Class of 2024: Student Perceptions of the “New Normal”

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Class of 2024: Student Perceptions of the “New Normal”

Young boy looking out and thinking.

Higher education has drastically changed in a short timeframe. And if one thing is clear, it’s that change isn’t done yet. Dr. John Hall, chief strategy officer at PLEXUSS, and Dr. Jacquelyn D. Elliott, president at enrollmentFUEL, provided insights on student perceptions of the situation in one of our webinars.

All of the statistics below were pulled from surveys, interviews, focus groups, and a variety of proven research methods. Here are a few of the biggest takeaways. (You can also view the full webinar at your convenience.)

The state of higher ed

These current state of higher ed is in flux as changes are permanent and evolving. Students don’t feel like institutions are connecting with them on their level. In fact, 4 in 10 students don’t feel like institutions are effectively engaging with them. They feel like they’re just a number — not a valued member of the higher ed community. Opinions about the importance of higher education were shifting downward, even before the effects of COVID-19.

… and then there was COVID and the “new normal.”

COVID-19 has only accelerated these perceptions. Student goodwill is down, and many are disillusioned with higher education as a whole. In fact, 65% of prospective students (research conducted in May/June) are having second thoughts or may have second thoughts about attending the institution they originally selected.

Rumors about an increase in gap-year students seem to be largely unfounded. Many aren’t completely ruling out higher education, but are definitely reconsidering their original plans. Low-income students are the only group that are leaning toward gap years — everyone else is more likely shifting their original plans, but not necessarily cancelling them.

What are students saying?

High school students are disillusioned with education (even more since COVID-19 hit) and disappointed about the quality of virtual instruction they’ve received so far.

When online instruction is high quality, students are open to it (and even intrigued by it) — but they largely aren’t seeing that quality right now. These students haven’t yet entered higher education, but will likely have these perceptions going in.

Students are pretty well aware of how institutions are handling COVID-19 and take that response into consideration when deciding on their educational plans.

What are students doing?

In the end, there’s really a sense of suffering among high school students. They’ve lost the opportunity to learn, advance, and grow. Many did not get to graduate in-person with their friends, visit prospective campuses, or participate in developmental extracurricular activities.

They’re also tuning out a lot of noise. If a student has ruled out your institution, it’s a lot harder to get their attention to reconsider you. Students (and parents) are waiting and being diligent consumers. They’re keeping their options open, even after they “commit” to an institution.


No longer are “bread and butter” recruiting practices reliable. How do you recruit students if you can’t attend fairs or host campus tours?

Online environments are changing institutional financials as well — especially with the potential of reduced room and board revenue. Of those surveyed, 90% of students have financial concerns going into the fall semester.

Test-optional policies are one way institutions have attempted to boost recruiting efforts — and it’s one that clearly resonates with many students. Not surprisingly, 50% of graduating seniors (and 86% of high school freshmen and sophomores) were more likely to attend a college or university that was test-optional. However, for many students who already tested, the test optional decision may be seen as a negative.

Interestingly 57% of underclassmen didn’t approve of ACT/SAT tests in the first place, believing the tests were fundamentally unfair and biased against them.


Institutions need to be a lot more creative when reaching out to students. Upcoming prospects demand real change in the way institutions communicate with them.

They want to hear less from institutions — but they also want to hear from higher education institutions earlier on. In other words, find ways to stand out, use atypical mediums, and don’t overstay your welcome.

Many institutions are heavily focused on bringing in seniors (fairly so). But it’s incredibly important to take current high school freshmen and sophomores seriously. Plan to prove the merits of your institution in ways you’ve never had to before.

Focus on the true differentiators and value your institution offers. What makes you unique? Even today, how are you providing unique experiences students can’t get anywhere else?


For the full conversation with Dr. Hall and Dr. Elliott, view the full on-demand webinar.

Jordan writes strategic B2B and B2C content for a variety of industries, including K-12 and higher education. Outside of the office, you can find him experimenting with new recipes in the kitchen or catching up on the latest podcasts.


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