Australian higher education is valued at $21.8 billion a year (Universities Australia, 2016) and attracts 1.3 million students from around the globe as their preferred destination for university education. Choosing a university is a complex decision, as it involves a trade-off of various personal and external factors. Each student is influenced by different factors, including the provision of online information. I have been working in different universities in Pakistan, the UK and Australia. My research was motivated by questions as to what drives student decisions. My PhD research, Modelling consumer decision-making in Australian higher education, included three empirical investigations on student decision making, thereby exploring the key factors (and stakeholders) influencing students’ choice of university and program of study.
This article shares the research findings from these three studies on student-consumer decision making. Results are interpreted and applied to guide university communication strategies to maximise the effectiveness of the call to aspiring domestic and international students. There are also comments applied to program design for optimal learning.
Student Personal Values and their Choice of Higher Education
Study one focused on understanding students’ individual values and the impact on student preferences for both fields of study and specific universities. The theoretically supported assumption directing this study is that personal values are richly felt and influential components of individual make-up and function to guide individual decisions about how they choose to conduct their lives. The study revealed, for example, that students who appear to have a high personal utility for self-direction tend to be drawn to psychology and business programs as undergraduates. Strengthened knowledge regarding the underlying values held by a large proportion of students drawn to particular degrees allows a university to strengthen pedagogy and strategy to develop their programs for particular groups of learners and their marketing campaigns to recruit potential students. Overall, beyond specific disciplines, this study revealed that the main reason many students choose university is what they consider to be a peaceful, pleasing or harmonious life. Moreover, the social recognition and social integration many graduates derive from their education are other motivating factors, which many research respondents conceptualised as satisfying deep personal values within themselves.
For higher education institutions, a better understanding of these values can help universities improve customer loyalty and guide executive leaders in formulating differentiation strategies to set their university services apart from those of competitors. As globalisation continues and relationship marketing becomes even more central in higher education, these results offer practical guidance for institutions wishing to develop more effective marketing programs and student-centred program designs.
Influence of Parents on Student Decision Making Regarding Choice of University
For school-leavers (many of whom are 17 or 18 years of age), decisions about which university and which degree program appear to be widely influenced by family members. The second study revealed that students and their parents typically make joint decisions regarding choice of university and degree programs. Notably, this joint decision making occurs even though it is the students themselves who independently study the chosen program and have to live with the career outcomes. Many participating parents and young adults appear to share substantial mutual interests; their decision processes tended to be jointly determined in both academic and personal contexts. Academic excellence and the choice of educational institution is usually a shared goal for parents and young adults, and the decisions can be either participative or cooperative. In most Australian families participating in this research, young adults are encouraged to make participative decisions and share the responsibility for decision making with their parents.
Factors such as the location of the high school, the parents’ education, ranking of the high school, the relationship between the university and school, and opinions of teachers and school friends all collectively influenced preferences. While these factors are important, the participating students appeared reluctant to make independent decisions (particularly running contrary to their parents’ choices), recognising that there are various risks (for example, career outcomes) involved in their decision making. Students appeared to highly desire the social approval of the key decision makers in their lives (that is, their parents). Parents play a significant role in helping their sons/daughters to apply, as well as in financially and socially supporting them, particularly in the first year/s during adjustment/transition stages into formal university study and then again as they commence their careers. The research further revealed that the students whose parents were more highly educated were predisposed towards university education (as opposed to vocational programs) and were more likely to be influenced by the perceived prestige and reputation of the university and the degree program. The ranking of their current high school was also correlational to the extent to which university prestige mattered to them. Notably, a large number of the future students who claimed to make independent decisions regarding university education appeared to be highly influenced by their parents’ educational and professional backgrounds in that the correlation patterns were revealing.
Variation of Preferences between Parents and Sons/Daughters in University Choices
The third study further explored the drivers of student decision making and the influence of external stakeholders such as parents. University education and the choice of a degree program appears to be a shared household concern. As stated above, the demographic patterns and correlations revealed that even those who stated complete independence in decision making actually seemed to be heavily influenced by the choices of their parents (who were likely influenced by their own parents). While the overall decisions were usually matched, each member of the family may have different discrete preferences regarding attributes of a university. For example, the young adult may have a preference towards the quality of a degree program, while the parents may have a preference towards the tuition fees and the living costs of pursuing the program. Understanding how consumers represent outcomes and weigh different decision criteria is critical to consumer behaviour research and applied strategies and actions.
This study was conducted to investigate the similarities/dissimilarities between the individual and joint decision making in the context of universities. There is increasing evidence that the outcomes of decision-making processes offer difference between what the individual stakeholders identify when communicating independently and what is decided when these individuals are brought together. Specifically, three versions of the same survey were administered – one for a parent and a son or daughter to complete independently and one for them to complete together. It was surprising that the expressed decision was so often different in the collaborative survey than it was in the individual surveys. Very little is known about joint decision making in practice and specifically how preferences differ among parents and young adults and to what extent the individual preferences can be aggregated to achieve a prediction of joint choices. Another important stakeholder in joint decision making was high school staff. Schools that were actively involved in student counselling and preparing students for tertiary education were more likely to yield students who were more confident about their decision making and were more likely to embrace higher education early in their life (that is, choosing a direct transition from high school to higher education).
The key takeaways from this research for university leaders are:
- University recruitment campaigns through websites and high school fairs must appeal to both future students and their parents.
- Factors such as career outcomes, quality measures, enrolment and student housing costs should be made clear and transparent and be readily searchable on websites.
- Students themselves tend to be interested in the program and teaching quality as well as career outcomes; short videos and other multi-media are an efficacious means of informing and attracting future students.
- University marketing campaigns should be differentiated in consideration of the high school students are currently attending. For example, student recruitment at elite private schools should emphasise the international ranking of the university.
- Personal values and university/program alignment with these values are important factors influencing student attraction and retention. Discussion about values should be a clear and embedded part of the curriculum.