May 28, 2013

This Fall nearly 22 million college students will head back to campus to kick off the 2013-2014 school year. This is the largest assembly of college students ever to arrive on campuses, and they’ll do so boasting immense buying power, wielding a vast arsenal of gadgets and relying on mom and dad more than ever. re:fuel has released findings from its 13th annual College Explorer survey, powered by Crux Research. The largest annual study of its kind, the 2013 edition offers perspective on college student spending, technology ownership, online behavior and media consumption.


After a 40 percent leap in discretionary spending reported in the 2012 College Explorer, total college market spending has remained steady in the 2013 edition. This year, college students control a massive $404 billion in total spending power, including $117 billion in discretionary purchasing and $287 billion in non-discretionary spending (those dollars allotted to tuition, room & board and school supplies). These figures hint at economic recovery, at least in the college sector, with a 12.5 percent jump in total spending and a robust 30 percent increase in discretionary spending during the last five years.

While per-student academic spending contracted in the last two years – from an all-time high of $14,469 per student per year in 2011, to $13,178 in this year’s study – tuition costs are still 36 percent higher than they were just ten years ago. In order to meet these costs in a time of economic uncertainty, students and parents have sought out more scholarships and financial aid (up 6 percentage points from 26 percent in 2003 to 32 percent in 2013), while paying for less of the tab from their own pockets (down 10 points from 52 percent in 2003 to 42 percent in 2013). And while the percentage of school costs covered by loans has remained steady at 21 percent, it’s clear that 21 percent is of a much higher total college bill. In fact, 73 percent of students surveyed in the 2013 College Explorer expect to graduate with some amount of student loan debt, with the average loan amount pegged at $16,904. What’s more, students expect to take nearly eight years (7.8) to pay off that debt.

When it comes to discretionary spending, food reigns supreme among students. A full 36 percent (or $42.1 billion) of total annual discretionary spending is dedicated to food purchased in grocery stores ($21.1 billion), at convenience stores ($7.9 billion) and in restaurants ($13.1 billion). Automotive (including car payments, insurance, maintenance and gas) is the second largest category for student discretionary spending at $17.5 billion, followed by apparel at $13.1 billion.

When asked what they expect to earn after graduation, this year’s respondents forecasted earnings dipped slightly to $48,788. However, students seem more optimistic about the importance of their educational endeavors with a full 70 percent of students believing that college will pay them back financially in the long term up from 64 percent who said so last year.


It’s no surprise that students are taking advantage of online courses to obtain their degrees. In fact, the number of students taking at least one course online has jumped 96 percent (from 23 percent to 45 percent) in the last five years. Those students taking online courses are enrolled in an average of two per term.

“When speaking to college students about online classes, we do hear mixed reviews,” says Tammy Nelson, Vice President, Marketing & Research at re:fuel. “While students appreciate the flexibility online classes afford, many also struggle with managing coursework when they don’t have regular assignments or meetings. Students who need additional assistance to grasp course material also struggle to find help when professors and fellow students are available only in the digital world.”

Despite the increase in online coursework, however, students continue to spend a significant amount of time on their college campus. On average, students spend 10.2 hours per day on campus during the week and 6.5 hours per day on weekends. John Geraci, President/Founder of Crux Research notes, “While we expect to see a net increase in the number of online courses students take in the future, the campus environment remains the main hub of daily life. Students taking online classes must often visit campus to obtain materials, join study groups or do research – not to mention the myriad recreation, shopping and entertainment venues available at colleges today – making campus an ideal, communal place for brands to connect with college consumers.”


Students added one-half of a device to their arsenal of technology since our last College Explorer study, bringing their total to an average 6.9 gadgets per student. Topping the list is the ubiquitous laptop, owned by 85 percent of students. Smartphones moved up to the second slot for the first time and are now owned by 69 percent of students. Feature phone ownership, meanwhile, has slid to 33 percent among this tech-savvy set. Rounding out top-owned technology are video game consoles (68 percent), MP3 players (67 percent) and printers (62 percent). When asked what devices they intend to purchase in the coming year, once again, smartphones are the frontrunners with 31 percent of students planning to acquire one.

With this level of adoption, it’s no surprise that technology is facilitating academic chores. Students rely on their laptops for schoolwork; 70 percent use them for research and coursework and 47 percent regularly employ them for classroom note taking. Even tablets and smartphones are being pressed into service in the classroom. Thirty-three percent of tablet-owning students regularly use them for work/research, 33 percent for taking notes and 37 percent for reading electronic textbooks; 13 percent of agile-thumbed students report using their smartphone for note taking.

