Study of Prospective Students
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Study of Prospective Students. Northern Illinois University. Eric Sickler Principal Consultant Sally Olinger Senior Research Analyst. Originally presented in March 2009. Objectives and Methods. Objectives

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Study of Prospective Students

Northern Illinois University

Eric Sickler

Principal Consultant

Sally Olinger

Senior Research Analyst

Originally presented in March 2009

Objectives and methods
Objectives and Methods

  • Objectives

    • To determine the image and perceptions of Northern Illinois University (NIU) among prospective students

    • To determine NIU’s competitors and the University’s placement within its competitor set

    • To evaluate how various importance and perception attributes might influence students’ decisions to consider or attend the University

    • To understand what sources of information prospects use as they evaluate their University options

  • Method

    • Stamats completed a total of 377 telephone surveys (calling conducted in February 2009)

    • The calling list was provided by NIU of prospective high school seniors, including true prospects (purchased names) through applicants

    • There was a sampling error of 5.1% at the 95% confidence level for the entire sample

Demographic overview
Demographic Overview

  • Gender – 60% female; 40% male

  • Ethnicity – 74% white or Caucasian; 15% Asian or Pacific Islander; 4% Hispanic or Latino/a; 3% mixed—no dominant race; 1% black or African American; 2% other; 1% refused to answer

  • High school GPA – 4% below 3.00; 20% 3.00 to 3.49; 25% 3.50 to 3.74; 51% 3.75 to 4.00

  • High school market* – 33% attend NIU’s major feeder high schools; 33% attend NIU’s “Challenge” (low-yield) schools; 34% attend other area high schools (mostly in Illinois)

  • Geographic location** – 98% Illinois; 2% all other states

  • Application status** – 31% applicants; 69% non-applicants

*Markets defined in Appendix B

**Information provided by NIU

Major feeder high schools
Major Feeder High Schools

  • The following high schools were identified as major feeder schools for NIU:

    • Waubonsie Valley High School (Code: 140184)

    • Neuqua Valley High School (Code: 143108)

    • Glenbard North High School (Code: 140534)

    • St. Charles North High School (Code: 143796)

    • William Fremd High School (Code: 143347)

    • Geneva High School (Code: 142020)

    • Bartlett High School (Code: 140213)

    • Lane Technical High School (Code: 140640)

    • Naperville Central High School (Code: 143105)

    • Prairie Ridge High School (Code: 141519)

    • Oswego East High School (Code: 143331)

    • Palatine Township High School (Code: 143345)

Challenge high schools
“Challenge” High Schools

  • NIU’s Low-Yield High Schools

    • Adlai Stevenson High School (Code: 43550)

    • Barrington High School (Code: 40205)

    • Glenbrook Township South High School (Code: 142078)

    • Maine Township South High School (Code: 143377)

    • Hinsdale Central High School (Code: 142300)

    • Lake Forest Community High School (Code: 142520)

    • Deerfield High School (Code: 141570)

    • Glenbrook Township North High School (Code: 143215)

    • Highland Park Township High School (Code: 142275)

    • New Trier High School (Code: 144430)

Geographic Distribution by Market

Major feeder schools

Low-yield schools

All other area schools

Note: a few of the “other” markets are not displayed on the above map

Desired college type
Desired College Type

  • Surprisingly, just more than half of NIU’s prospects are planning to attend a public institution for their academic career—a lower proportion than Stamats has observed on a national scale. Based on Stamats’ TeensTALK data, 75% of prospective undergraduate students prefer a public to private education

  • Respondents located in NIU’s low-yield markets are least likely to consider a public (46%) compared to 57% from a major feeder school, and 64% from all other areas

  • In addition, those with a gpa of 3.75 or higher are more likely to consider a private institution (42%) than even those with a 3.50 to 3.74 gpa (29%)

