The Impact of COVID-19 on College Search for Parents of Rising Seniors

Carnegie Higher Ed Jul 16, 2020 Carnegie Higher Ed Persona The Visionary Frontrunner

In an effort to help enrollment marketers navigate this unprecedented recruitment cycle for the incoming Class of 2021, Carnegie Dartlet conducted two in-depth surveys. The first was sent to over 1,500 rising seniors to see how their college search has been impacted by COVID-19, which resulted in our recently published Rising Seniors Report. The second was sent to parents of rising seniors to gather their thoughts about everything from college choice to testing options for their child. Here are some of the top thoughts, opinions, and concerns that rising seniors’ parents have regarding their students’ college search in this new landscape.

Campus tours and events

The onset and spread of COVID-19 brought campus tours and in-person events to an abrupt halt in March. We wanted to better understand the importance of these in-person experiences for the parents of rising seniors in the college selection process with their child. And the value was clear—nearly 70% of parents surveyed cited these in-person events as being “very important” or “absolutely critical,” with only 14% of parents stating these in-person experiences were only “slightly” or “not at all important.

Given the clear importance of these types of events for parents—and the current lack of ability to host them in person—the opportunity for colleges and universities now is to double down and give focus to your virtual experience delivery. While you can never fully recreate the same type of event as having parents on campus, you must make every effort to try. Parents (and students) told us repeatedly that they want these virtual events to be live and interactive, with the ability to ask current students and admission counselors questions in real time. So do your best to recreate virtually the same level of connection you did in person; it will pay you back in spades. 

Final college choice

By this time in a typical recruitment cycle, many students have visited campuses, taken the ACT or SAT, and have a solid idea of where they might like to apply. But this year is different, and the parent data shows us that to date, only 25% of students have made their final decision on where to apply. With 30% of parents citing that their child “mostly” knows where they want to apply, there is still time to influence and impact students’ decisions—but that time is now.

Information-seeking sources for parents

If the time to act is now, you may be wondering: how? We asked parents how they first learn about colleges and universities for their child—and they told us loud and clear that they’re using college information and ranking sites. So make sure your institution’s information is up to date on these sites and represented in the best way possible. As an example, on, our college search portal for students and parents, every college and university is listed. However, it is only our client partners that have a more robust and interactive profile that allows students to request for more information in one click. Take advantage of options like this on sites like CollegeXpress, which allow you to provide greater detail on your school to prospects and in return, deliver you leads.

Additionally, as you can see above, both email and direct mail were ranked high as information sources for parents, so these more traditional methods are still resonating with them. While these sources are also important to students, as you can see below, the incoming Class of 2021 is also relying more on digital resources, with “online” and “Google search” topping the scales.

This data reinforces that having a holistic marketing plan that includes mail, email, and a robust digital marketing strategy is the best way for you to attract and drive action of parents and students. And if you, like so many others in higher education recruitment, have ever pondered if you should have a parent-centric communication plan, let this conclusive data point guide your decision: 96% of parents responded yes, they are involved in their child’s discovery and exploration of colleges. With almost all parents claiming to be involved in their student’s college search journey and knowing the heavy influence mom and dad have in the decision-making process, you would be remiss not to have a dedicated parent communication plan.

Student screen time

As high schools went online for distance learning this spring, students spent more time than ever before on screens; 82% of parents reported their child was online significantly more now than before COVID-19, of which 60% stated their child was online more than three additional hours than before. Knowing students’ online usage and with this dramatic increase, it is incumbent on higher education marketers to capitalize on this opportunity and meet students where they are. Make sure you have a robust digital presence on the platforms being used most by students. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, TikTok, Spotify, Hulu, and more—they all have hyper-targeting capabilities where you can easily reach prospects at every stage of the funnel. Target users not only by demographics, interests, and behaviors but also based on their intent, first-party lists, or by creating look-alike audiences. 

Early Action and Early Decision

We asked parents their level of comfort having their child apply early to an institution this fall. Only 35% of parents cited being uncomfortable with their child applying  Early Action or Early Decision. With over 50% of students telling us they’re comfortable making this decision, the data indicates students could be ready to apply early and with their parents’ support. This means your time to influence parents and to get students to apply early is quickly evaporating. The reality is you may not have the opportunity to bring these families to campus before students have to make these decisions, emphasizing again the importance of creating amazing virtual experiences and actively promoting your Early Action/Early Decision deadlines now.

College choice factors

We asked parents a series of questions regarding any change in their opinions of college choice for their child. The survey results show that COVID-19 has not significantly impacted parents’ opinions and students’ willingness to live on campus, to travel for education, or their preference on the size of the school they want to attend. 


We asked parents several questions regarding their opinions on standardized tests and testing at home as an alternative. At the time of the survey, 73% of parents reported that their child was still planning to take a standardized test in the coming months. While there were several qualitative responses indicating concern for testing at home as an alternative, the data shows that some parents are open to home testing as an option. Clearly there is so much testing yet to be done and still so much uncertainty if testing can be delivered. This leaves schools currently in a precarious position, anxiously waiting for new test names to be released to begin student search campaigns but unsure if those names will ever become available. When and if the names are available, the challenge will be the massively  truncated time frame for your search campaign; there will be hyper-competitiveness for everyone to get their search out the door at the same time, which will result in the inevitable flooding and overwhelming of students’ mailboxes and inboxes. Given these shifts, this really might be the time to consider a different approach to your search. Fill the top of your funnel now through digital marketing and leverage lead generation platforms like CollegeXpress. Filling your pipeline now will mean you’ll have more time to nurture and convert these leads to applications come fall.

Paying for college

We asked parents about their level of concern in paying for college since the outbreak of COVID-19. Not surprisingly, almost 95% of parents expressed equal or greater concern, which was also echoed and heightened among minority students when we asked a similar question to students directly. Knowing this incoming class may bear even greater financial difficulties, you should make sure you have good and clear communication for your financial aid offerings, scholarship opportunities, and FAFSA information.


The COVID-19 outbreak has had dramatic impact for parents and students in their college search journey and has caused massive disruption to the cyclical norms of higher education marketing. These impacts, disruptions, and new norms are without question here to stay. In this historical moment as enrollment managers are faced with the monumental challenge to not only complete their enrollment for fall 2020 and get students back onto campus safely, they must also get serious about building their 2021 pipelines. Hopefully, the data shared from this parent survey as well as our Rising Seniors Report will help institutions navigate some of these upcoming recruitment challenges. 

The survey sample

Using our CollegeXpress platform, Carnegie Dartlet sent an invitation to registered parents who had children with a high school graduation year of 2021. In just a few days, more than 500 parents responded, and this blog represents some of the questions asked and their answers. If you would like to hear more details from both our rising seniors survey as well as this parent survey, you can listen to our recently broadcasted webinar, Rising Seniors: A Study of COVID-19’s Impact on the Incoming Class of 2021, or view the full parent survey responses.



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