The New Mantras in Student Recruitment Strategy

As competition for students shows no sign of cooling, colleges across the country look to their enrollment teams to come up with ever more creative ways to attract students. Gaining applicants is just the beginning, however, with the major enrollment challenge for many colleges now being converting them into fully paid up students.

St Mary’s College of Maryland was so disappointed with its conversion rates that it interviewed 1,700 students to help discover why. The most notable finding was that a lack of “personalized” dealings with the college ultimately affected decisions not to attend, with the most common criticism being that “better interaction” was needed. The view of interim Head of Enrollments Joel Wincowski was that the college lacked a social media presence; “we didn’t text anyone, and we behaved somewhat as if we were a large state institution, sending people out on massive tours.”

So how are things changing? St Mary’s now has a greater focus on social media to keep in touch with students who have already been offered a place at the College.  At a recent open house, 140 prospective students signed up to text with admissions officers. Extending this personal approach, the college has changed campus guides’ hours so that each tour includes just one or two families and every student who visits now gets a one-on-one meeting with an admissions officer.

There are also other challenges for colleges. One pressing issue is whether they should spread the net ever wider geographically in their search for students who might attend their college, or should they restrict their geographic search? The answer lies with the strength of the brand. Advertising a well known, branded College to high school kids who live 3,000 miles from your college has a chance of success, but going this route with a lesser known college is a high risk, expensive strategy.

One example of taking a smarter geographic approach can be seen at Hobart and William Smith, a small liberal arts college in upstate New York. To maximise enrollment figures amongst applicants in hand, Hobart and William Smith’s admissions officers now spend more time in the geographic areas that produce about three-quarters of their applicants – such as Boston and New York City – and less time elsewhere. The share of accepted students who enroll has now risen to about 30 percent, from 18 percent four years ago.

These examples demonstrate that schools who understand their prospective students on a personal level – where they live and how they like to communicate – will have an increasing recruitment advantage in the future.