One of the most difficult decisions for upper leadership in a university is how to apportion funds for capital improvements and new and ongoing academic programs. Often, the decision comes down to perceptions of what students are looking for in the admission process. However, data about what students are looking for in an institution often comes from qualitative reports from the admissions department and perceptions about what leaders expect students and parents to prioritize. For example, many leaders believe that students look for the nicest residence halls, the best meal plans, and easy access to workout facilities when selecting their institution, a perception that might not be true.

Vennli, a company that provides a choice visualization analytics platform that combines customer surveys with data visualization and analytics software, has recently completed a survey of college students about what they want from an institution. Some of the key findings may come as a surprise to many leaders as they make their budget decisions.

Students don’t care much about fancy buildings and perks.
When students were asked about what attributes they look for in their institution of choice, “nice perks,” which includes gyms, residence halls, dining facilities, computer labs, and the like, rated seventh out of twelve attributes studied. This puts “perks” in the low importance tier. Mary Claire Sullivan, business development manager at Vennli, notes that this often comes down to a choice between “entertaining students versus adding new programs.” It is encouraging to note that students appear to prioritize academics over experiential benefits.

Students look at quality and academic breadth.
Survey respondents rated “high quality of school” as the most important factor in college and university selection, and “lots of majors/programs to choose from” as the fifth most important factor. Taken together, these factors indicate that institutions may be better served by spending money to develop new academic programs and improve the reputation of existing ones. One possible implication of these findings is that when institutions have money for a capital improvement, they may be better off building new academic buildings to support improved pedagogy than they are by building a world-class dining hall.

Students focus on the money
Students ranked “will help me get the job that I want” as the second most important factor in college selection, with “low cost to attend” as the third most important factor. Further, some 53 percent of students think their tuition is too high, while just 54 percent think their institution is worth the cost they are paying in tuition. Even more concerning, the study reports that “only 17 percent of students perceive higher education institutions to be allocating resources on efforts to keep tuition costs low for students.”

These findings have some obvious implications. The focus on job placement goes hand in hand with new gainful employment regulations, so institutions should already be focusing on gathering data that demonstrates their ability to place students in jobs related to the students’ field of study.

However, the increasing focus on college affordability has hit home with today’s college student, who may easily become saddled with a mortgage-sized loan debt from attending college. Clearly, more money spent on tuition assistance in its various forms would make an impact on college students and their perceptions of their institutions.

Ivies and community colleges share similar problems
While the reputation of Ivy League schools makes them score high in measures of helping students land jobs and being of high quality, they share one thing in common with community colleges: Students find that neither institution type really aligns with their personal values, which was the number four attribute students looked for when selecting a college. Survey authors conclude, “It’s possible that the Ivy Leagues’ highly selective nature and community colleges’ ‘come one, come all’ policy mean that the majority of students have trouble identifying with either.” This may indicate that both institutional types need to spend more time learning about the values of their students.

Sullivan notes that the next steps in research may be to survey parents about their desires for their students when choosing a college. As parents are some of the biggest motivators for college students, this constituent pool is important to understand. It is also important to suss out “how much parents and students agree” about priorities, Sullivan says.

This survey demonstrates the value of looking to data when making decisions about college spending. “A lot of strategic decisions are based on opinions,” Sullivan says. By understanding student (and parent) decisions during the admissions process, institutions can better decide how to use those precious budgetary dollars.

Read more about the study at:

Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti, MS, is managing editor of Academic Leader and chair of the 2016 Leadership in Higher Education Conference. She owns the writing, speaking, and consulting firm Hilltop Communications.

Reprinted from Why That Five-Star Dining Hall May Not Be Your Best Investment, Academic Leader, 32.6 (2016): 4. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.