Nurturing Success: Understanding the Experiences of Students and Families During College Planning and Enrollment

Raquel BermejoAssociate Vice President, Market Research and PlanningMay 16, 2024
Blog on understanding experiences of college students and families: image of parents looking at laptop with their daughter
New research shows families tend to be more positive about the college experience than students.

The college planning process is a critical moment in a student’s life, marking the transition from high school to higher education. As colleges focus on selecting their classes, it’s important to understand and prioritize the experience and satisfaction of applicants and their families. It seems that we can turn to the most logical source of information: the enrolled students and their families.  

From October to December of 2023, RNL and CampusESP, surveyed more than 20,000 families who at that time had college students (graduating classes of 2024 to 2027) at 50 different institutions across the United States. We asked them about their experiences, perceptions, and preferences.

Enrollment offices in general should be happy, as we found that nine out of ten families are satisfied with their admissions and enrollment.  (These stats are from CampusESP and RNL’s 2024 Family Engagement Report.)

Families that are satisfied with their admissions and enrollment experience

  • Public institutions: 89%
  • Private institutions: 93%

We also found out that if families had to do it all over, nearly eight in ten families of college student responded would support their students enroll at the same institution. That’s good news for colleges. From the RNL 2023 National Student Satisfaction Results we know that roughly only six out ten college students would re-enroll at the same institution if they had to do it all over.

Students and families who would re-enroll at their current institution if they had to do it all over

Institution type Students Families
Public institutions 63% 79%
Private institutions 57% 80%
Sources: 2024 Family Engagement Report and 2023 National Student Satisfaction Results

Similarly, families are more likely to perceive admissions counselors more positively than students are. To the very same question: do admissions counselors accurately portray the campus in their recruiting practices? Students and families answered very differently, with again families taking a more positive and satisfied approach.

Admissions counselors accurately portray the campus in their recruiting practices

 Institution type Students Families
Public institutions 57% 82%
Private institutions 54% 83%
Sources: 2024 Family Engagement Report and 2023 National Student Satisfaction Results

What are some of the reasons why families may view the admissions and enrollment process a bit more positively than their students?

Post-enrollment realities

Once enrolled, students encounter the day-to-day realities of college life, which may differ significantly from the expectations set during the admissions process. The focus on grades, coursework, and the challenges of adapting to a new academic and social environment can overshadow the initial excitement of being admitted.

Families often have limited exposure to the challenges and adjustments that students face post-enrollment. The admissions process is primarily concerned with securing a spot in the college, and families may not be fully aware of the nuanced experiences that unfold afterward. This lack of exposure can contribute to a more positive view of the admissions process.

Academic pressure and performance expectations

College students often face heightened academic pressure and expectations upon enrollment. The realization that admission is just the first step and maintaining academic excellence is an ongoing challenge can contribute to a more critical view of the admissions process. The pressure to perform at a high level can be mentally taxing for students.

Families may hold an optimistic view of the college experience, fueled by the anticipation of their child’s personal and academic growth. Admissions counselors play a pivotal role in shaping this optimism, presenting the college as an environment of opportunities and learning. Families may focus on these positive aspects, fostering a more favorable perception of the admissions process.

Mismatched expectations and reality

Expectations set during the admissions process may not always align with the reality of college life. Whether it’s the academic rigor, campus culture, or overall experience, students may find that the actual college environment differs from what they envisioned during the application process, leading to a sense of disillusionment.

The admissions process is intrinsically tied to the aspirations and dreams families have for their children. The belief that college opens doors to future opportunities and success is a powerful motivator. Families may view the admissions process as a crucial step toward realizing these aspirations, reinforcing a positive perspective on the entire journey.

Homesickness, emotional challenges, and social adjustments

College often marks the first time students live away from home. Homesickness, coupled with the emotional challenges of navigating newfound independence, can contribute to a more negative perception. The emotional toll of being away from family and facing new responsibilities can overshadow the excitement of the admissions process.