Desired college type1
Desired College Type

  • Respondents attending NIU’s low-yield schools are least likely to consider an in-state institution (27%) compared to 62% from major feeder schools, and 68% from all other areas. In fact, 41% from low-yield schools will travel five or more hours (by car or plan) to attend college

  • Building a series of “qualification points” into the recruitment funnel will help NIU’s admission staff focus their efforts on prospects who offer greater potential to ultimately enroll at NIU

Preferred size
Preferred Size

  • While 44% of NIU’s prospects are interested in a large institution, more than half are focused on smaller schools

  • TeensTALK research suggests that what students say about school size preference doesn’t always mirror what they ultimately do

  • Strive to demonstrate all the advantages and benefits of a larger institution with the attention and comforts that a smaller campus can offer…but only if you can actually deliver on that promise

  • The above terms were defined as:

    • Small: fewer than 5,000 students

    • Medium: 5,000 to 10,000 students

    • Large: 10,000 or more students

Decided on a college
Decided on a College

  • Only half of NIU’s prospects have finalized their college plans at this point in the recruitment funnel

  • This indicates that NIU still has an opportunity to persuade a significant portion (50%) of its prospect pool that NIU is well suited for their college career

  • Note: only 36% of those in NIU’s low-yield market have finalized their decision; this late decision cycle is a reminder that college-choice processes can vary significantly from school to school, region to region

College attending
College Attending

  • For the most part, NIU appears to be losing students to other in-state public institutions

  • However, prospects are also selecting public and private institutions throughout the Midwest

  • The National Student Clearinghouse can shed more definitive light on final choices

  • What is the apparent positioning strategy for each of your primary competitors?

  • Are they more visible in the marketplace than NIU?

  • How are they achieving visibility?

  • For a complete list see Appendix B

Top choice institutions
Top-Choice Institutions

  • Not surprisingly, we see more private schools listed here as prospects and their families await the receipt of financial aid packages (and possible award negotiations)

  • As seen on the previous slide, in-state public institutions appear to be NIU’s top competitors

  • However, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign holds more than one-quarter of the current marketshare among undecided prospects

  • For a complete list see Appendix B

Helpful communication for undecided seniors
Helpful Communication for Undecided Seniors

  • NIU would be wise to focus its time and energy on a highly personalized approach to persuade prospects at this late date—personal visits to high schools, e-mails addressing individual needs, letters, and phone calls

  • Those in NIU’s low-yield market specify a high school visit—94% find it useful, especially at this juncture (remember they are least likely to have made their final choice thus far)

Preferred communication for undecided seniors
Preferred Communication for Undecided Seniors

  • Make sure admission counselors are utilizing personalized e-mail to its fullest potential—it’s inexpensive and an effective means to reach these students

  • Make certain, however, that email messages are purposeful and concise; that’s how students think in today’s text message world

  • In line with previous findings, prospects are interested in a personal approach—e-mail, letters, phone calls, and high school visits

Importance of college choice characteristics
Importance of College-Choice Characteristics

  • NIU’s prospects are evaluating their college options on many different levels, as more than half of the attributes tested received a mean rating of 4.0 or above

  • However, these top attributes are focused around the following themes:

    • Overall academic quality—programs, teachers, facilities, and reputation

    • Success—grad placement and internships

    • Cost—value, financial aid, and tuition

    • Atmosphere—safe, fun, friendly, and personal

  • Note: Cost and financial aid are less important to those in NIU’s low-yield markets. However, they are more concerned with the quality of students and a friendly atmosphere

2008 teenstalk
2008 TeensTALK

Importance of college choice characteristics1
Importance of College-Choice Characteristics

  • While still important, these secondary characteristics will not resonate loudly, or serve as “tipping points” as effectively with your prospects as those on the previous slide

  • This is not to say these are insignificant choice considerations, however

2008 teenstalk1
2008 TeensTALK

Defining fun college experience top 9
Defining “Fun College Experience”(Top 9)

  • Those rating the college attribute “offers students a fun college experience” as somewhat to very important were asked to explain what qualities make it “fun” to them

  • All in all, students aren’t asking for much with their top request being a gym or fitness center

  • In addition, students are interested in university pride—they want to rally ‘round, support, and attend athletic events

  • Providing campus activities that allow students to connect outside the classroom is also highly important in developing a “fun” atmosphere

Competitive positioning
Competitive Positioning

For each of the following attributes, please tell me which school you feel is the best.

