How students make application choices

New data shows how the cost-of-living crisis is influencing study choices, explains Chris Rea, graduate careers expert for Prospects at Jisc

Chris Rea is a graduate careers expert for Prospects at Jisc

Given the substantial academic and financial investment that students make in their study, it’s no surprise that most of them take up to a year to solidify their plans.

Postgraduate students are particularly invested, with the majority spending more than two years just thinking about it.

Having great passion for a subject is typically the biggest motivator for students exploring their study options and performance. But what happens when there’s a cost-of-living crisis? Does cash become king?

Prospects Early Careers Survey 2024 charts the study and career plans of more than 6,000 students and graduates over the last 12 months. The annual survey provides insight into the challenges, motivations and experiences of prospective students over time.

Motivations to study

Since the cost-of-living crisis, a genuine passion for a subject as a main motivator for choosing further study has dropped five percentage points – from 98 per cent in our 2021 survey to 93 per cent in 2024.

As prospective students consider the prospect of juggling fees with steadily increasing rent, living and travel costs, they are carefully weighing up the potential financial gains of education against the investment they will need to make.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, salary and career prospects are dominant in decision making right now.

Pursuing study options to improve career prospects ranked moderately or highly for 80 per cent of students. And 36 per cent of respondents mentioned that retraining in a different career significantly influenced their further study plans. Fifty-six per cent of those planning to leave their current employer in 2024 were motivated by this factor.

While higher salary wasn’t the most dominant factor, it still played a significant role in study choices. The majority (72 per cent) of both women and men acknowledged that the chance of a higher salary was moderately to largely influential. And 41 per cent of potential students said salary had a large influence this year, compared with 30 per cent in 2022.

Financial concerns

The cost-of-living crisis is further evident in the survey as finances become the single biggest concern among potential students.

When asked about their main concerns for continuing their studies, 60 per cent were worried about tuition fees, 55 per cent about the cost of living and 51 per cent about managing personal or familial commitments around study.

Potential postgraduate students were more concerned about tuition fees (70 per cent) than undergraduates (61 per cent).

Meanwhile, prospective undergraduates were more concerned about being good enough at the subject (53 per cent) and enjoying the course (64 per cent) compared to potential postgraduates (38 per cent and 29 per cent respectively).

The findings revealed some interesting gender differences that are worth noting. Women expressed greater concern than men in several areas:

  • 46 per cent of women were worried about being good enough at the subject compared with 34 per cent of men.
  • 55 per cent of women were concerned about balancing other commitments whereas only 43 per cent of men shared this concern.
  • 41 per cent of women were concerned about managing their mental wellbeing, while only 27 per cent of men were worried about this.

Lacking information

As our findings demonstrate, external social and economic influences can impact study choices and how decisions are made. With finances so high up the agenda and the major concerns around fees and the cost of living, this type of information becomes a priority.

Yet despite spending a significant amount of time researching courses, finding out how to fund it has been a long-standing issue among students.

More than half (56 per cent) of prospective postgraduates, and 36 per cent of potential undergraduates, struggled to find information on funding their courses this year.

Out of all of the information required, this type of detail was the hardest to find – and the challenge isn’t new. Fifty-five per cent of potential postgraduates encountered difficulties in accessing funding details in our 2023 survey, and 59 per cent faced similar struggles in our 2022 survey.

Universities go to great efforts to make their learning opportunities and outcomes transparent, ensuring students have the information they need to make the best choices. It’s more important than ever that financial information is easily available to help potential students make well-informed decisions about the financial viability of pursuing further study.

Positive trends

Students may be struggling with access to the financial information that they need, but there are also several positive trends.

Of all the factors that prospective students weigh up when researching where to study – including stuff like reputation, facilities, and employability – course content is the most important. In 2022, 42 per cent of potential undergraduates and 37 per cent of potential postgraduates struggled to find in-depth information about course content. This dropped to only 30 per cent and 34 per cent respectively this year.

Likewise, finding details about course delivery seemed less challenging for this year’s survey participants. In 2022, 41 per cent of undergraduates faced difficulties locating this information, whereas in 2024 only 18 per cent had similar struggles.

With many students pursuing study to improve career prospects it is a positive sign that only a third of both potential undergraduates and postgraduates had difficulty in finding which course could help them progress their career – down from nearly half of aspiring undergraduates and 40 per cent of postgraduates in 2022.

University websites are the main place prospective students look for information when exploring study options and while prospective students’ motivations and aspirations may move with the times, those universities that ensure that critical information is clear, up-to-date and easily found will always have an advantage when it comes to student recruitment.

Leave a Reply