Traditional Student Demand

Reigniting Student Interest: Crafting a Compelling Value Proposition for First-Generation Students

Blog post cover image

Eduventures research shows fewer first-generation high school students from low-income households are in the college pipeline now than before the pandemic. Only 18% of students in our 2024 Prospective Student Research™ fit this demographic, compared to 28% in 2019. This is not because these students are less represented in the overall population, but because more of them have opted out of college.  

In preparing for the upcoming demographic cliff, however, it is vital for institutions to reengage these students. A comparison of first-generation prospects from low-income households pre- and post-pandemic shows how much preferences have changed—with implications for recruiting students opting out of college, but also for those that remain in the pipeline. 

Eduventures’ Prospective Student Mindsets™ (Mindsets) provide a proven roadmap to understanding how students imagine their paths through college. This understanding is foundational for crafting messaging that catches their initial attention and for keeping them engaged throughout the recruitment conversation.   

Figure 1 shows the Mindsets in our 2024 Prospective Student Research compared to those before the pandemic (2019) for first-generation students from low-income households and for the total student population.  

Figure 1.

Figure 1 reveals some shifts in the Mindset distribution across all prospective students, which can be primarily characterized by a decline in Exploration & Meaning students (-6 percentage points) and an increase in Grad School Bound students (+8 percentage points).  

In contrast, shifts in the Mindsets of first-generation students from low-income households are more substantial. The students within this segment who remain in the funnel now differ in three significant ways from their peers in 2019. Post-pandemic, these students tend to: 

  1. Be more academically focused 
  2. Pay less attention to the experience of college 
  3. Double down on the core return-on-investment of college 

Let’s break this down further.  

Figure 1 shows that the two academically focused Mindsets, Career through Academics and Grad School Bound, both doubled in size among first-generation students from low-income households over the past five years. Career through Academics grew from a minor Mindset for this student segment to the second largest. This indicates that more first-generation students from low-income households still attending college seek academic strength. Indeed, these students report higher high school grade averages in 2024 than they did in 2019. Perhaps, being strong students academically, they hope for substantial merit aid to achieve their goals. 

The primary Mindset among the students still in the funnel, Career Pragmatist, maintained its position but grew from a small majority of 24% in 2019 to a significant majority of 30% in 2024. This means that nearly a third of students in this demographic segment is primarily focused on getting through college in an affordable way and graduating with a job offer in hand. This also means that institutions must carefully balance the growing focus on academics with core return-on-investment for this increasingly important segment of students. 

On the other hand, first-generation students from low-income households who were focused on the college experience—either through social interactions (Social Focus), personal growth (Exploration & Meaning), or hands-on career experiences (Experiential Interest)—are less prevalent in the funnel now than they were before.  

Many would-be Experiential Interest students who seek hands-on career learning likely decided to enter a strong job market right out of high school. Would-be Social Focus students, however, might simply hesitate at the cost, knowing their families won’t be able or willing to support their college dreams if they are focused more on social rather than practical considerations. To bring these students back, institutions must address both affordability and outcomes.  

Understanding how college majors factor in is also important. In the past, first-generation students with low-income backgrounds often pursued programs with strong career articulations but not necessarily high salaries, such as criminal justice, education, and nursing. Does this pattern still continue in 2024?  

Figure 2 reveals the top 10 academic areas of interest of first-generation students from low-income households, and how they compare to those of 2019. 

Figure 2.

Figure 2 shows that programs related to health professions still dominate prospective student interest, but interest in these fields has declined significantly. Additionally, Criminal Justice and Education—two fields that have long been in decline nationally but remain in the top 10 of this student segment—also lost popularity. 

Instead, students who consider college despite financial obstacles and less parental guidance show greater interest in STEM majors that promise lucrative salaries. These students may no longer see the value of a college degree if low-paid, albeit important, jobs in education or criminal justice await them.  

The Bottom Line 

The student segments we lost during the pandemic may be making their way back into the college pipeline, but the calculus has changed. Doubling down on career outcomes and academics, these students are now less focused on the experience of college—at least at the prospect stage. Their academic interests largely center on high-paying fields with strong career articulations. This means that institutions must also adjust their conversations with these students.  

Two core insights emerge about how we must now recruit these students: 

  • Return-on-investment and a value proposition that balances cost with academics and career must be key themes in the recruitment conversation. Institutions must be prepared to not only talk about these but also show proof points such as starting salaries and graduate outcomes. 
  • Academics are valued over hands-on experiences for more students. This likely means we are still losing many prospective students to the job market. Institutions should explore ways to bring them back into the pipeline, either as traditional-aged students or adult learners. Effectively emphasizing practical features in the curriculum and solid career outcomes will be key. 

Like, Follow, Share.

Subscribe card logo

Never Miss Your

Wake-Up Call