Pandemic Causes 36% of Students to Reconsider Higher Education

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New report also finds even more prospective students weigh delaying or changing course of study. Institutions need to reevaluate the marketing playbook to emphasize accessibility and focus on personalization in communications to ease prospective students’ uncertainty.

“Many face tremendous pressure and uncertainty, so the usual messages of prestige, faculty and community need to be preceded by practical information on how they can fit education into their lives today.”

A new report on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students’ higher education plans finds more than one-third of prospective students reconsidering higher education altogether. Meanwhile, 43% of prospective one- and two-year program enrollees – an increasingly important segment – are looking to delay enrollment. And two-thirds of students are now considering alternate career-oriented options.

That’s according to “The Pandemic’s Impact on Higher Education Marketing in 2020 and Beyond,” released today by LaneTerralever, a national marketing and advertising agency for higher education. LaneTerralever surveyed 528 students across the U.S. in September. The results point to an intensifying urgency on prospective student recruitment for an industry that’s projected to lose $25 billion this semester, according to the American Council on Education.

As a result, colleges and universities need to adjust their approach for prospective students. Specifically, LaneTerralever finds that institutions need to downplay their customary marketing appeals in favor of concrete, tangible and specific information to help students see their ways forward. The study found that 43% of prospective students resonate with program-specific information; 38% resonate with information on financial aid opportunities, and 21% resonate with content that features real student stories.

“Prospective students need to hear how higher education can be accessible, affordable, and productive for them now,” said Lauren Hillery, Director of Brand Strategy at LaneTerralever. “Many face tremendous pressure and uncertainty, so the usual messages of prestige, faculty and community need to be preceded by practical information on how they can fit education into their lives today.”

The LaneTerralever study, split evenly along gender lines, had 61% of its respondents in the 21-35-year-old category. Respondents were 56% White; 20% Black; 9% Latino, and 10% Asian. The study discovered that 36% of traditional full-time students are less likely to pursue higher education today versus a year ago; and 28% of non-traditional students (full- or part-time, 2-year or shorter programs) are less likely to pursue higher education today. However, both traditional and non-traditional students believe that having a degree or certificate is extremely valuable (traditional: 54%; non-traditional: 65%).

For most of the respondents, affordability is still a key consideration. Finances are an even bigger factor; 40% of students indicated they are being forced to explore other financial support options as a result of the pandemic. Of those who are more likely to pursue higher education, 37% said they are most likely to self-fund their education, and 47% will most resonate with messages about specific degree programs. Given this self-reliance mentality and hyper-focus on program specificity and alignment, these students are seeking tangible proof of a highly productive (i.e., career advancing) education experience.

For many, the question is whether remote learning provides enough value. Only 35% of traditional students find remote learning extremely valuable, while 43% of non-traditional students say it is. Interestingly, older students are more likely to welcome the autonomy of online learning and availability of virtual support.

For example, Melody, a 43-year-old mother of two in Washington, wants a degree to take her into teaching. She was going to delay, but watched her high-school-age children doing school at home and started looking. “Four years ago, I was looking and I was overwhelmed – there weren’t a lot of online resources,” she said. “Now there’s a lot more information and support available. One college in the Northeast called me 20 minutes after I sent an email query. They asked about my life, identified with what I’m going through as a mom, and made me feel Iike I can do this with the life I have.”

LaneTerralever’s report follows on the heels of a comprehensive review of the non-traditional student, earlier this year, where the firm has identified fundamental changes that educational marketers needs to make to reach, and maintain, an audience with prospective higher educational students.
Some key breakdowns of the new report:

Traditional students

  • Less likely than pre-pandemic to pursue higher education: 36%
  • As a result of the pandemic? how valuable is having a degree or certificate?: 54% extremely valuable
  • Distance learning is extremely effective: 35%
  • Considering delaying starting a 1- to 2-year program: 43%
  • More likely than pre-pandemic to consider other career options: 32%
  • Extremely confident about finding a job: 20%
  • More likely to pursue a program I was considering: 32% (44% among just 41- to 60-year-olds)
  • Consider higher education institutions to have adapted extremely or very effectively: 62% (61% among just 41- to 60-year-olds)

Non-traditional students

  • Less likely than pre-pandemic to pursue higher education: 28%
  • As a result of the pandemic, how valuable is having a degree or certificate?: 65% extremely valuable
  • Distance learning is extremely effective: 47%
  • Considering delaying starting a 1- to 2-year program: 44%
  • More likely than pre-pandemic to explore other financial aid options 
  • Extremely confident about finding a job: 41%
  • More likely than pre-pandemic to pursue a program I was considering: 29% (44% among just 41- to 60-year-olds)
  • Consider higher education institutions to have adapted extremely or very effectively: 72% (61% among just 41- to 60-year-olds)

Students are either all-in or all out

More non-traditional students are changing course than traditional students
I am less likely to pursue higher education
Traditional student (18-25) - 36%
Non-traditional student (26-40) - 28%
Non-traditional student (40+) - 17%
I am more likely to pursue education and the same program I was intending on
Traditional student (18-25) - 31%
Non-traditional student (26-40) - 29%
Non-traditional student (40+) - 44%

ABOUT LANETERRALEVER
LaneTerralever is a marketing agency creating meaningful student experiences based on deep strategic insights. We regularly conduct primary research to better understand the needs of students and to help inform client strategies. We’re proud to work with partners in education including Southern California University of Health Sciences, Universal Technical Institute, K12 Education, Rio Salado College, and Touro University Worldwide.

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EDITOR’S NOTE A photograph of Lauren Hillery and charts from the report can be downloaded here.

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Nick Dan Bergman
LaneTerralever
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