Program Spotlight

How Prospective Student Mindsets Influence Major and College Choice

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Drawing on Eduventures’ 20-plus years of experience helping universities develop, launch, and assess academic programs, the Program Spotlight Series of Wake-Up Calls calls attention to best practices in program development.

Enrollment managers are busy people. Not only must they meet or exceed enrollment goals every year, but they are increasingly tasked with improving student retention, the institutional brand, and college rankings. To do this, they must often take into account the academic program portfolio to understand how programs resonate with students. There is a good reason for that.

Academic major is one of the key enrollment drivers for undergraduate students. Eduventures’ 2017 Survey of Admitted Students, which yielded a national sample of more than 90,000 college-bound high school students, identified the availability of a desired program as the second-most important enrollment driver after affordability.

What enrollment managers might not realize is just how closely connected institutional brand, the right fit-student, and academic program preference actually are.

To start, if you would argue that the academic interests of 17-year-olds may change, you are correct. Only 60% of survey respondents told us they were highly confident that they will actually pursue the major they expressed interested in. None-the-less, they still choose institutions to apply to and enroll in based, to a large degree, on the availability and reputation of their anticipated major choice.

We used our 2018 Prospective Student Survey (click here to participate in this year's survey) to examine the connection between anticipated academic major and preferred institution type. In doing so, we found some stronger-than-average preferences for private, in-state public (i.e., publics with a mostly in-state student population), and out-of-state public institutions (i.e., publics with a large proportion of out-of-state students) across a variety of academic fields of interest.

For instance, students interested in studying international relations are almost three times as likely to show preference for attending a private institution (62% preferred a private institution) compared to the total sample (23% preferred a private institution).

More interestingly, we observed patterns among those preferences. We found that students gravitate toward specific types of institutions for specific academic and related occupational fields (Figure 1).


Relationship between Institutional Type and Academic Program InterestFigure 1.


Students interested in studying traditional liberal arts fields and STEM subjects are more drawn to private institutions. Those interested in fields with an articulated career path, like nursing, or social work, are more likely to prefer an in-state public institution. On the other hand, students who are looking to major in specialized fields, such as sports science, aviation, journalism, and specialized business programs, like sports management or entrepreneurship, tend to consider out-of-state publics more often than others do.

From Major to Mindset

It may all seem intuitive at first glance: students who want to pursue a field that will lead to a lower paying career or will require extensive (and expensive) graduate study shy away from a high-cost undergraduate education. Students interested in STEM fields are drawn to the perceived prestige of private institutions, as are those interested in the liberal arts, who may not worry as much about an instant return-on-investment on their degrees.

These observations, however, are superficial and do not help institutional leaders with their strategies. Instead, let’s try to better understand the students behind those choices.

Next, we segmented Eduventures’ Prospective Student Mindsets™ (Mindsets) by institutional preference and found that they correspond well to the findings about field of study and school preference (Figure 2).


Prospective Student Mindsets Paths Figure 2.


ROI-seeking Career Pragmatists, along with career-minded Career through Academics and Experiential Interest students, are more likely to prefer an in-state public institution. These Mindsets are often sensitive to price, and likely overlap heavily with students interested in studying healthcare, education, and social work.

Grad School Bound students, who often lean toward STEM majors, show a stronger preference for private institutions than other Mindsets. Exploration and Meaning students, the Mindset most receptive to liberal arts messages, also lean toward private institutions. Likewise, Social Focus students, often interested in extrovert fields like business or communication, are more likely to choose private or out-of-state public institutions.

The Bottom Line

. When your institution considers new programs for its undergraduate portfolio, one good starting point is to examine the Mindset mix at your institution. While every Mindset is represented at every school, there are usually two or three that your institution serves best or is most interested in attracting.

Next, narrow down academic areas these students are interested in. From there, explore promising programs for their feasibility at your institution and the market you serve.

Alternatively, if you already have a new program in mind, hold it up to your institution’s Mindset mix — does it still seem like a good fit? This student-centered approach will save you and your staff time and resources by identifying programs with good potential early on.


Do our research findings reflect what you see at your school? What programs perform best at your institution, and what types of students do they attract? Tweet us @EduventuresInc using #EVWakeUpCall.

Are you interested in more insights from our Prospective Student Survey? Join us on Thursday, September 20, 2018 at 1pm Central/2pm Eastern for our next webinar!

Generation Z is here and enrolling! How have you or will you change your recruitment and enrollment strategies? This presentation, based on Eduventures Prospective Student Survey, outlines the key distinctions between Millennial and Gen Z students and the implications these distinctions have on college enrollment decisions.

Join Eduventures Principal Analyst Kim Reid as she shares key themes for pivoting to serve Gen Z students better in recruitment and enrollment, as well as options for participating in the 2018 Prospective Student Survey.

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