Higher Education Strategy Associates


What is the Student Decisions Project?

The Student Decisions Project is a unique research study that provides groundbreaking insight into how today’s young people make decisions about attending higher education.  Over an ten-month period, we tracked a group of more than 200 grade 12 students from across Canada through a series of interviews conducted at various key stages of the decision-making process. This longitudinal data offers insight into how students obtain and use information about higher education, as well as the individuals and kinds of information that influences decision-making choices about institution and field of study. SDP explored questions such as: Do viewbooks matter? Is traditional advertising losing its effectiveness as social media diversifies? What messages resonate most strongly with different types of students? Can advertising be optimized for different demographics?


How Does the Student Decisions Project Differ from Other Products?

The Student Decisions Project used a series of four qualitative interviews over a ten-month period to unpack the decision-making “process,” as prospective students explore their options, and choose an institution.  This research goes far beyond typical, single-instrument quantitative surveys, and generates richer data, flexible response frameworks, and a carefully targeted methodology.


Who Should be Interested in the Student Decisions Project?

Heads of student recruitment, Registrars, Vice Presidents Academic, and other institution leaders wanting to maximize returns on investment in recruitment initiatives. Are you in charge of designing a viewbook?  Looking for the most impactful new ways to reach students?  Wanting to know the influence of social media?  Looking to restructure your system of merit scholarships?  The Student Decisions Project provides you with the best and most current research available on how to use these channels to influence their decision-making processes.


How SDP Works?

Students were initially be recruited using a sample provided by one of HESA’s independent partners.  Once brought into the survey, and screened for eligibility, students were interviewed four times, over an ten-month period.  Each interview had a different theme, targeting the issues and activities in which students engaged at various points in the recruitment and admissions cycle:




  • Wave one (September-early Oct) was conducted as students began to crystallize their choice sets.  The first wave explored: Students’ preliminary research into potential institutions, including their thoughts on promotional materials and campus visits; baseline demographic information including: where students are from; their parents’ occupations; their (and their parents’) ethnicity and nationality; their life goals; their hobbies and interests; how they perform at school; how students use social media; and students’ thoughts on institutions, fields of study, etc.
  • Wave two (November-December) – was conducted as students prepared application materials. The second wave was designed to: Examine institutional search processes, and how program choice sets change; identify what triggered those changes; gauge what students now regard as key decision factors; understand how students evaluate campus culture; explore the steps students have taken to complete application packages; delineate the impact of various research methods and perceptions of educational costs; unpack how, and in what ways, parents are influencing and shaping students’ application decisions.
  • Wave three (February-March) – was conducted immediately following the applications deadline.  The third wave was designed to: Unpack the decision-making timeline: assess to which institutions and programs did students apply, and why? determine how students ultimately arrived at their application decisions? explore what kind of contact students had with institutions or individuals prior to application (voice, electronic, etc.)? assess how this contact influenced application decisions?
  • Wave four (May-June) – was conducted after students made their enrolment decisions.  The fourth wave probed: How students arrived at their final choices: which institutions accepted them, and which did they pick?  gauge to what extent scholarship offers made a difference


Joining the SDP Initiative

Becoming a sponsoring member of SDP will give your institution:

  • A demographic snapshot report of the survey sample from Wave 1;
  • Three interim reports that profile Waves 2  3, and 4, respectively, exploring various themes of the decision-making process, and situating those themes within the demographic contexts of the sample;
  • A final report, which presents and unpacks the longitudinal decision-making process, and offers insights into the nature and context of how students with various demographic profiles make choices.  The final report also includes a series of actionable intelligence on improving strategic recruitment efforts.

SDP will not only save your institution money, but also will provide a competitive advantage, allowing you to optimize your institution’s recruitment efforts.