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How do Digital Natives Research Universities Online?

By Laura Bridgestock

Updated October 17, 2014 Updated October 17, 2014

Our recently released report, Students Online: Global Trends, looks at prospective students’ attitudes to different types of research resources when looking at universities online, and their preferences when seeking and being given information. We found some clear overarching trends, as well as some distinct patterns based on students’ location, study level and age. And we found that intuitive assumptions about the “digital native” generation were not always proven true. Here are five things we learned about the ways in which digital natives research universities online (and offline).

1. Digital natives more likely to be using smartphones

Some assumptions about the digital native generation were confirmed by our survey results, including the expectation that younger university applicants would be more likely to research universities online using devices such as smartphones. Our youngest respondents were most likely to say they used a smartphone when accessing information about universities and courses, and least likely to report using a desktop computer.

2. They’re more likely to contact universities online using social media…

Again in line with expectations, younger respondents to our survey were more likely to say they’d used social media to contact universities online. However, the trend was much less clear when we asked applicants to identify their ideal way of contacting universities and being contacted in return. Our survey results do not support assumptions that digital natives would prefer to move all communications into the social media sphere.

3. …But they’d still rather use email or phone

Indeed, following the overall trend, digital natives’ preferred method of communicating with universities online was most likely to be email, with phone also significantly more popular than social media. We even found that the youngest group were the most likely to want to send or receive letters in this context. Those prospective students we spoke to seemed to feel that social media was not such a trustworthy or official option, and some expressed reservations about inviting universities to view their personal social media profiles.

4. Younger prospective students more likely to use Facebook/Twitter/YouTube, less likely to use LinkedIn

In terms of the specific social media platforms used to research universities, our survey results confirm intuitions; younger prospective students are more likely to use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube when researching universities, and less likely to use LinkedIn. Usage of the latter grows significantly with age; more than 26% of applicants aged 30+ reporting used LinkedIn during their university search, compared to just 2% of those aged 17 and under.

5. Digital natives still place a high value on offline resources

Finally, our survey results show that no matter how tech-savvy the digital native generation may be, there’s still high demand for offline sources of information and advice among this group. In fact our youngest respondents were most likely to place a high emphasis on the importance of offline resources when making decisions about higher education.  Among the prospective students we spoke to, many highlighted the importance of the more personalized advice and answers gained from speaking to university representatives, current or past students, friends and family.

This article was originally published in August 2014 . It was last updated in October 2014

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The former editor of, Laura oversaw the site's editorial content and student forums. She also edited the QS Top Grad School Guide and contributed to market research reports, including 'How Do Students Use Rankings?'

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