  • The data has been normalized into an index for comparative purposes. Each figure is based on an average score of 100. A score above 100 indicates an attribute above the mean percentage and a score below 100 indicates an attribute below the mean percentage

  • Top perceived strengths of each institution (scores above 120) are indicated in RED

  • Top perceived weaknesses of each institution (scores below 80) are indicated in BLUE

Market position of niu
Market Position of NIU

  • NIU’s strengths among its competitor set:

    • Being a good value for the price

  • NIU’s weaknesses among its competitor set:

    • Academic reputation

Institution most likely to consider
Institution Most Likely to Consider

  • Among these competitors, nearly half (48%) would choose UIC over any other institution. Remember, prospects found UIC to be strong in:

    • Graduate success

    • Academic reputation

    • Location

    • Cultural diversity

  • Both NIU and ISU hold approximately one-quarter of the market share among prospects

  • NIU is most appealing for students with a GPA below a 3.50—31% prefer NIU

  • SIU-Carbondale does not appear to be a primary competitor for NIU—only 5% would consider attending

  • Note: UIC is even a greater contender among students in NIU’s low-yield market

Familiarity with niu
Familiarity with NIU

  • Awareness is a major issue among NIU’s prospective student pool—58% are “not at all” to “not very familiar” with NIU

  • As one might expect, awareness is of greatest concern in NIU’s low-yield markets—59% have never even heard of NIU. However, awareness is also low among areas identified as major feeder schools

  • Of particular note: Familiarity is lowest amongst high achieving students (gpa of 3.75+)—53% have never heard of NIU

  • Respondents who are not at all familiar with NIU were not asked University-specific questions

Niu descriptors top 8
NIU Descriptors (Top 8)

  • Prospects describe NIU as having top quality academics—but not by an overwhelming majority of respondents

  • In addition, prospects relate NIU as being close to home. This is a positive element as 72% of students will remain within a four-hour drive from home (slide 7)

  • Beyond that, knowing someone who attends NIU, fun, Huskies, and rural are the most commonly cited NIU descriptors

Perceptions of niu
Perceptions of NIU

  • Unfortunately, NIU received no perceptions ratings above a 4.0 indicating the University is seen as merely a “good” to “average” institution

  • Attributes most highly regarded by prospects relate to NIU’s non-academic features—cost, campus, activities, and fun

  • However, attributes most important to NIU’s prospects are primarily focused on the University’s academic elements—graduate success, quality of faculty, and program quality

  • Attributes shaded in yellow are the most important elements prospects consider in selecting a college (importance ratings of 4.5 or above)

Perceptions of niu continued
Perceptions of NIU –continued

  • Among the attributes tested, there were none that fell below average. However, there is still room for improvement

  • On slide 27, both mean importance ratings and mean perception ratings are charted to highlight the areas in which NIU will want to concentrate improvements

  • Attribute shaded in yellow is one of the most important elements prospects consider as they select a college

Perceptions of niu by market
Perceptions of NIU by Market

  • The above table represents significant differences in prospects’ perceptions of NIU when examined by market area

  • For the most part, those located in NIU’s low-yield markets have the lowest perceptions of NIU when considering the above attributes

