Survey shows study abroad decision process is changing, with more factors at play

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • University rankings are decreasing in influence in terms of where students choose to study
  • Peer reviews, virtual tours, videos, and cost of tuition and living becoming much more influential
  • While students may have a list of “dream destinations,” they will also consider other options if a school’s offer is compelling
  • Post-graduation work opportunities are increasingly important to students across the globe

A new survey shows that students are making study abroad decisions based on a changing list of priorities and influencers. Rankings are becoming less important than factors such as cost of living, the ability to work after studying, quality of teaching, and a destination’s reputation for being welcoming and friendly. And while students may have an ideal country in mind to study in, they are often quite willing to consider alternatives.

The survey was conducted by educations.com, an education search portal used by students to help choose programmes in over 210 countries. More than 32,000 current and prospective students representing 192 nationalities and a range of ages participated; these students had in some way engaged with educations.com in their search for higher education.

Teaching quality, cost of living increasing as motivating factors

Historically, a university’s position on global ranking systems has been a key component of its ability to attract foreign students. The educations.com survey, however, finds that this trend may be waning, as students are increasingly realising that attending a school with high rankings does not necessarily mean that they will achieve success in a programme or enjoy study abroad. For a better gauge of that, they are looking for evidence of teaching quality, and they want to know if they will really be able to afford tuition for a programme and the cost of living associated with a destination.

Current students said their top three considerations when choosing a university were (in order) school’s reputation, school’s ranking, and teaching quality. The top three considerations for prospective students, meanwhile, were (in order) teaching quality, cost of living, and then a school’s ranking. Educations.com found that prospective students value teaching quality 45% more than current students and cost of living factors 118% more.

Interestingly, a separate survey conducted a couple of years ago by Hobson’s also found that a large majority of students were not primarily motivated by university rankings. We noted then that the implication of that earlier survey was that,

“Absent a high-level ranking, institutions can still expect to attract students on the basis of other indicators with respect to graduate outcomes, teaching quality, and student experience.”

Affordability a growing concern

The growing importance of practical factors for students was also illustrated in the differences between current and prospective students’ decision-making regarding course of study. Prospective students were 28% less likely to be interested in the reputation of a programme and 21% less motivated by a programme’s content than current students. Instead, they were much more likely to consider the cost of tuition as well as entry requirements. Their interest in scholarship availability was 50% higher than current students’ level of interest.

Highly influential: virtual, video, and testimonials

Reflecting their digital immersion and the ubiquity of online peer reviews for institutions, prospective students were 123% and 68% more likely than current students to be influenced by virtual tours of a university and videos about a university, respectively. They were also 33% more likely to prioritise student reviews of an institution.

Respond quickly

How fast do more than 4 in 10 (43%) prospects expect a reply from a university once they’ve sent an initial inquiry? Within one day. Another 40% are slightly more forgiving; they want to hear back from a university within one week. Only 17% thought it was acceptable to receive a response within two weeks from their initial inquiry. As we have noted elsewhere, “Whether it’s an initial auto-response by text or email, or even an attempt to serve students via live chat or Skype services, response time is key.”

Ideally, the response will be personalised. The educations.com survey found that 81% of students expected a response addressing the specific questions raised by their queries.

Most popular destinations

The top 10 destinations for undergraduate and post-graduate prospects are the same, with one exception: China is a top 10 destination only for undergraduate students and Italy is a top 10 destination only for post-graduate students. Otherwise, the list (in order) is as follows:

1. US
2. UK
3. Canada
4. Australia
5. Germany
6. France
7. Netherlands
8. Sweden
9. Italy (China for undergraduates)
10. Switzerland

Regional differences

North American students’ priorities are shifting when it comes to study abroad. Prospects were much less likely to be looking for a specific language than current students, and more likely to be interested in safety, friendliness, cost of living, and recreational opportunities. Prospects were also 200% more likely than current students to be influenced by the opportunity to obtain a work visa after graduating and 70% more likely to be influenced by the cost of tuition.

North American respondents’ top 10 dream destinations are (in descending order) France, the US (for Canadians), the UK, Spain, Japan, Australia, Italy, Germany, Canada (for Americans), and South Korea.

Like North Americans, Northern Europeans are becoming more motivated by a country’s reputation for safety and friendliness, by affordability (up by a third), as well as by the ability to get a work visa after graduating (150% more influenced by the latter than current students were). Prospects were 75% more interested in career services as well.

Northern Europeans respondents’ top 10 dream destinations are (in descending order) the US, UK, Sweden, Australia, France, Canada, Spain, Germany, Japan, Italy.

Western European prospects were like so many others in the survey more interested than current students in cost of living factors; they were more than twice as likely as current students to be influenced by cost of living. Prospects were also slightly more likely to be looking at a school’s reputation and teaching quality than current students.

The ability to work after graduation was hugely more important to Western European prospects than current students, by a difference of 250%. The increasing importance of employment outcomes are also reflected in Western European prospects being 40% more interested in work placements than current students.

Northern Europeans respondents’ top 10 dream destinations are (in descending order) the US, the UK, Australia, Canada, France, Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Japan, Italy.

Among South American students, by far the most quickly rising priority is cost of living; while 28% of current students were influenced by this factor, 56% of prospects were. Similarly, tuition costs have become much more of a factor among prospects, who were 68% more likely to cite this as an influence. South Americans remain highly motivated by the language of instruction. Prospects were 150% more likely to be influenced by the opportunity to work in the destination country after graduating, in keeping with the global trend of rising interest in this factor.

South American respondents’ top 10 dream destinations are (in descending order) the US, Canada, UK, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Sweden, France, Australia.

Rising priorities for South Asian students are cost of living (17% more influential among prospects), friendliness (13% more influential), and to a smaller degree, teaching quality and reputation (7% more influential). There were no dramatic jumps regarding safety or language of instruction.

The importance of practical concerns is reflected in South Asian prospects being 88% more influenced by the ability to study for free than current students, in their being 20% less likely to consider rankings, and in their being 22% more interested in entry requirements.

South Asian respondents’ top 10 dream destinations are (in descending order) the US, the UK, Australia, Canada, Japan, France, New Zealand, Germany, South Korea, Netherlands.

In the Middle East, close to 6 in 10 (58%) prospects were influenced by cost of living compared to just 31% of current students. Prospects were also twice as likely to cite visa requirements than current students. Nearly 3 in 10 Middle Eastern prospects are looking for employment opportunities when they consider a destination country, and close to half (46%) are motivated by language. Interestingly, prospects were 57% less likely than current students to say that they are influenced in their choices by family/friends.

Middle Eastern prospects were notably more concerned with an institution’s reputation for teaching quality (59% vs 41% of current students) and with cost of living (52% versus 30% of current students) A school’s ranking was important to nearly half of respondents in both groups. Prospects were significantly more likely to consider student facilities and career outcomes.

Importantly, Middle Eastern prospects were 37% more likely than current students to want there to be flexibility in study mode, presumably referring to a programme’s being delivered partly or wholly online.

Middle Eastern respondents’ top 10 dream destinations are (in descending order) the US, the UK, Canada, Sweden, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Australia, Switzerland.

For additional background, please see:



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