How Campus Life Influences A Student’s Decision When Selecting An Institution

“College is going to be the best four years of your life.”

Many students have heard this phrase for decades, enhancing their expectations of what college will be like. It could be the first time a student is away from home, learning new things, meeting new people, and entering a new phase of life. It may also be the first time a student thinks critically about themselves, will learn the basics of cleaning and doing laundry, and be out on their own in the world.

Parents, families, and students are looking for the home away from home that will provide students with opportunities to build strong social bonds, meaningful experiences, and feel a sense of safety at the same time.

Understand Why Students Choose (Or Don’t Choose) Your Institution

Students feel comfortable when their institutional environment meets or exceeds their expectations. This includes the physical and non-physical environments including, but not limited to: learning centers, student or campus life, and accessibility to resources.

Is your student affairs team knowledgeable about campus life outside of their functional area? Would they feel comfortable referring them to another campus partner? With campus tours, accepted student days, and students checking off ‘must-haves’ on their to-do list, it’s increasingly important to honestly evaluate where your institution stands with the competition.

Here are some questions to ask your student affairs division:

Does our institution have clubs and organizations people want to be apart of? What are we missing? What areas do we need to improve?

This includes religious groups, advocacy organizations, intramural sports, or something out of the ordinary like the squirrel feeding club (thank you University of Michigan).

Students look for organizations to explore new interests or to match interests they already have or were involved with in high school. One of the first places they look is on an institution’s website. Does the institution’s website accurately represent campus life? Is the information presented up-to-date? If the answer is no to either question, students could be ruling out your institution if they have doubts of getting involved.

Our own Meg Walker describes her experience with selecting an institution,

Part of the reason why I wanted to go to college was for a better social experience. I didn’t have a great social experience in high school. I think for a lot of students, especially students like me, where you don’t know what you want to study and undecided about what you want to do entering college, the social aspect is a huge part of a student’s first semester. As a new student, if I don’t know what I want to study, getting involved will help me figure that out.

Meg explains how forming those strong early connections early on played into developing her own identity as being a part of that particular institution.

Incoming students want to be in leadership roles and often look towards experience in residence hall groups, activity planning, student government, and athletics.

How are we offering diverse experiences? Do our clubs/orgs/programs reflect that?

Students are looking for diverse and meaningful experiences to interact with other people who they may not have met otherwise. Does your institution offer spaces for sustained dialogue? Do you offer programs surrounding issues of diversity and social justice on a regular basis?

Meg elaborates on her personal experience,

At the first school I attended, I joined the social justice chapter and we had conversations about what that really looks like. Having come from rural Kansas and being in the suburbs of Chicago at a school talking about social justice issues, my world was changed.

Do we offer on-campus housing? Are the facilities clean?

Campus tours are crucial to understanding on-campus living spaces. Families and students look for spaces that feel safe and provide them with the clean and habitable facilities.

Things like Gender Neutral Housing (great website Boston University!) and therapy animals are some examples of accommodations that are on the rise as more students enter college with different needs. Incorporating higher education trends into professional staff training is a necessity to understanding the modern college student.

How are resources being communicated? Where are they located?

Health services, wellness centers, and counseling services are often included in a student’s tuition and fees. Some students may not have had access to these services prior to attending an institution and may be noting on their campus tour where they are located and availability. Are there counselors on-call outside of residence life personnel? Does your team know people in these offices by name? Would they feel comfortable making referrals for students?

Evaluate location. If any one of these services are located across campus and physically out of the way for students, it might be time to re-consider moving an office to a more central location.

Optimize Marketing & Communication Efforts

One of the first steps students can take on researching an institution is looking at their website to see all they may offer. USA College Today reviewed student’s top interests in attending an institution and campus life was one of the most interesting aspects to prospective students.

Meg describes her experience navigating university websites,

When I was a senior in high school I was searching for a college one of the first things I checked on a university’s website was what type of organizations they offered. It’s important to see what types of clubs they had, like Habitat for Humanity or nationally recognized clubs. Did the school have organizations that fit interests that I have where I can interact with people outside of my major that I may not otherwise meet?

One of the largest areas of dissonance between marketing departments and campus life is the perception of what is offered and the information available to prospective students.

How are your marketing and communication efforts aligning with your student affairs division? 

Ed Cabellon, a student affairs professional at Bridgewater State University and a leader in technology in higher education, saw a similar need and felt that there needed to be stronger efforts to communicate and engage with students in a centralized way.

Since presenting at a recent NASPA conference, institutions across the United States have started to take interest and adopt Bridgewater State University’s Student Affairs Integrated Marketing Communication Model (below).


Marketing efforts have been streamlined to update their master calendar, mobile app, main website, and student portal to reflect effective communication across various platforms. Additionally, it helped with social media efforts to engage the online audience with videos, quality graphics, and, again, communicate efficiently with the larger campus community. Check out the review of the model here.

Not only can this model be adapted to fit the needs of other institutions, but it can be utilized to reach prospective students as well.

Take Recruitment a Step Further

Campus life has the opportunity to prove they have a direct impact on recruitment and align efforts with institutional recruitment to prospective students. Marketing, enrollment management, and admissions departments need to be more deliberate about providing prospective students or applicants with in-person experiences and an array of current student perspectives.

Invite prospective students to on-campus events. Outside of campus tours and fall preview days. Incorporate specific events into the programming calendar with various groups to expose students to a range of involvement opportunities. Create the space for students to receive insights from current students and hold candid conversations about campus life. Hosting events where prospective students can hear personal testimonies gives them a pinch of what their future may be like and reflect on their personal values.

Create more meaningful moments. How are you making a first impression as an institution before the student decides to enroll?

Meg reflected on her acceptance letter to the school she decided to attend,

An admissions counselor sent me a letter drew a smiley face in the window of the envelope and included a personal message on the inside which said, ‘I saw you’re interested in business and communications, letting you know we have a Business/Comm degree – check it out.’

Wheaton College in Massachusetts decided to deliver their first acceptance letter in person to a member of the class of 2019:

Train campus recruiters about campus life initiatives. Bridging communication between campus life and admissions helps when distributing information to prospective students. All too often, information is not up-to-date and it shows lack of partnerships among departments.

Listen socially and hand-off appropriately. Ryerson University of Toronto, Canada noticed they had three social media accounts welcoming new students to campus. This created a fragmented student experience for incoming students. Some accounts would respond with inaccurate information or no response at all. In this case, the departments tried to be proactive but caused much more confusion for students on the other end. Admissions decided to pass along any tweets to Ryerson’s Student Services office to create a centralized system of communication.

Assess What You’re Already Doing

Campus life, enrollment management, admissions, and marketing need to streamline communication with each other and create a plan on how to approach prospective students to create the best processes.

How does your institution use social media to communicate with prospective students?

How have you changed marketing, admissions, or enrollment practices to meet the needs of campus life initiatives (or vice versa)? 

Share your experiences and best practices with us @CheckImHere!


Kayley Robsham

About the author: Kayley Robsham (she/hers) is a former Community Engagement Manager at Modern Campus Presence, the complete student engagement platform. Learn how we can help get your students involved.