Student Travel in Times of COVID: Recruiting in Distant Markets

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The fall 2020 enrollment cycle was difficult for most institutions, but particularly for those that recruit from distant markets. Eduventures’ Admitted Student Research shows that the segment of students willing to travel the longest distance for school chose to enroll an average of 1,200 miles from home, compared to 1,400 miles in 2019.  This suggests that a significant portion decided that driving to school felt more comfortable than flying.

As we progress through the 2021 enrollment cycle, the struggle to recruit in distant markets will likely continue. If your institution’s success depends on these markets, here is what you need to know about the students still willing to take the leap.

To Choose and Be Chosen

Students who scored in the top half of all ACT and SAT test takers enrolled an average of 563 miles from home compared to 328 miles among the bottom half.

It is important to note that this data, from our annual Admitted Student Research, was collected in the summer of 2020. At that time, a handful of largely public institutions had announced they would be remote in the fall, but a majority were making plans for on-campus learning. Most students had likely made their enrollment choices with the expectation of arriving on campus in the fall.

Our study also showed that top-half test scorers were more likely to enroll at an out-of-state public (21% vs. 16% of bottom half) or a private institution (22% vs. 11%). If we combine enrollment distance and institution type, we can see that top-half test-scorers also more often enrolled at schools where “flying would be advisable” (Figure 1).

Figure 1.

Top-half test scorers, who are more likely to attend selective schools, are perhaps less willing to give up their academic dreams in light of a global pandemic. Aware of the opportunities their test scores provide, these students were also more likely to shop around: 52% who enrolled at private institutions and 37% who enrolled at out-of-state public institutions where “flying would be advisable” reported that they applied to 10 or more schools, compared to 20% of all students.

Travel as a Privilege

The data provided so far likely conjures images of students from privileged backgrounds for whom cross-country travel—and standardized test preparation—is not an issue, even during a recession. Does this mean that institutions that recruit in distant markets should expect to compromise on socioeconomic and racial diversity?

Table 1 below shows the key demographics of students willing to enroll at schools within flying distance from their homes, compared to all students.


Table 1. Demographic Profile of Students Enrolled in Flying Distance from Home

Enrolled at out-of-state public, flying distance Enrolled at private, flying distance All students, all distances
Underserved minority 38% 54% 43%
Low income 15% 24% 27%
First-generation 14% 17% 28%
No or one access factors 88% 80% 74%
Two or three access factors 12% 20% 26%
Median SAT 1290 1370 1250

Source: Eduventures 2020 Admitted Student Research. Access factors include underserved racial minority, low-income, or first-generation status.

This table presents an interesting story about students who enrolled at schools within flying distance. Those who enrolled at an out-of-state public institution are indeed more privileged than their peers. They are on average more often white, higher income, and less often first-generation. These students care more about the enrolling school’s physical environment (42% vs. 29% at private, 29% of all students) and social environment (40% vs. 35% at private, 33% of all students), indicating that their decisions were more driven by a specific campus experience.

In contrast, those who enrolled at out-of-state private institutions are in fact more racially diverse than those who enrolled at out-of-state publics, and even more racially diverse than the aggregate of all students. These schools, however, attracted a similar proportion of low income students compared to the aggregate of all students, but fewer first-generation.

The stand-out characteristic of students who enrolled at out-of-state private schools is their median SAT score, which is significantly higher than that of both peer comparison groups. Not surprisingly, these students identified academic strength (71%, vs. 66% out-of-state public, 64% all students) and the academic environment (51% vs. 32% out-of-state, 37% all students) more often as important factors in their enrollment decisions.

This means that high achieving students are hesitant to give up their hopes of attending the private schools of their dreams—regardless of personal circumstances. This also means that private institutions don’t necessarily have to compromise on diversity when trying to recruit students from distant markets.

The Bottom Line

If your institution recruits out-of-state students—whether because of their academic profiles or because your local market is shrinking—you will need to keep some things in mind amid the pandemic:

  • Private institutions:
    • High-skill students have high expectations. If your school is not known for prestige or selectivity, convincing these students to attend may come at a high cost. Many come from low income families and are dependent on financial aid, while others will look for generous merit aid packages as an acknowledgment of their hard work.
    • Don’t sacrifice diversity. Like the many students who are most likely to pay full tuition, know that students from less privileged backgrounds are also willing to travel to pursue their dreams. It is still possible to recruit a high-quality, diverse student body, which will benefit all students.
  • Public institutions:
    • Conduct a reality check on your recruitment promises. Students who choose out-of-state publics have specific academic experiences in mind. They come from a distance because they believe your institution can offer what they are looking for. If you need to shift to remote learning, be realistic about whether their experiences at your institution can match their expectations. If not, retention may become an issue.

Most importantly, keep in mind that the current recruiting environment is still fluid. The peculiarities of the pandemic and resulting economic uncertainty have fundamentally altered the calculus of college choice. Understanding how this changing environment impacts your recruitment efforts is perhaps more important than ever before.

To understand how COVID-19 has shaped the attitudes of college-bound students in your market, participate in Eduventures Prospective Student Research! The deadline for participation is November 4, 2020.  

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Learn more about our team of expert research analysts here.

Eduventures Senior Analyst at Encoura

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Eduventures’ Prospective Student Research represents the largest student market segmentation and institutional identity study in the country, revealing the preferences of Gen Z college-bound students, including our Student Mindsets™.

Results from this study are used to provide critical direction for enrollment professionals as it informs their practices to better recruit, retain, and serve students.

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