Despite their tech-loving ways, however, students also embrace more traditional means of learning. Far more students (79 percent) report that they typically take notes with pen and paper, than with devices. Additionally, traditional printed textbooks continue to dominate despite sharp increases in tablet and e-book reader ownership. More than half (59 percent) of the 6.9 textbooks acquired each term are obtained in a printed format, compared to just 19 percent acquired digitally. “It seems that highlighted passages, notes scribbled in margins and dog-eared pages are tried-and-true study methods that will last well into the 21st century” reports Nelson.


But don’t let all that studying and hard work fool you, students still love to have fun. In fact, they spend a significant amount of their daily 14.4 hours of multitasking on across devices in pursuit of entertainment. Sixty-four percent of students regularly watch TV in real-time on a television set, and 20 percent do so on computers. Downloaded TV content is consumed primarily on computers (43 percent) and tablets (28 percent), while movies are consumed across devices with half (51 percent) of students watching movies on televisions, 52 percent doing so on computers and 30 percent of tablet-owners doing so on tablet devices. And when it comes to their most coveted mobile apps, entertainment – including games (73 percent), music (67 percent) and social networking (64 percent) programs – dominates the field.

With such fervent pursuit of entertainment content on multiple devices, one would expect students to be fans of the emerging second-screening phenomenon – the use of additional devices to enhance the television experience. And while 49 percent of students report daily usage of a second screen while watching television, their activities on those additional screens would be more aptly described as multitasking. Sixty-three percent are using Facebook or Twitter, 58 percent are surfing other online sites, 50 percent are playing games and 37 percent are doing school work. True second-screening, or “social TV” activities fall much further down the scale with 18 percent researching the content they’re viewing, 17 percent seeing what their friends are watching and 7 percent responding to on-air polls.

“Showrooming,” or the act of researching a product while in store, on the other hand, is quite popular, and influential, among mobile pupils. Seventy-five percent students who own a smartphone or tablet report using it to conduct research while shopping in bricks and mortar stores. Seventy-four percent of them went on to purchase something at the store, 38 percent were motivated to shop somewhere else (whether that destination was on or offline) and 32 percent were influenced to purchase a different brand than the one they’d been considering.
Nelson adds, “While brand-sponsored second-screening or social TV content may not make the grade, marketers should expect that students will conduct purchase research on-the-fly and that they will be well-equipped to do so.”


College students continue to be avid social network users, but not all sites are created equal in their eyes. Facebook is the clear leader with 86 percent of students reporting they use the site regularly, up five points from last year. Twitter, in second place, ticked up 8 percentage points to 38 percent. Instagram made a strong debut on the 2013 College Explorer list with 30 percent of students reporting regular use. Google+ was the only site to show declining use, down to 29 percent from 32 percent last year.

When it comes to how students use so-called “social” networks, one must consider whether the most important features, according to students, are really all that social. Forty-six percent report that staying up to date with celebrity news is extremely/very important, followed by sharing links to their own websites/videos/blogs (36 percent), staying up to date with brands (34 percent) and sharing locations/activities with friends (29 percent). A mere 17 percent rate looking at friends’ photos as extremely/very important, 16 percent place that level of importance on discussing information with friends and 16 percent say the same for staying up to date with friends.
Ads on social sites are also unpopular. Thirty-two percent of students say they avoid advertising on social media sites. Other ad types they consider intrusive such as text message ads (32 percent avoid opt-in text messages, 49 percent avoid non opt-in) or that block content (38 percent avoid pre-roll ads) are also among the most avoided ad types. On the other end of the spectrum, among tactics more welcomed into students’ lives, College Explorer results continually find tactics that deliver value, such as sampling efforts (just 15 percent avoidance) or sponsored events (17 percent), or that are integrated into their immediate environment, like on-campus signage (15 percent) or campus newspaper ads (17 percent), have the lowest levels of avoidance.

What is the least avoided method of learning about new brands and products? Word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and family are nearly universally accepted by students (9 percent avoidance). Further illustrating the importance of mom and dad, students report that they connect with their parents an astonishing 31.1 times every week, including 9.1 times via social media. Perhaps that makes family the most important social network of all for today’s students.

“As students both expand and re-evaluate their social networks, they continue to make decisions on which information is important to them – which messages they’ll welcome and which they’ll avoid. Mom and dad, however, continue to be their main source of information, advice and approval throughout the college years. Marketers can be part of this process of self-discovery and growth by providing relevant and valuable engagement on campus during this incredible life stage, and by looping in mom and dad whenever possible,” advises Nelson.

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