Holger Bollmann analyses the results of a recent survey of FE students and parents which looked at what factors affect college choice most.

What matters most when choosing a college?

This is a question for which an answer wasn’t readily available. So, we partnered with YouGov to find out, asking FE students and their parents what key factors influenced their choices.

Having conducted the survey both this year and last, what we discovered was a noticeable variation in the importance of factors over the course of the two years.

We discovered a noticeable variation in the importance of factors over the course of the two years

This is significant news for institutions looking to heighten their appeal to prospective students, as it suggests the importance of factors is liable to change year-on-year.

The two factors registering the largest increases in importance to students were employability and financial assistance.

In our 2015 survey, they received 21 per cent and 10 per cent of the vote respectively, with these figures rising to 26 per cent and 17 per cent in 2016.

With over a quarter of students now ranking employability as their most important factor, it is clear that colleges are expected to help improve their career prospects, particularly as the job market becomes more competitive.

Colleges should also be aware that financial support is quickly rising up the student agenda, most likely as a response to the changes made to the student finance system over the past year.

Course and institution reputation dropped the most in importance to students, falling from 37 per cent to 30 per cent and 29 per cent to 21 per cent respectively over the space of a year.

These changes suggest students are increasingly valuing ‘experience’ factors like careers and financial support over factors linked directly to the reputation of the institution and its courses.

Equivalent changes to parents’ attitudes were not forthcoming across the two surveys.

In both 2015 and 2016, parents selected course reputation, proximity to home, and institution reputation as their top three factors when assessing which college is most suitable for their child.

Survey respondents were also asked about expectations of and attitudes towards FE payments.

Most significantly, we noticed a decrease in the numbers of students and parents expecting colleges to take cash and cheques, and an increase in the desire to make all payments online.

In addition, 2016 marked the first time the majority of students (57 per cent) said they would prefer to make all fees and services payments by web or mobile apps.

This corresponds with increases in student usage of credit card payments (+8 per cent), mobile payments (+7 per cent) bank transfers (+5 per cent), and PayPal (+5 per cent).

When it comes to paying for catering fees or physical goods, more students are expecting to be able to pay using contactless (+13 per cent).

The results further indicate the importance of meeting student expectations of payments.

Over a quarter (29 per cent) of respondents said they would complain to their friends and families if they received an unsatisfactory of bad experience when making a payment to their college.

What’s more, over three quarters (76 per cent) said they would be less likely to recommend the college as a result.

This shows how easily a bad experience in one area of student life can turn alumni from potential promoters into detractors.

There are many factors that can influence a college’s ability to recruit students in the future – poor payment processes shouldn’t be one of them.

Proactive colleges will be aware the factors influencing students’ choice of institution aren’t set in stone, and should work consistently to improve in all areas to guarantee successful recruitment.

However, what is clear at present is that overarching factors such as college and course reputation aren’t guaranteed to have the heaviest influence on student choice.

Rather, factors associated more closely with student experience, such as employment and financial support services, are just as likely (if not more) to hold most sway.

*Based on the opinions of 424 FE students and 606 parents of FE students.