Today's students are at emotional threshold.

Can reframing higher ed’s value bring relief?

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Justin Vogt headshot
by Justin Vogt
SVP, Head of Client Services

For years, higher ed MarCom leaders have built brand platforms that appeal—often rather narrowly—to a prospective student’s practical side. The simple message: a higher degree promises a more rewarding future.

And to be fair, years of research have supported this approach: some statistics suggest that among prospective students, 65% care most about a school’s “academic programs,” 56% “academic reputation,” and 53% consider proximity to their home. Cost of tuition and availability of financial aid emerge as top variables for 46% and 45% of students, respectively. [1]

It all sounds quite practical. Eminently rational.

But does research like this capture the full range of motivations found in prospective students? Does it genuinely reflect the ways today’s prospective students reach a decision, when choosing a school?

To put it another way: does this really sound anything like a complete description of the thought processes and motivations of any actual student you know?

We wanted to dig a bit deeper. And what we found suggests that conventional wisdom about students motivation often misses a critical piece of the picture.

Because while students are indeed influenced by pragmatic concerns, they’re also immersed in an often-tempestuous emotional landscape—contending with pandemic-induced isolation, a political environment in flux, and an unending torrent of social media. And while every past cohort of students has faced their own generational challenges, today’s learners seem to face a perfect storm of emotional stressors and uncertainties.

Clearly, communicating meaningfully with this audience requires more than just traditional reassurances, delivered in an expected fashion.

Clarifying the picture is why we’ve created the inaugural Fuseideas/Destination Analysts State of the Student Report: our compendium of research and analysis into the motivations and concerns of today’s prospective student.

Among our findings:

  • Today’s Students are Anxious: 28.8% of current students self-identify anxiety at a level of 7 or greater (out of a possible 10), with 7% indicating they are extremely anxious.[2]
  • Today’s Students are Stressed & Overwhelmed: 64% of students surveyed identify as “stressed,” with a full 57% of students described themselves as “overwhelmed”. For context, another option provided—“Happy”—was selected by only 34% of students. A mere 36% of students opted to define themselves as feeling “loved”.
  • Students Thirst for Stability & Balance: When asked about professional and career goals, the top priorities are job stability (69%) and work/life balance (68%). Career progression is the goal for only 31% of respondents.[3]

Certainly, such levels of self-reported anxiety trace a straight line to students’ self-described career goals: in some ways, it’s never made more sense for higher ed to point toward the employment and earnings upside of a degree. But statistics like these gesture at a much larger need.

In a time when anxious, stressed, and overwhelmed students hunger for balance and stability, what can institutions of learning do to provide an environment where people can feel a genuine sense of safety?

How can we help cultivate students’ sense of well-being and security—not someday in the future, but right now?

What can we do to provide an academic environment that offers a rewarding “work/life balance,” while still in school? And how can we communicate the benefits of that experience?

We believe it’s time to speak the emotional language of the prospective student. In a way that acknowledges their concerns and respects the truth of their stress and doubt. In doing so, we not only make a compelling case for the value of education: we can move toward providing the compassionate mentorship and comfort that every student deserves.

[2] Fuseideas/Destination Analysts 2022 State of the American College Student Study
[3] Fuseideas/Destination Analysts 2022 State of the American College Student Study