Plenty of research and insight exist about why college students pick the schools they do. What is it that finally moves a prospective school from the “maybe” to the “yes” column? Is it the feeling they get when they visit the campus? Is it the nationally ranked engineering program? Or is it the soft-serve ice cream in the cafeteria? Every year, we ask hundreds of high school juniors and seniors what they like about schools, and what they hate. We talk to their parents and guidance counselors, too. (Plus, in the last few years, we’ve worked with nearly 100 colleges and universities around the country.)

Through our extensive research—quantitative and qualitative, objective and subjective—we’ve learned that when it comes to making a decision about college, everything matters to someone. So we’ve identified a set of key triggers that we call the 5 C’s: curriculum, campus, community, career, and cost. Think of them as the five big categories that influence students and their families as they consider their college options. And although students’ and parents’ preferences diverge somewhat, they still influence each other. For instance, cost tends to be one of the chief factors for parents—but students also consider it relevant to their decision, just maybe not as important. The 5 C’s of College Choice So when you’re developing communications for prospective students, you might offer more detail about the classes offered (curriculum). In your overall recruitment strategy, you might highlight more about student life and opportunities (community). And if you’re talking to parents, don’t leave tuition and fees out of the conversation (cost). You can also use this framework as a quick reference for your marketing and admissions staff (even your tour guides!) so that they keep these triggers top of mind.

Or start with the 5 C’s as you plan and structure content for print pieces and digital media. Whatever the communication and whoever you’re looking to reach, the 5 C’s can help you better target students and parents with the right messaging—ultimately converting more prospects to applicants, and more applicants to bona fide enrollees.

This framework is based on qualitative research with Ologie’s Student Union group in the 2014–2015 academic year, including collective discussions with students across many campuses.