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How Wayne State University harnessed virtual reality for student recruitment

May 28, 2019

The IT Forum’s 2018 research focused on digital transformation and its implications for higher education. During our national meeting series, we asked CIOs and IT leaders for examples of digital transformation projects, big or small, from their campuses. We heard many real-world, tangible examples of innovation in higher education – from attendance trackers to smart IT help desks. In follow up to those meetings, we’ve talked to dozens of IT leaders about those initiatives and the impact that they’ve had on campus.

One exciting idea comes from Wayne State University and their use of digital technology to transform the student recruitment process. Here, we outline their specific challenge and the impact that digital innovation has had in addressing it.

More on this topic

This resource is part of the Accelerate Digital Transformation on Campus Roadmap. Access the Roadmap for stepwise guidance with additional tools and research.

Student demographic declines puts extra pressure on recruitment efforts


estimated decrease in the college-going population over the next decade
estimated decrease in the college-going population over the next decade

It should come as little surprise that institutions across the country are increasingly struggling to recruit students. Demand for college is diminishing, driving up competition for an increasingly limited pool of prospective students. Unfortunately, declining demand doesn’t appear to be a short-term trend. As our colleagues on the Enrollment Management Forum recently highlighted, a sharp drop in fertility following the Great Recession means the number of college-going students is projected to decrease by 12% over the next decade. Between 2025 and 2029, the number of college-going students will decline by 15%—that’s over 400,000 fewer students in a span of four years.

Teams across campus challenged to develop a innovative recruitment strategy

Like most colleges and universities, leaders at Wayne State must think critically about how to increase their prospective student appeal and how to differentiate themselves in a crowded market. Recognizing that enrollment growth would likely come from out-of-state students, the provost challenged the IT, marketing, and enrollment teams to develop an innovative recruitment strategy targeted to students outside of Michigan.

The teams pinpointed two basic challenges in recruiting out-of-state students: First, Wayne State lacked a strong brand outside of Michigan; and second, out-of-state students are less likely to visit campus, and therefore less likely to apply and enroll. Project leaders understood that an effective recruitment campaign would have to solve both problems on a tight budget.

More exposure at lower cost—how digital flipped the recruitment process


Cost per Google Cardboard headset
Cost per Google Cardboard headset


Number of college-branded headsets Wayne State purchased to hand out at recruitment fairs
Number of college-branded headsets Wayne State purchased to hand out at recruitment fairs

The IT, marketing, and enrollment teams recognized that virtual reality could solve the second of the two challenges—if prospective students were unlikely to visit campus, why not bring campus to them? They envisioned a virtual reality experience which would enable prospective students at recruitment college fairs to immerse themselves in the campus and the surrounding city of Detroit. The experience would allow users to envision themselves as students at WSU, which should in turn drive interest in the university.

However, the IT team cautioned that VR headsets are expensive pieces of equipment and handing them out to excited prospective students during recruitment fairs presented a significant risk of damage. Instead, IT leaders suggested Google Cardboard headsets as a risk-free and more cost-effective means to achieve the virtual reality experience—and a significant opportunity for brand communication. For just $2 per Google Cardboard headset, prospective students could have the same virtual reality experience. The university purchased 10,000 college-branded headsets to be handed out at recruitment fairs. They also started filming key spots around campus with 360-degree cameras to build a fully functional VR smartphone app.

Once the app was developed, recruitment personnel began handing out the headsets at recruitment events. Prospective students download the Wayne State app to their smartphone and receive a headset at the university’s stand at college fairs. They place their phones in the device, and together the app and the headset provide a fully immersive VR experience. They can walk through campus, visit classrooms, see Detroit, and even stop by graduation. When the students leave, they take the headsets—and the Wayne State brand—with them.

Take-home goggles extend university outreach as prospective students share with friends

Reports back from the recruitment fairs indicate that the project was a huge success. The VR goggles produced a buzz around the booth as a line of eager prospective students formed. However, the true extent of success would not become apparent until three weeks after the first out-of-state event, when the AVP for enrollment received a text from a teacher in Chicago. It contained a picture of students showing off their Wayne State branded cardboard goggles to both teachers and peers. Students were taking turns using the device and looking around campus.

While the university can facilitate 10,000 direct interactions with the goggles, the network effect of take-home technology means that thousands of additional students will also interact with the VR experience. By leveraging this digital opportunity, Wayne State’s leadership has created an experience that echoes through prospective students’ social networks—building both a familiarity with campus and the Wayne State brand.

A guide for those who ask: “Where should we start with digital transformation?”

Wayne State’s creative use of VR is just one example of the ways in which universities and colleges are embracing emerging technologies to address urgent, mission-critical issues. In a world of increasing digitalization across industries, higher education should be leveraging those same emerging capabilities to enhance their own processes and operations. Often, however, campus leaders are left wondering: “How do I start with digital transformation?”

For leaders pondering this question, the IT Forum’s Digital Projects Compendium offers success stories from colleges and universities in the USA, Canada, Australia, and the UK to serve as a catalyst for creative conversations and digital innovation on other campuses.

Related resource

Many higher ed IT leaders are looking for ways to use digital transformation to appeal to prospective students and differentiate their institutions in a crowded market. See how Wayne State University used VR technology to bring campus to prospective out-of-state students.