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Forget University Rankings, a Sense of Belonging is the Biggest Factor in University Choice

two students chatting

Going to university is a huge life-changing event. It’s also likely to be the first such event in young person’s life where they have control over that decision. To be honest, there are certain moments like this dotted throughout a person’s life, such as having a baby, relocating, going on holiday.

During these times it’s quite difficult to get your head around information from ‘official’ sources. OK, so you take it in, you might put a plan together, make a list. But you still have no idea what it will feel like – you still struggle to picture yourself in that situation, and part of you feels unprepared.

So where do you go to get the kind of information that will put your mind at ease? Well, who better than other people who’ve been through it?

Of course, this is not a new concept in any way, shape or form! After all, Money saving expert have been using the power of peer-to-peer to share budgeting know-how for years.

Mumsnet took parental experience online.

All industries share best practice.

And let’s not forget how universities have long recognised the power of their current students. Ambassador schemes can receive a great deal of investment, and amounts spent on getting current students to work on open days can be considerable.

Why all this expense though? Is it really that important? Can it really change a prospect’s mind?

The answer is yes, or rather, it’s probably more important than you thought.

Put yourselves in this generation’s shoes. They have access to so much information – but how do they know what/who to trust? There’s that ongoing joke in HE that only the best looking students on the sunniest days are photographed and appear in the prospectus and brochures. To make matters harder, all these prospectuses look the same. How are these universities different?

So what do we need to do and nurture in order to connect with them? How do we differentiate ourselves?

Luckily, there’s plenty of evidence to guide us.

#1: The importance of ‘a sense of belonging’ (Winter & Chapleo, 2017) 

Research published in the Journal of Further and Higher Education last year found that the ability of a university to provide a ‘sense of belonging’ was seen as essential – this was when prospective students were specifically asked for the key reason for choosing one university above another (Winter & Chapleo, 2017). The importance of personal interactions was overwhelmingly discussed as important by the sample in this research – above university rankings. Why? Well, the research found that interactions were key in facilitating a feeling of belonging and a sense of ‘university fit’.

As professionals in higher education marketing, recruitment and outreach, we understand how this is achieved through Open Days and face-to-face engagement. But the problem is we only reach a small proportion of prospects in this manner. What about the students who can’t afford to travel to an Open Day? What about those who physically can’t get here? What if they’re just too scared?

We need to facilitate meaningful personal interactions in a sustained, accessible way. And if we’re thinking about strengthening university recruitment initiatives through online engagement and digital content, we must acknowledge that today’s prospective students are very aware of online marketing and crave authenticity.

#2: The importance of real experiences

  • 80% of Internet surfers read others’ opinions or comments (Association for Research of Media (2015)
  • 9 out of 10 students consult a college/university search review site when researching where to study (Digital Marketing Institute)
  • 86% of online users say that user-generated content is a good indication of the quality of a brand, business or service (ComScore, leading audience tracking platforms)

It’s clear that students respect and trust the opinions of their peers – hence the power of user-generated content. It’s long been established that the recommendations and opinions shared through word-of-mouth have far greater influence than other forms of paid advertising.

I’m sure you’re no different. I bet you’ve read product reviews on Amazon or, looked at feedback from holiday makers on Tripadvisor. And of course AirBnB have built their whole identity on our need to experience authenticity. It’s a key consideration in the buying process for everyone.

This reality extends to student recruitment, too. When Gen Z are looking to invest in excess of £30k on a university education, they want reassurance from those that have gone before them – your current students.

#3: The importance of building trust

(THES July 15th 2018)

“Students want to see unfiltered and non-scripted experiences. Online platforms are valued and regarded as trustworthy because they allow individuals to engage peer to peer and share their beliefs and experiences.”

In our work with prospective students we need to connect on a personal level, building trust and providing a level of transparency that’s key in today’s educational environment.

Students need to be able to reach out and connect with those who have gone through this life changing experience before them. Preferably with those they have a connection with, a shared interest, and maybe even a common background. Being able to identify with someone ‘like them’ is inspiring and builds trust.

They’ll be able to explain why your institution was right for them – and let’s face it, your current students are going to be able to articulate this far better than you.

Reassurance, reassurance, reassurance

Cast your mind back to when you were choosing your last degree. It was so exciting, to be on the threshold of a new beginning, which would have such a massive impact on your future. It was also really scary though, wasn’t it? Will there be anyone like me? Will I make any friends? Will I cope with the work? Collectively, we need to accept that our challenge is reassurance.

From all of the research above, creating that elusive sense of belonging appears to be critical. Whilst this is of course difficult, we need to both acknowledge and better understand how to create that ‘I could see myself here’ feeling.

So let’s extend that sense of belonging to beyond open days, and to prospects, wherever they are. Because not only is it what this generation of learners is seeking, but it also works.

At Unibuddy, we help students thrive through shared experiences, effortless technology and the smart application of data. Working with over 70 institutions across the world, our partners have seen some impressive results, such as:

  • 47% of new prospects go on to apply

Generating applications: Imperial College Business School found that nearly half of those who used Unibuddy as their first point of contact, went on to apply.

  • 34.8% more likely to enrol after using Unibuddy

Converting applicants: Queen Mary found that those students who used Unibuddy were 34.8% more likely to go on and register – and this was over 100s of students, making a significant impact on their entry.

And, 89% of students who use Unibuddy felt more confident about going to university.

Want to know how peer-to-peer can enhance your student recruitment and marketing strategy and drive engagement? Drop us a line on or book a demo.

About the author

Emma Froud, Head of Business Development (UK)

With over 15 years experience in higher education, Emma has been a member of the Senior Leadership Team at a number of universities, most recently as Head of Student Recruitment and Widening Participation at Oxford Brookes. Having moved from academia into professional services, Emma’s background brings a unique understanding of HE. She joined Unibuddy as Head of Business Development earlier this year, and has seen the company rapidly expand to have more than 70 partners worldwide.

When she’s not waxing lyrical about the power of peer-to-peer, you can find her in a zen state, mastering her yoga poses.

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