I once heard a vice president of enrollment at a large public research university say, "Before 2008, executing on the enrollment management plan was like watching a slug cross the road. Now it‘s like trying to catch a Superball." That statement nicely sums up the changes and challenges to enrollment in the last decade, which are only getting more difficult for today’s college admissions office.
Today’s higher education recruitment landscape has enrollment leaders using every trick in their playbook to meet their student enrollment goals. And as new marketing practices emerge almost daily, college admissions offices are left with an overwhelming list of student recruitment and enrollment methods to try.
So how can enrollment managers figure out which college enrollment strategies will work and which are going to eat up time and energy with little to show for it?
EAB Enrollment Services tests everything from macro-strategies like parent engagement and channel mix to micro-strategies like email subject lines and the placement of entry fields on applications. We also have the benefit of testing at scale, conducting over 300 tests at more than 350 colleges across 1.2 billion student and parent interactions each year.
From our extensive testing, we’ve identified six tried-and-true college enrollment best practices proven to work even in today’s competitive enrollment environment (to the tune of a 54% deposit increase on average for our new clients this year).
1. Start your student recruitment activities as early as possible
Students who are contacted as sophomores are almost twice as likely to enroll as students who are contacted as seniors. Sophomore recruits also tend to score higher, with average SAT scores at 66 points higher than senior recruits.
If you’re planning to purchase names from list sources (and you should) do so as soon as the names are released. Approximately 50% of student names become available in their sophomore year and another 30% in their junior year.
2. Email prospective students often
As it turns out, the fifth—not the third—time’s a charm for student recruitment emails.
Across our client's college enrollment activities, more than a quarter of all deposits come from students who do not respond to the first four emails. And the likelihood of depositing only continues to go up with number of student recruitment touches.
While UPCEA found that Gen Z students may think of email as "talking to old people without a stamp," our 2017 EAB survey on student communication preferences revealed that 78% of students surveyed claimed email as their most preferred way to receive information from colleges.
Access our full survey of student communication preferences
3. Involve parents in the college search
Most enrollment managers recognize that parents play an important role in a student’s college enrollment journey.
According to our data, parents are the top influencer by far with almost three-times as many students citing parents as the most dominant voice in their college search.
We see how this plays out in the parent-specific campaigns we manage for our clients. Among students in the inquiry pool who respond, 46% provide parent contact information allowing us to contact parents directly. Those students are 53% more likely to submit the college application.
What about the parents of the other 54% of students in your inquiry pool? In our parent-first search campaigns, where we apply machine learning to a national consumer database to identify the parents of students in our clients’ inquiry pools, we found that launching parent-specific campaigns before students respond increases the likelihood to apply by more than 40%.
4. Make the students, not your college, the focal point of your recruitment messaging
Unsurprisingly, many colleges want to talk to student recruits about their school—what it has to offer, what the campus culture is like, and what makes it unique and special. But this is one of the most common mistakes we see colleges make.
While it seems like a good idea, we put it to the test against our 1.5 billion annual student interactions. When we used copy that focused on the student response rates increased by 50%!
Here’s one of our favorite examples of typical college-centered messaging, compared to higher-performing student-centered messaging:
"Many have said Blue Sky University combines the best of both worlds—a world-class education on one of the friendliest campuses on the planet—and features curriculum internationally famous for its excellence and flexibility…"
"At Blue Sky University, you are the architect of your education. Instead of being required to follow a path laid down by others, you will be mentored by exceptional faculty to help forge your own journey of discovery…"
5. Design for a mobile-first college enrollment experience
From 2011 to 2017, the number of students who actively engaged in college search via their mobile device and used their mobile device to access their college application increased by 61%. Underrepresented groups, including black and Hispanic students, engaged with colleges using their mobile device at even higher rates, 11% and 7% respectively.
If creating mobile college enrollment experience isn’t a priority for you, you’re missing out on one of the best ways to engage prospective students.
We talk to many colleges who have optimized their website and maybe their application for use on mobile devices, but the optimization is limited to, "can I see the site’s contents on a mobile screen?"
Mobile-first design takes into consideration the entire student experience, including navigation from emails and digital ads to landing pages and then to the application. Landing pages and mobile applications should be personalized, pre-populated with student information, easy to read, and lightning-fast. This is the type of integration and ease expected by Gen Z.
6. Integrate digital ads and texting into your channel mix
We know from surveying students about their communication preferences that they strongly favor email and direct mail as the primary way to receive information from colleges. This doesn’t mean that colleges shouldn’t use other channels. There are two channels in particular that are worth the investment.
The first is digital advertising. Our data shows a 7-14% increase in application submission when these recruitment marketing tactics are enhanced with digital advertisements. Digital advertising can get pricey, so favor networks with the right audience demographics and use list-based targeting to focus your ad spend on qualified audiences.
The second is texting. Only 3% of students surveyed indicated they wanted to receive information from colleges via text. After digging deeper, it turns out that the type of information sent through text messages matters a great deal to students. Over 85% of students said texts help them by prompting them to complete unfinished tasks and by informing them of something they didn’t know they needed to do. So as a general rule of thumb, focus text messages on transactional communications that students will be grateful to receive.
Monitor and measure to bring it all together
As you begin to incorporate these best practices into your student enrollment strategy, don’t forget to monitor and measure the incremental enrollment results that are sure to ensue. Being able to attribute enrollment results back to each student recruitment activity will help you prioritize investments for future years.