Choosing a University- How important are non-academic factors

by Barbara Galkowska on May 20, 2022

Choosing a University- How important are non-academic factors

Recently I had a chance to participate in a very interesting webinar dedicated to “Student recruitment from generation Y to Z. What do students need to know before making their momentous decision?” The webinar was presented by Kasper Baars and Rohaan T.Mathew founders of The Discov (, a platform offering digital counselling that helps students to make the best decision about choosing the right higher institution to study in The Netherlands.  Out of their research dedicated to providing the optimal fit between the student and the university, there are quite a few interesting takeouts I would like to share in this blog.

How important are academic vs. non-academic factors?

What surprised me most in the research conducted by Kasper and Rohaan is that 64% of 700 respondents based their final decision concerning university choice on non-academic elements. In other words, attention was paid not only to university ranking, academic performance, or the number of Nobel Prize winners amongst alumni but also to outside curricular activities. Naturally, the programme content, study quality, and career orientation still pay enough importance to determine one’s choice, as well as intended budget (cost of living and tuition fee), however, what becomes more and more important for prospective students is whether they will fit in the place.

This confirms Kasper’s own experience. Having received admission letters from multiple UK-based universities, he decided to visit all institutions and experience the so-called “vibe” of the place. As a result, he decided to opt for a university that originally was not his first choice but felt best for him having seen the place, having met and chatted to people, and having experienced the atmosphere of a place.

This seems to be more and more common practice - investigating the place where you are going to spend the next 2-5 years makes sense in terms of answering such important questions as am I going to fit in the place, am I going to feel well, who are my future study mates, etc. It does not come as a surprise that among three big Dutch academic centres Utrecht, Amsterdam and Rotterdam, students who were looking for the international aspects of their study chose Rotterdam, those for whom nightlife was an important element chose Amsterdam, and art and culture lovers opted for Utrecht.

On the one hand, finding out that non-academic factors play a substantial role in the decision-making process may come as a surprise, but on the other, it makes perfect sense in post-pandemic reality. Worldwide researches show that weeks and weeks of government-enforced “lockdowns” significantly affected stress levels and mental well-being among students and reduced their ability to manage demands placed upon them.

Results based on individuals working in higher education showed that the average decline in mental wellbeing during ‘lockdown’ was 4 points on the WEMWBS, which exceeds the 3-point change that may indicate a meaningful decline (Maheswaran et al., 2012). This demonstrates that student mental health has declined during the pandemic, resulting in depression, anxiety and higher stress level (Savage, James et al., 2020). This is why individuals pay more attention nowadays to such factors of academic life as social aspects, outside curricular activities, sports facilities, cultural life, etc.


Academic and non-academic factors paying importance to Bachelor's and Master's degree students:

Source: The Discov


How do students search for information about new programmes and universities?

In terms of how to prospect students search for information, the webinar listed six main sources:

  • University page
  • Study portals such as
  • Family and friends
  • School counsellor
  • Study agent
  • Other

Interestingly enough prospects looking for information mainly use 2 sources, and hardly ever more than 4. This is because most of the respondents felt overwhelmed with the number of offerings per brand or programme, which resulted in confusion rather than information clarification. What seems to be a bigger obstacle, is the source objectiveness.  In search of unbiased information respondents claimed they wished to see more about how certain institution is different from others, and how can it distinguish themselves from the competition, rather than what and how is presented in frequently used university rankings.


Main reasons for students to drop off of University programmes?

Another interesting topic covered in the webinar concerning major factors determining the decision of dropping out from the programme. Results shared based on Bachelor's degree students in Germany reveal that it is the individual performance that scored highest here at 35,5%, followed by the mismatch of interests and expectations at 25,6%, financial aspects at 16%, incompatibility of the degree course and employment 13% and family/personal reasons 9,9%.

Taking all of these into consideration I wondered whether one would perform better, having put more effort into the process of institution selection. To my big surprise, Kasper and Rohaan confirmed that some of the students admitted they decided to apply or not to apply to a certain university because of the complexity of the application process. In other words, they selected a school where getting admitted is less of a headache, or entry criteria are less demanding not seeing a point in trying to collect documents, fill in the form, take a language test or any other required preparatory exam.

Easy come, easy go as they say. Time spend on university selection is an investment that most probably will pay back in terms of own study experience and satisfaction. This is not to say that institutions with more lenient entry criteria are of less value or unable to deliver a good study experience. This is to stress the importance of a thorough search process.


Source: Behr, Giese & Herve (2021), European Journal of Education 


To make the search process a friendlier experience for a potential student (something more than a click and compare) Kasper and Rohaan listed factors that make the actual difference in the process.

One of the listed factors is transferring efforts from presenting a course content to visualizing students’ study experience – students wish to see what their student life will look like, and why and how they are going to learn above what they are going to learn.

Another important factor is “beyond the class elements” – these play an important role in visualizing outside class life. Whether we speak of sports facilities, cultural activities, or nightlife students want to see what the place they intend to spend a considerate amount of time has to offer.

University comparison vs. distinguishing factors is one of the elements discussed earlier that is so common for university rankings. Nowadays, students are not interested in comparing universities as such, what they want to see is how the university distinguishes itself from others.

Finally, transferring from reputation & recommendation to tangible experience & outcomes. This is closely connected to the previous two points. As much as university rankings still play an important role in the process of decision making, and for somebody inexperienced, this will probably be one of the first things to look at, however, these are not about experience or outcomes (how to measure them objectively?).


How to successfully apply to the programme?

We all know that the process of application and application completion can be challenging. Challenging enough to stop students mid-way through, out of frustration or complexity of the task. There are eight main factors listed by Kasper and Rohaan that stop students from application completion:

  1. application procedure – when it is too complicated or the process takes too long
  2. elsewhere – finding a different institution
  3. course selection - overwhelming offerings resulting in confusion
  4. accommodation - not meeting expectations
  5. cost of living – this is the exclusive tuition fee
  6. university selection
  7. visa procedure - too complicated, without prior experience, can be overwhelming
  8. admissibility - high admission criteria scare some of the prospects off

Source: The Discov

On a positive note, these are easy to overcome. All that is needed is personal contact. Most of the respondents confirmed that what they missed is the feeling of being part of a certain community even at the pre-application stage. Students expressed a greater need of being guided through the application process, than the remaining parts of university recruitment. They complained about feeling detached and anxious about the process (how they complete the application, is the information sufficient enough to make a good impression on the committee, etc.), a step that is relatively easy to fix from the operational point of view and contributing enormously to what prospect student experiences.

I hope you will find the presented findings as interesting as I did. Please bear in mind that the data included is based on respondents who decided to pursue a traditional degree delivery method – face-2-face. This means that the presented data does not apply to students following online programmes or hybrid.



Baars, K., Mathew, R.T., (Producer). (2022) Student recruitment from generation Y to Z. What do students really need to know before making their momentous decision?

Behr, A., Giese, M., Herve, T. (2021). Motives for dropping out from higher education—An analysis of bachelor's degree students in Germany. European Journal of Education 56 (2), Retrieved from's_degree_students_in_Germany 

Maheswaran, H., Weich, S., Powell, J., Stewart-Brown, S. (2012) Evaluating the responsiveness of the Warwick Edinburgh mental well-being scale (WEMWBS): Group and individual level analysis, Health and Quality of Life Outcomes, 10 (1) (2012), p. 156

Savage, M., James, R., (2020). Mental health and movement behaviour during the COVID-19 pandemic in UK university students: Prospective cohort study. Science Direct. Retrieved from


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