Plotting 24 Perception vs. Importance Ratings

1=Academic reputation of the college

2=Quality of the program/major you are interested in

3=Cost to attend

4=Appearance of the campus

5=Value of the degree

6=Amount of financial aid available, including scholarships

7=Overall quality of campus facilities

8=Overall quality of faculty as teachers and mentors

9=Overall quality of academic facilities

10=Variety of on-campus activities

11=Personal attention from faculty

12=Graduates get good jobs or get accepted into good graduate programs

13=Student opportunities for a wide variety of internships

14=Being located near a major metropolitan city

15=Offers students a fun college experience

16=Friendliness of the people on campus

17=Overall quality of students attending the college

18=Being able to study abroad

19=Ethnic diversity of students on campus

20=Safety of the campus

21=Opportunities to participate in intercollegiate athletics

22=The majority of students remain on campus for weekend events and activities

23=Quality of residential facilities

24=Opportunities to conduct research as an undergraduate

SIGNIFICANT FINDING: Attributes in yellowindicate areas NIU is perceived to be performing/delivering below expectations


  • Ideally, all attributes should fall into one of the three shaded segments. This indicates that perceptions of NIU are generally in line with the importance prospects place upon them. Attributes in a box below the blue segments indicate areas in which NIU needs to focus on improving. Attributes in a box above the blue segments indicate areas in which NIU is performing well, but not something that is extremely important to prospects

  • NIU must improve either the product or promotion of the following attributes as they fall below prospects’ expectations:

    • Academic reputation

    • Quality of the program/major you are interested in

    • Value of the degree

    • Amount of financial aid available, including scholarships

    • Overall quality of academic facilities

    • Graduates get good jobs or get accepted into good graduate programs

    • Student opportunities for a wide variety of internships

    • Friendliness of the people on campus

    • Safety of the campus

  • NIU must address the shortfalls in these key areas. By doing so, NIU will increase enrollment—71% of those rating NIU as “very good” are “very likely” to attend compared to only 21% rating NIU as “good”


  • NIU does not perform well on attributes highly important to prospects. However, NIU appears to be on the verge of strength in the following areas:

    • Cost

    • Offers students a fun college experience

  • It’s essential that NIU be known beyond affordability and a good time. Remember, academic features are what students are considering when selecting an institution (slide 14)

  • We recommend that NIU’s brand and promotional messaging be critically reviewed, then re-tooled to place greater emphasis on the quality and caliber of the academic program

  • Stories and testimonials will do the most effective job of conveying this message; resist the temptation to tell your story from the top down…let your students be the voice of NIU

  • They are more authentic and can more convincingly demonstrate the balance of value, fun, and academic quality that exists on the campus

Advantages of niu top 9
Advantages of NIU(Top 9)

  • Prospects perceive NIU’s greatest asset as its proximity to home—this perceived benefit may be even more valuable in today’s economy

  • In addition, nearly 20% feel the academics are a benefit to attending NIU—strong in my program, better than some other universities, etc.

  • NIU’s affordability is another perk to attending—being approximately $1,200 to $3,000 less than its top competitors

Disadvantages of niu top 9
Disadvantages of NIU(Top 9)

  • NIU’s physical location is perceived as its greatest deterrent—but only by a small portion of your prospect pool

  • In addition, the quality of academics is also a drawback—not challenging enough, not strong in my major, not as good as other schools, under my academic ability, etc.

  • Beyond that, too close or too far from home, size, and reputation are the most commonly cited weaknesses of NIU

Visited niu
Visited NIU

  • Just over half (of those familiar with NIU) have taken the time to visit NIU’s campus. Stamats’ experience tells us that a campus visit is the number one driver in getting students to apply and ultimately attend

  • In NIU’s case, 89% of those who visited are likely to apply, and 61% are likely to attend

  • The following slide outlines the most and least impressive aspects of NIU’s visit

Visited niu1
Visited NIU

  • Most impressive aspects of the visit:

