Updated March 2022 by Emily Arnim. Originally published July 2018 by Anika Olsen.
Today’s higher education recruitment landscape-shaped by the pandemic-has enrollment leaders using every trick in their playbook to meet their student enrollment goals. And as new marketing practices emerge almost daily, particularly those aiming to engage prospective students virtually and satisfy student (and parent) expectations, 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’s Enroll360 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 235 tests with 145 individual schools 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 six percent average increase in enrollments among our first-year partners).
1. Start your student recruitment activities as early as possible
Today’s test-optional landscape has shaken up the timeline of traditional recruitment activities, making it difficult to know how to find students to recruit-and where to gain actionable insight on them to move them through the recruitment funnel.
Still, some things haven’t changed: Our 2021 College-Search Behaviors Survey of more than 15,000 high school students reveals that high school students continue to research colleges early, with 60% beginning their search prior to their junior year.
And we know that contacting students early and often yields more enrollments. For example, students who are contacted as sophomores are 30% more likely to enroll than students who are contacted as seniors. Sophomore recruits also tend to score higher on the SAT, with average scores 87 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 55% of student names become available in their sophomore year and another 35% in their junior year. Enroll360 offers expanded channels to find and reach students early in their search, including Cappex, which offers colleges access to about 40% of the nation’s high school students, and Intersect, a platform used by 10 million high school students nationally that can help you uncover high-intent student inquiries.
2. Personalize student communications
To ultimately get students to enroll at your institution, you have to cultivate their interest throughout their college search journey. This involves an approach our Enroll360 team refers to as “responsive marketing.” Responsive marketing engages students and their families over time by ensuring they receive the right information, in the right format, at the right moment.
One way to do this is by personalizing the content that you share with prospective students based on what you learn about them and their behaviors as their search journey progresses.
It may come as no surprise, then, that the fifth-not the third-time’s the charm for student recruitment emails. And the likelihood of depositing only continues to go up with number of student recruitment touches.
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 have become the top influencer by far since the start of the pandemic, with 55% of 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 partners. 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%.
Our 2020 Parent Survey also confirms that most parents (71%) want to hear directly from colleges and universities, particularly on issues such as cost, scholarships, and admissions requirements.
4. Make the students, not your college, the focal point of your recruitment messaging
Unsurprisingly, many colleges prioritize talking to prospective students 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 1.2 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
Your website is the go-to source of information for prospective students, according to our survey. And we know that students today conduct their college search-and even apply-on their phones. This is particularly true for students from lower-income families or historically underrepresented communities. If creating a mobile college enrollment experience isn’t a priority for you, you’re missing out on one of the best ways to engage prospective students-and potentially contributing to an inequitable recruitment process
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 voice search into your channel mix
We know from surveying students about their communication preferences that they strongly favor email as the primary way to receive information from colleges. But there are two additional channels that can make an impact early on in a student’s college search.
The first is paid search. Our data shows that 81% of prospective students go to Google search for general questions about your institution, so any opportunity to boost your school’s visibility online is worth the investment.
Similarly, consider optimizing your .edu for voice search. After all, 44% of students use voice search once a month, and 22% use it every day, according to our survey. Because search mode impacts your search-engine optimization (SEO) ranking, ensure that you keep the words and phrases students commonly type and speak when conducting searches in mind when setting your website’s SEO strategy.
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.
Emily Arnim is a senior staff writer for EAB's Daily Briefing, where she enjoys covering topics related to student success, as well as equity,diversity,and inclusion in higher ed. Emily also oversees the Daily Briefing social media strategy. Prior to joining EAB, Emily was a press intern with the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Democratic Staff.
Emily attended Washington & Lee University, where she graduated cum laude with a B.A. in International Politics and Spanish.