Millenials Sleuth Their Way to Right-Fit Colleges with Digital Detective Work

Jan 16, 2013, 17:15 ET from Lipman Hearne, Inc.

Largest survey of its kind breaks down decision-making of 11,000 prospective students

55% of college bound students are investigating colleges every day; 45% use a mobile device to visit a college website

CHICAGO, Jan. 16, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Are a growing number of students making decisions about choosing colleges without so much as a phone call to the admissions office? Do college-bound students wish to text with prospective colleges?  How and how often do they use Facebook, Twitter, and other social media tools to engage with colleges and universities and at which points during their search process?

The Super Investigator: Understanding Today's "Always On" Prospective Student, provides the most in-depth look at the behavior and attitudes of today's prospective college students as well as transfer and international students.  To gain fresh insights into how students are consuming and responding to ever-changing college marketing channels, Lipman Hearne, a leading national marketing and communications firm serving higher education organizations, partnered with college search Web site to survey its users. Cappex users make up 25% of the entire U.S. college-bound population. The survey was distributed to high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors, and college students who are considering transferring from their current school.  With 11,244 valid respondents nationwide, this is the largest survey of its kind ever conducted.

According to the survey, nearly a quarter of the respondents are "stealth applicants," who research colleges and in some cases even visit campus, but do not identify themselves until they submit their application.  "This report provides guidance to higher education institutions that are looking for insights into the decision-making process of a digitally-savvy and ever-evolving cohort of consumers: college bound high school students," said Lipman Hearne chairman Tom Abrahamson. "Stealth applicants apply to colleges under the radar of admissions teams. Their behavior is important because their unexpected applications can complicate schools' admissions planning and projections."

According to the report, 23% of graduating seniors applied "stealthily" to at least one of their preferred colleges.  "Super investigators" are digital natives currently applying to college who are engaging in a far more self-directed and digital search process than previous cohorts of students. Among the key findings of the report were that 55% of students are investigating colleges every day, using everything from social media networks and search engines to the more traditional print guidebooks and direct marketing products.

The top five characteristics that super investigators list as being most important when thinking about a "good fit institution" are: 1) scholarship and financial aid packages; 2) major I am interested in has a strong academic reputation; 3) affordable tuition and fees; 4) strong academic reputation; and 5) helps graduates get good jobs.

Social Media & E-mail

According to the report, students do not limit their college search to their home or school computers.  Nearly half had visited a college's website on a mobile device (45%) and one-in-ten had downloaded an app from a college on a mobile device.  However, texting was used significantly less in the college decision-making process.  Only 9% had texted with someone at a college and just 5% learned about a college via a text message.  However, seven-in-ten respondents report being open to communicating with a college via text – provided it was a college that they had previously reached out to.

Eighty-eight percent of respondents report having a Facebook, Twitter, or similar social media account, yet very few respondents indicated that social media influenced their ultimate college decision.

Facebook was the single most used site (40%) though it was used in a passive manner – such as reading status updates and checking event invitations; 28% indicated that they used the site by visiting or liking a specific college's page.  Only 8% said they used Facebook to poll friends/start a conversation about a college.  Conversely, 44% believe that colleges were very likely or somewhat likely to look at the social media profile of a prospective student.

Almost all respondents (86%) had received an email from a college.  In fact, in the average week, they received five emails from colleges they had previously reached out to for information.  Additionally, nearly 40% of respondents set up a dedicated email account specifically for their college decision-making process.  Of those who did, 71% checked their accounts on a daily basis.

"As new tools are adopted, search sites like Cappex and others have shifted from providing basic information about colleges to more personalized offerings and engagement opportunities for students," said Chris Long, President of

Students, who by the standards of previous decades would submit three targeted applications (i.e. a reach, best-fit, and safety school), are now submitting a minimum of 4-6 college applications and managing the requisite research for each institution. Since 1990, the number of students applying to at least seven colleges rose from 9% to 22%.

More than one in three graduating high school seniors indicated that advertising influenced their application decision or influenced their enrollment decision. Surveyed students identified online banner ads as more effective and recalled more favorably than all other forms of advertising combined.

"It's clear that stealth applicants are investigating the college they are applying to, both before and after application," said Abrahamson.  "Colleges need to rethink their 'suspect' communications and outreach, considering the methods these students are using to watch and listen and that they won't tell the institution that they're interested.  Colleges need to be more focused in how they reach out to these students."

The Study Sample

From July 11 to July 31, 2012, Lipman Hearne and collected data from 11,244 students who had previously registered on The survey participants included college-bound sophomores, juniors, and seniors from the United States and internationally, as well as enrolled college students who are thinking about transferring to another college and non-enrolled adult learners.

Ninety-seven percent of respondents were traditional-age prospective first-time students, but there were also enough potential transfer students (N=297) that the report was able to include this segment in isolation. Responses were also analyzed by high school class year (rising juniors (N=865), rising seniors (N=3,915), and graduating seniors (N=6,119). 

To download the full report, please visit:

About Lipman Hearne: Lipman Hearne is the nation's leading marketing and communications firm serving higher education organizations. For more than 40 years, the firm has worked with more than 400 colleges and universities, conducting extensive market research, developing strategic marketing plans, and providing creative and tactical implementation services to help its clients achieve their aggressive bottom-line goals in enrollment, fundraising, and brand building. With offices in Chicago and Washington, D.C., Lipman Hearne is led by marketing specialists whose executive and agency backgrounds include tenures in higher education and nonprofit marketing, advertising and branding, market research, fundraising, and public affairs.

About is where online engagement means recruitment results. It is a highly cost-effective way to reach students as they are actively discovering and researching colleges online. More than 500 colleges find their ideal enrollment candidates, introduce them to their campuses, and continue the conversation on Cappex, where more than 4 million students have gone to find their ideal college. Founded in 2006, Cappex is based in Highland Park, Illinois.

SOURCE Lipman Hearne, Inc.