percent)
- Anxious (13 percent)
- Hopeful (13 percent)
- Calm (12 percent)
- Confident (9 percent)
- Confused (7 percent)
Note that four of the most frequently reported emotions are positive and three are negative. What is the reason for this high degree of negativity? Unless we personally have a child in the throes of decision making, enrollment professionals may routinely underestimate the stress involved in choosing a college.
A recent New York Times article, “Why Teenagers Act Crazy,” sheds light on the plight of the teenage brain: “Different regions and circuits of the brain mature at very different rates. It turns out that the brain circuit for processing fear — the amygdala — is precocious and develops way ahead of the prefrontal cortex, the seat of reasoning and executive control. This means that adolescents have a brain that is wired with an enhanced capacity for fear and anxiety, but is relatively underdeveloped when it comes to calm reasoning.”
We saw this when we followed up with students who indicated they were stressed. They made comments such as:
“There are just so many colleges, and I have no idea which one is right for me.”
“I don’t know which colleges I can afford, where would be a good location, or even which colleges would prepare me best for a job.”
So college websites and viewbooks filled with relaxed, smiling faces may not at all reflect the state in which prospective college students find themselves prior to enrollment. This isn’t to suggest they should picture students who are stressed and nervous, but that communications should put students at ease as well as conveying the benefits of attending your campus.
What happens as students progress through high school?
The NRCCUA “Mapping the College Search” survey asked, “How far along are you in your college selection process?” Respondents selected one of seven stages, from “I haven’t begun my college selection process” to “I know exactly where I want to go and I’ve already been admitted there.” Using this response, we looked at the dominant emotions at each stage of the choice process, as well as by year in high school. Broadly, we saw that emotions and strength of emotions changed as students approached high school graduation. Not only were students more likely to report experiencing a negative emotion as they advanced through high school, but the intensity of the emotion they felt was likely to increase.
- Freshmen and sophomores were more likely to be calm, competitive, engaged, and hopeful than juniors or seniors if they had already begun their search, or more likely to be disinterested if they had not.
- Juniors and seniors were more likely to be frustrated than younger students—not surprising as that’s when pressure to make a college decision builds.
- Seniors were more likely to be relieved or stressed than younger students, depending on whether or not they had applied and been accepted to an institution. Not surprisingly, negative emotions were more likely for seniors up to the point when they had been accepted for admission.
In the second part of this series, we will look at differences between different groups of students as well as the important influence of campus visits on student emotions.
Conduct your own college choice research
Noel-Levitz has conducted college choice research for many colleges and universities. We can examine what influences students to enroll at your campus, as well as how your institution compares with competitors. Send us an email and we can arrange a time to talk about what you would like to learn and how this research would benefit your recruitment strategies.
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