Enrollment Blog

Preparing for Search? The 2016 Harvard Study of Undergraduate Freshman Inquiry Generation provides a road map for success


Guest author, Edward M. Gillis, is Resident Faculty at the Harvard Summer Institute on College Admissions, and Retired Dean of Enrollment Management at the University of Miami.

One of the most gratifying aspects of my forty‐year career in enrollment management has been sharing results from a 15-­year investigation of undergraduate inquiry generation at the Harvard Summer Institute on College Admissions. Our results—year in and year out—have highlighted strategies to help enrollment managers optimize their Student Search resources and respond to the rapidly changing enrollment landscape.

Our 2016 study, the fifteenth edition, included 396 enrollment professionals from four‐year colleges and universities. Participants shared institutional data—both strategies and results—and their opinions on a broad range of topics from text messaging to parental engagement. Thorough and longitudinal, our annual study contextualizes and establishes the current state of Student Search programs—each year—and offers you insights based on successful practices of enrollment managers across the country.

Despite the strength of our data, I must note one caveat: The institutions represented in this study are likely to be more experienced in a range of Search practices than those not included. Consequently, our results may reflect more successful Search programs than a "true" average.

As in our fourteen previous editions, our 2016 report offers prescriptive advice to make your Search campaign most effective.

Several of this year’s results point to the growing importance of tactics that allow prospective students plenty of opportunity to engage with your institution. We recommend, for example:

Continue to use multiple channels

Over time, schools are learning that outreach to prospective students is most effective when it includes more than one channel. Up from 53.9% just three years ago, 87.3% of the enrollment managers surveyed indicated that they use multiple channels—spanning email, phone calls, letters, and text messaging—to contact students. Schools using two or more of these channels for Search saw a higher response rate (10.8%) than those using a single one (7.1%).

Contact students in multiple grades

More than 20 years ago, when I began using Search as Dean of Enrollment at the University of Miami, I began benefiting from an expanded Search approach that included sophomores as well as juniors. This year, our study confirms that this multi-class-year approach is now increasingly utilized and effective. In recent years we have seen the addition of senior names to Search produce significant increases as well.

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The bottom line is this: The more class years included in Search, the higher the response rate achieved. Institutions that searched two or more class years outperformed institutions searching only one class year, 12.6% compared to 10.1%.

Search students multiple times per year

Our study confirms that Search frequency correlates with response rates. The more often you search, the higher your response rate. Schools that deployed Search one month out of the year had an average response rate of 8.0%. That number grows to 11.2% when Search is conducted three or more times per year.

You may have noticed that all three of these recommended Search tactics include the word "multiple." These tactics compose an approach that offers students numerous chances to opt in to a relationship with your school. This approach acknowledges that prospective students—particularly teenagers wrapped in the triumphs and trials of their formative high school years—come to contemplate college choice in varied ways and on varied timelines.

All of these Search tactics are also quite labor­‐intensive: each requires significant stamina from enrollment teams. It is not surprising, therefore, that teams who share their duties with outside partners—such as Royall & Company—fare better than those who try to shoulder the extra effort of more effective Search campaigns alone. Schools that enlist third-­party help with mailing, emailing, list targeting, data analysis, etc. achieved an average response rate of 11.2%, while those schools who go it alone, with only their in-­house staff, had an average response rate of 6.0%. The response rates for schools were even higher—14.1%—when their partnership with outside experts included the development of a comprehensive strategic enrollment plan.

The results of this study, of course, become a part of our plan for future research on undergraduate inquiry generation. I have found that a cyclic, multifaceted approach is essential both to successful Search efforts and as the basis for sound analysis of Search itself. I look forward to tracking the evolution of Search in study and practice, aiming always to help my enrollment management friends and colleagues maximize their enrollment resources to transform prospective students into enrolled students.

Do you have the right multichannel approach?

Hear from two of our experts on which recruitment marketing strategies best engage prospective students—and in which combinations.

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