3 Core Areas Students Explore Before Choosing Your Institution

Written by Chanel Sutherland.

Why do students choose to study at one institution and not the other? What factors motivate their decision, and what are the key barriers holding them back? For many students, choosing a college or university is a rite of passage. After all, it is one of the first adult decisions that they’ll have to make in their lives.

So, the question is: what do modern students look for when choosing a higher education institution? Below we look at three core factors that students consider when deciding what university or college they should attend.

1. The undergraduate experience

No student enrolls in college or university and plans to drop out before even starting. Yet, there is a relatively high proportion of dropouts that occur during years one and two of the undergraduate experience. For prospective students, a high undergraduate dropout rate could change their decision to join that school.

That’s why many higher education institutions are undergoing an undergraduate reform, seeking ways to help new students better adapt to university life to maximize success. In The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most, (Felten, Gardner, Schroeder, Lambert, Barefoot, and Hrabowski), the authors offer a guide that a wide range of colleges and universities use to drive educational excellence during the undergraduate years. The book focuses on a set of six core principles. Amongst them is “Relationships Matter”:

Student–faculty, student–staff, and student–student relationships are essential to the undergraduate experience. For a college or university to sustain excellence, however, other structural relationships also matter a great deal, such as those between academic affairs and student affairs, between student success initiatives and the faculty, between the governing board and senior administrators, and between alumni and the college. A vibrant and inclusive community emerges from the quality of the relationships that undergird it. Strong institutions value strong relationships, and they do not leave these to chance. Relationships are cultivated and nurtured intentionally at all levels.

Connecting with students from the very beginning of their university career is crucial to student success. It allows educational leaders to capture data at key touchpoints so that they can identify at-risk students and address any concerns that might otherwise lead to disengagement and dropout.

2. Integration of new technology

In an earlier blog, we explored how technology has changed the “student.” Students entering higher education institutions today are fundamentally different from 40 years ago. Technology plays a major part in their identity, and these tech-savvy learners expect the institution they attend to adapt to the times.

Online classes, massive open online courses (MOOCS), virtual reality, live formative feedback – students expect technology to play an instrumental role in shaping their educational experience. Yet many institutions are slow to implement any technology at all, which hurts their competitive advantage when it comes to attracting new students. One of the strongest arguments for using digital tools in colleges and universities is that it will trigger pedagogical innovation. There is also the future job market – which students will eventually have to face. The workplace of today and tomorrow is technologically savvy, and any student entering that market after graduation without the technical know-how is more than likely to fail.

3. Rankings on league tables

The Maclean’s University Rankings were just released – about two weeks following the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings 2020. The tables rank Canada’s best universities by reputation and offer potential students a glimpse into data that they might not otherwise have when deciding what university or college to attend.

While the top 10 institutions – which includes the University of Toronto and McGill University – are not a surprise, the lists still offer some insights that could help prospective students make informed choices.  For example, the Canada’s best universities by student satisfaction list surveyed more than 18,000 university students who gave feedback about “professors and staff, residence life, and opportunities for extracurricular activities and experiential education” all important factors that applicants will consider during the application period.



Peter Felten, John N. Gardner, Charles C. Schroeder, Leo M. Lambert, Betsy O. Barefoot, Freeman A. Hrabowski (2016). The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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