While many universities and colleges have become confident in understanding what drives international vs UK students when making their firm choice, fewer feel confident in understanding what is likely to have the greatest impact on widening participation applicants. In anticipation of the 2023 UCAS Student Decision Reports being published in July, I’ve looked back at last year’s reports to see how you can understand your WP applicant and offer holders better, and whether we should be developing a separate conversion campaign to your UK wide communications.
At the top spot
At first glance, there is very little differentiating all applicants against WP applicants across the sector, in the factors influencing their decision making. Range of modules comes out the top factor for all students regardless of background, showing that subject-specific marketing and communications are the flagship of any conversion campaign, with the opportunity to include deep-dive “module stories” throughout. Peer-to-peer influence also plays a key role in student decisions, with student reviews of the university appearing in the top five for all groups.
But despite many of the same factors ranking high in importance across multiple if not all, demographic groups, it’s not enough to say that they all play the same role in influencing decisions – and on closer inspection, you start to see that some work harder than others depending on background. For example, range of modules has a greater influence on students from WP backgrounds than their more advantaged peers. Although it may not be possible to segment your subject-level communications to this level of granularity, it’s certainly useful to understand how important each topic might be to your different audiences when creating your comms plan.
The (deal) breakers
There was, however, one factor that specifically stood out for students from underrepresented groups, which didn’t appear in even the top 10 for students from more advantage backgrounds. Communication before and after applying was a top 5 or top 10 decision-making factor for all WP students, potentially making it a deal breaker for many when making their firm choice. And this isn’t a surprise when you consider more advantaged students have the benefit of a wide support network of family, friends and teachers to rely on for their university information, while their WP peers are more reliant on information from universities to keep them informed. When you consider the amount of time and resources that go into attracting and supporting WP students in applying to university, it’s not a surprise that communication is key influencer on their choices once they’ve received their offers.
Many WP students will have received a high degree of information, advice, guidance and support through your institution’s Widening Participation and Student Mobility teams, in some cases from school or college, but this level of nurturing through the process is at risk of disappearing post-application if it’s not picked up by Marketing and Admissions teams to the same degree. This group want more than your standard marketing messages, telling them how great the university is – they want practical tips and guidance as they progress along their conversion journey: what they should expect next? Where can they go for help if they want to know more? What should they expect on Results Day – as well as how they can prepare for starting university, particularly considering the cost-of-living crisis? What are current students doing to manage their money? What opportunities are there for part-time work, and how can they effectively balance working and studying?
The specialist chart
The 2022 Student Decision Reports also shows that the most important factors influencing decisions aren’t the same for all widening participation groups. Mature learners in particular had very specific influences on making their final choices, which weren’t necessarily regarded as ‘as important’ to other WP target groups. With many mature learners opting to attend their local university, it’s no surprise that they ranked ease and cost of travelling – along with the option to live at home – among their top decision-making factors. Mature learners may also have received even less university information and advice than younger WP groups, and therefore more unsure about what to expect and what they should do in that time between application, confirmation and enrolment. Therefore, keep warm communications are likely to be of particular interest and influence in making – and importantly keeping to – their final decision. With such a stark difference to the wider WP and non-WP offer holder cohort, many universities could see a benefit in tailoring conversion communications to this specialist WP group, ensuring mature learners receive the information and support they need whilst ultimately making you their firm choice.
Widening understanding of student decision making in 2023
Up to now, the ability to identify and truly understand the factors that influence WP students in making their firm university choice has been limited, but this year’s Student Decision Reports will help you explore decision making among more WP groups than ever before. So, if you’re looking to understand what the priority factor is for care experienced students, what students in receipt of free school meals rated highest, or understand what’s most important for students with a disability, alongside mature learners, students of colour and students from TUNDRA quintiles 1 and 2, the UCAS Student Decision Report 2023 will give you the insight. And if you want to dig a little deeper into your own priority WP target groups, UCAS’s consultancy service can provide you with your own bespoke report, focusing on the decision-making factors of individual and intersectional groups.
If you want to understand what has affected the decision-making factors of your WP and non-WP applicants, contact your Customer Success Director to find out more.