What Cornell's Data About First-Year Students Can Teach Us About Marketing

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Last week, I was scouring UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) website for info about the most recent CIRP Freshman Survey, a comprehensive assessment administered to undergraduate students all over the country immediately before they begin their first year of college. According to HERI, the survey “collects extensive information that allows for a snapshot of what your incoming students are like before they experience college.”

For higher ed marketers it’s a great resource that provides significant insight into the headspace of the students we spend so much time thinking about. The 2016 report is available, and I encourage you to check it out, but the 2017 version seems to be running behind. (If you spot it somewhere, I’d love it if you gave me a heads-up.)

While that initial search proved fruitless, the Google algorithm did bless me with a link to something nearly as wonderful: Cornell’s Office of Institutional Research and Planning’s “2018 New Student Survey” (embedded below).

I don’t know much about the survey other than that Cornell’s been conducting it since 2000 and they’ve made all the data publicly available, which is pretty extraordinary. (I’ve reached out to the team at Cornell to see if they’d be willing to tell me a little more about how they use the survey and what they’ve learned from it over the years. If I hear back from them, I’ll write a follow-up post.) But what I really love about the survey is how clearly it illustrates a fundamental truth about prospective students. And that fundamental truth is simply this: Different students care about different things.

Go ahead and play around with the data a little, and you’ll see what I mean.

Different students care about different things.

Shocker, right? I know I’m stating the extremely obvious here, but sometimes self-evident truths resonate more meaningfully when you see them laid out with supporting evidence (and good visualizations).

Here, for example, it’s easy to see how different Cornell students care to varying degrees about different parts of the Cornell value proposition. For example: In the aggregate, they want internships. In the aggregate, they don’t want to take part in Greek life.

But if you sort by school, you can begin to see certain themes and typologies emerge. For example, students entering the business school care even more about internships than everybody else. They’re also far more likely than other academic cohorts to be interested in Greek life.

If you drop down to different questions, the breakdown by academic cohort becomes even more interesting and enlightening. Take, for example, the question, “How important is each of the following to you as you think about your own life and future?”

On this item, 52% of the freshmen class as a whole said that “being financially well-off” was “essential.” For business kids, that shoots up dramatically, to 66%, while only 43% of students in the School of Architecture, Art & Planning said financial well-being was essential. Instead, students in this school cared the most about “doing creative and expressive work” (64%).

Engineering students, on the other hand, cared most about “contributing to science and innovation” (57%).

Taken as a whole, of course, Cornell freshmen tend to care a great deal about all of the opportunities that great institution can offer them, and they’re all interested to certain degrees in achieving the traditional markers of post-college success (financial stability, personal fulfillment, the respect and recognition of their peers, etc.), but the differences among groups are still significant.

When you know what someone cares about, you can market to them more effectively.

Again, I know this is not news to you. But it bears repeating and reframing.

Google and Facebook are two of the most valuable companies in the history of the world because they help businesses deliver relevant marketing experiences to the people most likely to act on them. When their targeting capabilities are firing on all cylinders, I see ads for products I’m actually interested in—the brands I like, the styles I find attractive, and so on—and am more likely to make a purchase.

Now imagine these Cornell freshmen a couple years ago when they were thinking about applying to college. If you knew which students cared about business, you’d deliver content to them about business programs. And knowing that business students care more—on average—about higher salaries and Greek life, you’d be sure to prioritize telling them about those things, right? About average starting salaries for Cornell business grads. About the thriving Greek scene on campus.

But for art students, instead of leading with financial ROI data, you might showcase the beautiful things that current students and alumni have made.

For engineering students, you might highlight profiles of alumni who have made significant contributions to their field.

My point, and apologies again for belaboring the obvious, is that prospective students—like all other consumers of all other products—have specific interests and needs. And if you’re trying to get their attention, you’ll be more successful if you talk to them about the things they care about.

You don’t have to wait until after a student enrolls to ask them what they care about… or what they’re excited about… or what terrifies them.

Cornell surveys its students after they enroll and arrive on campus. That makes sense because Cornell’s trying to figure out certain things about the makeup of their student body over time.

But if you’re a higher ed enrollment marketer, did you know you don’t have to wait until after a student enrolls to learn about the things that matter most to them?

It’s true! For starters, there’s a lot you can glean from the data made available by the organizations that license prospective students’ info to colleges and universities. Understanding this data and putting it to good use is a key first step towards separating yourself from the herd of your competitors who overwhelm prospective students with terabytes of off-putting, overly transactional, generic marketing.

There’s also a lot you can do in your marketing to continue to learn from students about the things that matter most to them—whether they’re sophomores in high school beginning to consider their college options for the first time, or whether they’re seniors trying to make a decision between your school and a different one the week before May 1.


If you’d like some help becoming more personal and relevant in your marketing, we’d love to show you how we approach that work at Waybetter.


Marketing over the course of a student’s college search is hard—but there’s a lot you don’t have to guess about.

I know it can seem downright impossible to nurture students through the long and fraught enrollment cycle. In our experience, the best way to do this is to guess as little as you have to, to learn as much as you can about individual students, and then do your best to say to them the things that show how your school might be a great fit for who they are and what they need.

Sure, not every student will decide your school is what’s best for them—but that’s ok! If you’re approaching your enrollment marketing empathetically and selflessly (and with the assistance of good strategy, processes, and technology), you’ll find more than enough students who appreciate you for who you are, what you stand for, and the success you’re ready to help them achieve.