The social dynamics of college life can present unexpected challenges. Students may find it challenging to adjust to new social circles, navigate roommate relationships, or combat feelings of loneliness. These social aspects, not always considered during the admissions process, can contribute to a more negative perception among college students.

Engage families throughout the college planning process

Parents and family members can be your biggest enrollment champions. They are the number-one influencers for prospective students. That’s why RNL Student Search to Enrollment makes parent engagement a major part of search campaigns.

Ask for a for a free walkthrough and see how you can engage students and parents at every stage of the enrollment journey.

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What are the take-aways we draw from understanding your students’ and their families’ perceptions and satisfaction with the enrollment process?

1. Enhanced recruitment strategies

By understanding the student and family experience, you can refine and improve your institution’s recruitment strategies. This involves evaluating the effectiveness of outreach programs, marketing materials, and digital engagement, and communication channels. When we understand the pain points and preferences of applicants and their families, we can tailor our approach to resonate better with them.

College planning is a family experience and what families and students want, and how they want it, is vastly different. Understanding what that is and how satisfied your students and families are with their experience before enrollment is key to continuous improvement.

2. Streamlining application processes

Complex and cumbersome application processes can deter prospective students and their families. A focus on student experience allows us to streamline application procedures, making them more user-friendly. Simplifying applications not only attracts a diverse pool of applicants but also fosters a positive perception of the institution.

A college known for its student-friendly application process stands out as an institution that values and prioritizes the needs of its prospective students and their families.

3. Boosting retention rates

Understanding the factors that influence a student’s decision to apply and enroll contributes to higher retention rates. Additionally, understanding what influences families’ support during college planning helps us reshape the way we think about the process.

When you address the concerns and expectations of applicants from the outset, they lay the foundation for a positive student experience throughout their academic journey. This proactive approach fosters a sense of belonging and loyalty among students and their families. Show them you care from the get-go. Don’t wait until family weekend to welcome families! Make them feel welcome and like they belong before their students even apply.

4. Communication and transparency

Clear communication is vital in alleviating the anxieties of both students and their families. By understanding the experiences of families during the application process, colleges can enhance communication strategies. Transparent and informative communication builds trust and ensures that families feel well-informed and confident in their decision-making.

Families want to hear from you when you have something meaningful to share. Find compelling information your families want and need to know. Create a conversation with them and understand how to better engage them. Students with a parent (or adult who cares for them) who is involved are more likely to enroll and retain (CampusESP “Increase Student Enrollment with Strategic Parent Engagement” (2023).

5. Support systems for transition

Transitioning from high school to college is a family affair. Understanding the experiences of students and their families during this transition enables colleges to provide adequate support systems. Whether it is orientation programs, counseling services, or family engagement initiatives, we can better cater to the holistic needs of students and their families.

Conclusion: Understand and priorities the experiences of students and families during college planning and enrollment

In the competitive landscape of higher education, we must recognize the significance of understanding and prioritizing students’ and families’ experiences during the college planning and enrollment. Understanding families’ and students’ experiences and satisfaction during the college planning process demonstrate a commitment to a holistic and positive experience.

By doing so, you will not only attract the right candidates but also foster a positive and inclusive environment that contributes to the long-term success and reputation of the institution.

It’s time for colleges to go beyond the numbers and statistics and truly understand the journey of their prospective students and families by understanding the satisfaction and experiences of the families and their students they already have enrolled and truly listen to them. You can do this, just ask them!

Read the report and find out how you can engage families during the enrollment process

Check out CampusESP and RNL’s 2024 Family Engagement Report to dive into more findings. And if you want to see how you can engage families at every stage of the college journey, talk to our enrollment consultants to learn where your best opportunities are.

About the Author

Dr. Raquel Bermejo

Dr. Raquel Bermejo analyzes existing search, inquiry, and conversion data in addition to conducting original research with college-seeking students and parents to understand trends and student behaviors. Her research informs and enhances the services the...

Read more about Raquel's experience and expertise

Reach Raquel by e-mail at Raquel.Bermejo@RuffaloNL.com.

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