    • Friendly, helpful people (24)*

    • Facilities, buildings, architecture (23)*

    • Campus—layout, easy to get around, appearance (22)*

    • Athletic facilities, football field (12)*

    • Thorough tour, good guide (8)*

    • Not sure (5)*

    • My questions were answered, provided good information (5)*

    • Dorms (4)*

    • Diversity (4)*

    • Size (4)*

    • * Represents the total number of respondents

  • Least impressive aspects of the visit:

    • Not sure, nothing (31)*

    • Dorms (20)*

    • Campus—appearance, not clean, layout (19)*

    • Facilities (9)*

    • Location—isolated, not a college town, not safe (8)*

    • Didn’t get to see/do all I’d hope to (7)*

    • Size (5)*

    • Weather (4)*

    • Lack of info (3)*

    • * Represents the total number of respondents

Overall perception of niu
Overall Perception of NIU

  • This combines for an overall rating of a 3.7 on a 5-point scale

  • Respondents will typically rate a school “good.” Therefore, a better indication of how NIU rates is the number of “average” responses compared to “very good” responses

  • Currently, NIU is not seen as a premier institution as nearly three times as many prospects rated it “average” compared to “very good”

  • By improving perceptions, NIU will increase enrollment—71% of those rating NIU as “very good” are “very likely” to attend, compared to only 21% of those rating it “good” and 4% those rating it “average”

Niu s position in the consideration set
NIU’s Position in the Consideration Set

  • Nearly 40% of NIU’s prospects (who are familiar) are not even considering the University among their college choice set

  • In Stamats’ experience, those placing the University as a third choice or lower are unlikely to attend

  • Top reasons prospects are not considering NIU (n=89):

    • Have already decided on another college (27%)

    • Location (16%)

    • Doesn’t offer my major (14%)

    • Weak academics (11%)

    • Too close to home (10%)

    • Too big (5%)

    • There are better schools available (5%)

  • Note: 44% of prospects with a gpa of 3.5 or below place NIU within their top two choices

Likelihood of applying
Likelihood of Applying

  • Keeping in mind that 10% of prospects identify NIU as their first-choice school, and 17% consider it their second-choice option, it appears NIU may be a classic back-up (safety) school for prospects

  • Only 27% consider the University among their top two choices, yet nearly 84% are likely to apply

Likelihood of attending
Likelihood of Attending

  • Of prospects likely to apply, only one-quarter are “very likely” to matriculate, again confirming the safety school moniker

  • However, those who rank NIU among their top two choices are twice as likely to matriculate—48% are “very likely” to attend

  • To avoid wasting valuable time and resources, determine NIU’s ranking among prospects competitor set early in the funnel


  • Building awareness among NIU’s prospect pool (in every market) is vital. Nearly 60% of NIU’s entire prospect pool are “not at all” to “not very familiar” with the University—56% from NIU’s major feeder schools, 81% from low-yield schools, and 35% from all other areas

  • To reach these undecided prospects, NIU must take a more visible and personal approach. These students want to know NIU cares about them—they want personalized e-mails addressing their individual concerns (not mass e-mails), personalized letters or notes from admissions reps, phone calls, and even visits to the high school. While some, if not all of these channels and tactics are being utilized by NIU’s recruitment funnel, it’s a great opportunity to evaluate how they are being executed

  • Beyond awareness, NIU must improve its overall perception and image. Currently, NIU’s reputation favors that of an “average” institution versus “very good”


  • To increase these perceptions, NIU must improve either or both the product or promotion of the following attributes, as NIU is perceived to be performing under par:

    • Academic reputation

    • Quality of the program/major you are interested in

    • Value of the degree

    • Amount of financial aid available, including scholarships

    • Overall quality of academic facilities

    • Graduates get good jobs or get accepted into good graduate programs

    • Student opportunities for a wide variety of internships

    • Friendliness of the people on campus

    • Safety of the campus

  • By increasing perceptions, NIU will increase enrollment—those rating NIU as “very good” are significantly more likely to attend than those rating it as “good”

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