Enrollment Blog

The counterintuitive targeting approach to reach your enrollment goals

By Emily Bauer and Richard Whiteside

The other day in a parking lot, we heard a high school boy shout, “I get shotgun,” as he scrambled into the front seat of his buddy’s car. We shared a laugh as we remembered back to our own teenage years that “riding shotgun” means scoring the passenger seat next to the driver.

But in the enrollment world, "shotgun" is a relatively recent term used to describe the recruitment practice of building a large applicant pool in order to achieve enrollment goals. For some, the term implies a lack of precision or strategy—of being haphazard in your targeting.

But so-called shotgun recruiting actually refers to the very strategic tactic of fully penetrating existing markets—particularly those close to home—and allowing all students the equal opportunity to be contacted, and thus recruited.

In that respect, we believe our EAB | Royall & Company partners should be shouting “shotgun,” too.

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With limited exceptions, the majority of enrollment managers should aim to encompass the top of the enrollment funnel and should reserve restrictive targeting practices for later in the enrollment process.

Nevertheless, many enrollment leaders have turned away from broad student searches in recent years because they think a large applicant pool is an impediment to filling their class. Big pools, they reason, are a lot of work. Smaller pools, of only those applicants who statistics suggest are likely to enroll, seem easier to manage and more cost-efficient.

So what is the right way to build your applicant pool? Plainly said, the right approach is the one that achieves your defined enrollment objective at the lowest possible cost.

Narrow funnel, more or fewer students?

Colleges that try to narrow their recruitment funnel early in the enrollment cycle are almost guaranteed to have fewer admitted and enrolled students than colleges that reach out to a larger number of students.

Typically, only the most prestigious schools are overwhelmed with applications. For a vast majority of institutions, the creation of a larger applicant pool is a strategic—and necessary—choice. Due to declining yields, most schools need a larger applicant pool today than they did a decade ago in order to reach their enrollment goals.

College-bound students have increased the average number of applications they submit to colleges resulting in a decline in overall yield. In 2001, an applicant pool of one thousand admitted students at the typical independent college yielded an entering class of 371 freshmen. Yet one thousand admitted students in 2014 would only yield a class of 236, 36% smaller than in 2001. To achieve that same-sized freshman class of 371, the college in 2014 would have had to admit 1,572 students.

Powerful tools to increase prospective student engagement

As yield decreases, the need for ever-larger applicant pools has created a cycle of escalating workloads, but missed enrollment goals. Some enrollment leaders incorrectly attribute their failure to the heavy workload of big applicant pools. They reason that if the application pool had been smaller, they could have focused on fewer candidates, and that added attention would have increased yield.

Fewer applicants, smaller or bigger costs?

Contrary to the assumption that targeting fewer students must cost fewer recruiting dollars, we have found that the predictive modeling used to narrow student searches cost as much (or more) than casting a broader net at the start of the search process.

In order to predict if a high school student would be a good recruitment prospect, colleges using historical targeting practices must pay to access student names, demographic characteristics, and achievement records in their go-to markets. Waste is inherent in historical targeting because only some of the purchased student names—those who the regressions analyses indicate are most likely to enroll—are actively recruited. Those that are not—those with assumed lower probability to enroll—comprise a sunk cost from which the college will derive no benefit.

Conversely, we have found that it doesn’t take many incremental students for the more encompassing recruitment practice to pay off. Consider this: If the average net tuition revenue per student is just $10,000, and the graduation rate is 85%, the weighted total net tuition revenue of each student, adjusted for time and dropouts, is more than $30,000. If a college has the capacity for 10 more students, the incremental recruitment cost of a wider funnel that would yield 10 more students would have to be more than $300,000 to render the approach wasteful.

Larger pool, is it the better approach?

To reiterate, we see that full penetration of existing markets—particularly those close to the institution—is the most efficient way to grow enrollment. A large search also allows you to tailor those enrollments to reflect your institution’s unique vision for its incoming classes. For example, emphasizing a forward-reaching vision (rather than historical probability norms) enables schools to target students with stronger high school grade point averages, or shift the school’s gender ratio, ethnic composition, or geographic mix.

Armed with a clear understanding of what kinds of students the institution wants in incoming freshman classes, the college decides which students to contact in the vast college-bound population. Institutions then determine individual student’s interest by asking them directly if they want to learn more about the college. Those who do are actively recruited. In this approach, all of the purchased names are used to assess student interest—the foundation of strong targeted recruitment.

We encourage our partner institutions to use the following five methods to optimize their large pool applicant search:

  1. Define the number and types of students desired

  2. Determine whether current markets have a sufficient number of prospective students to reach institutional enrollment goals

  3. Purchase only the names of students within best markets and persistently and persuasively engage as many of these students as possible

  4. Admit students based on the institution’s vision, using prior-year yields by subcategory to project the optimal number and kinds of students to be admitted

  5. Develop an effective program of tuition revenue management that will yield the desired net tuition and fee revenue

We believe that the shotgun, vision-based approach works best for a majority of institutions and are eager to help them implement programs to engage a large applicant pool of interested, qualified students to fill the seats—and meet their school goals—of incoming classes.

Ready-to-use diagnostic: Evaluate your current enrollment practices

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