Where do students go online to evaluate the university experience?

Today's students are using a huge range of tools to help them uncover the facts about institutions and determine which university is the best fit for them.

In this article we explore the latest and greatest tools out there, from comparison sites, to review portals and a host of new apps for students that help them assess everything from the nightlife, cost of living, to the quality of accommodation and more.

Prospects are building up a detailed picture online of the full student experience

We know today's students are well equipped and willing to invest time to build up a detailed picture of an institution.

The university website is still the primary source of information for them and the best place for institutions to recruit from. And social media is undoubtedly playing a bigger role with institutions creating superb high production and ambassador-led video content and Instagram and facebook providing imagery that showcases the more subtle aspects of university life.

But the answer is more varied and complex than website + social. And some newly emerging platforms are filling in the gaps that previously left students having to make "a leap of faith" with their university decisions.

University league tables still influence students

Despite the mixed views on the validity of league tables, they are still visited by thousands of prospective students each year to quickly compare institutions and courses.

On an international level, the 2019 QS league table has recently launched. It has a long history and offers rankings based on several factors including an in-depth global survey.

But for US and UK institutions the QS league table doesn't provide particularly good news this year.

The United States higher education system has recorded its worst performance in 16 years with 72.6% of the US's 157 ranked universities deteriorating in rank and its lowest number of top-100 universities (29) since 2016.

The UK meanwhile experienced its third-worst performance since the ranking began with 66% of universities losing places.

Europe has another league table though, called U-Multirank, supported through funding from the European Commission. It's been going for almost a decade and places universities in one of five performance groups rather than in a league table. Like the QS rankings, students can review their preferred institutions and courses and compare them within the U-Multirank tool which also has a helpful visual display.

The recently launched National Student Survey (NSS) in the UK meanwhile, released this month, adds to the broader picture that prospective students and their parents put in to assess institutions.

Independent review sites and peer to peer reviews grow in popularity

QS Top Universities deep dive into the US institutions and highlight the top 10 in a league table. Combining this with US News "National Universities ranking" potential students have a deep insight into what they can expect from a US institution.

In addition to the various other independent sources (Forbes US College rankTimesHigherEducationGuardian, Times, CompleteUniversityGuide, Colleges That Change Lives) there are also several popular university review sites.

Niche.com compiled 'The Best Colleges' ranking. It is based on rigorous analysis of academic, admissions, financial, and student life data from the U.S. Department of Education along with millions of reviews from students and alumni. The ranking compares more than 1,000 top colleges and universities in the U.S.

The new WhatUni? App, for example, saves students time by finding universities and courses based on their interests, qualifications, and location, with virtual assistants to provide support. The app is making waves for offering clear reviews and information from existing students. And from an institutional perspective, the app also provides an opportunity for prospective students to make direct contact with recruitment teams within the app.

US News also runs a college comparison site. They state "We've got a lot of data to look at. Narrow down your favorite schools by selecting ones that interest you to compare side by side." they have filters that allow students to compare by application processes, student life and ease of accessibility for foreign students, just to name a few. 

College Raptor’s US college rankings are based on a huge database of publicly-available data collected from a variety of sources. They aim to have our rankings cover the many aspects of what makes for a great college experience. They weigh a variety of factors that include the first-year retention rate, four-year graduation rate, and student-to-faculty ratio (among others). For more information on the methodology behind their college rankings, check out our ranking methodology breakdown. They pride themselves on the fact that they sort schools based on academic quality, diversity, overall best colleges, affordability, and many other rankings, but users can also drill down for college rankings by State, Region, Athletic Conference, or type of school (public or private).

Student Hut offers reviews meanwhile of everything from nightlife, to courses, accommodation, the quality of Fresher's Week, and more.

And sites like StudentCrowd are gaining traction offering unfiltered access to reviews by students already studying at institutions. Brave universities like Loughborough are now actually publishing the StudentCrowd ratings and reviews directly on their website pages.

Apps gamify university choices and assess the outcomes students get from their university

The Department for Education in the UK has been adding to this mix by funding apps like TheWayUp! which uses real-world data to gamify important decisions including university course choices and simulating the occupations available and ThinkUni. ThinkUni takes a different approach, presenting data on universities that focuses on highlighting the outcomes for students after they graduate.

Money, money, money

Affordability is still crucial for prospective students and several sites provide tools that compare the relative cost of attending different institutions.

Degree of value from GoCompare has a visual guide which helps prospective students to see the cost of accommodation, food, books, gyms, laundry, nightlife, travel, and tuition and providing an annual estimated budget for attending each institution for them to make comparisons. Totally Money and Prospects provide a similar service ranking the top places to go to university based on living costs and value for money.

And don't forget the social life

Students know how important a night out can be when it comes to their overall university experience. Now they can visit a student nightlife index that assesses the relative qualities of cities and towns across the UK for socializing. Whilst there may be more important academic factors to consider when deciding what the ideal studying city is, it can't hurt for prospective students to know how much of a good night out they could have too.

Are student ambassadors the best way to cut through the noise?

With student review sites becoming increasingly popular, institutions are increasingly seeing the value of leveraging the voice of their students.

We've talked about student influencers on the blog before, and many universities already have ambassador programs up and running to provide support for open days, campus tours, and recruitment events.

But some universities are now taking this further by providing direct access to student ambassadors so that prospective students and their parents can get in touch and ask questions online.

Influencer Marketing REQ

The Access Platform is a good example of enabling software that supports this activity. The platform lets prospective students use LiveChat to ask existing students questions to get a more unfiltered personal answer to the various queries they have about student life, courses and what it's like on campus.

Today's students don't want to be marketed to. Instead, they want to feel that an institution is relatable, accessible and authentic. The voice of existing students is authentic, and the information they provide is relevant and insightful.

What does this mean for universities?

It leaves us thinking that perhaps an institution's existing students are the best way to rise above the league tables and reviews, the rants and the ratings to provide an authentic response that truly resonates with today's students.

Universities may feel they have little control over these reviews and ranking sites, but as an institution, you need to identify what qualities are important to you and your future students. Check-in on how you rank and make sure that the data taking from your site is accurate. This way no matter where you rank, your ideal prospective students will find you based on the unique aspects that make you stand out and where you focus quality.

What does your institution do with league table results and student reviews and do you plan to use student ambassadors more to support engagement activities for prospective students? We'd love to hear.