Innovative Strategies to Help Universities Attract and Enroll Students

Competition for new college and university student enrollments has become heated and institutions need to step up their recruitment game. It’s more important than ever to come up with a plan to attract and register students.

In a session from Fierce Education’s virtual Higher Education Business & Leadership: Summer Edition event, Dr. Joe Sallustio, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Claremont Lincoln University, explains that the current state of education is in flux. The value of a college degree is being questioned, consumers are more aware and sensitive than ever before, people are unsure about mask-wearing and safety and when it’s safe for students to return to school. There are expectations for online learning and institutions are investing in wraparound services to stand out. Access this session and others from the event on-demand here.

While the prospect of attracting and enrolling new students may seem daunting in the current environment, developing and implementing innovative recruitment strategies and enrollment models can help colleges and universities stand out and differentiate to successfully reach out to and enroll new students. Sallustio identified some enrollment trends and challenges higher education now faces, and suggests strategies that colleges and universities can use to differentiate and win new students.

The student population is changing. There’s no longer a typical college student, since those seeking undergraduate degrees have very differing profiles. “When we talk about recruiting and standing out in the crowd, higher education as a whole and students, who are we really talking about?” Sallustio asked. “Defining who your students are is critical when you discuss innovation in enrollment, because the tactics you put in place to recruit an eighteen-year-old to your on-ground university is not even close to the same as enrolling and marketing tactics you would put into place to recruit a 35-year-old with a full-time job looking to finish a degree.”  

Competition for students is expanding. Competition is increasing exponentially, according to Sallustio, adding that there’s never been a time in higher education where students have had such robust choices. “That’s specifically due to the expansion of online learning that every school has embraced in some degree. Those that have embraced it will either keep it or use it as a complement to regular on-ground services,” he says. “The competition is forcing innovation and colleges and universities at every level have to figure out what education delivery looks like now that online flexibility is part of an expectation of learning. And by providing that flexibility there are no more borders to an online student recruitment.” Sallustio recommends colleges and universities broaden their geographic strategies, noting that many institutions are already getting smarter about getting in front of students with digital marketing strategies and innovative virtual tours as an alternative to on-campus visits. He also advised colleges and universities to look at cultivation marketing, which aims to reach students several terms – or even years – before they begin the college application process in addition to capture marketing, which aims to enroll students more immediately.

Colleges and universities need to differentiate. To differentiate, institutions first must understand the student consumer. Students today are digital natives and have an expectation of 24/7 service and instant service and colleges and universities need to position themselves in the same way as Amazon, for instance. “Students should be able to find out everything about your college or university instantly,” Sallustio offers. In addition, he recommends that institutions understand the lifelong value of a student and that enrolling a student is not a one-time transaction. “In higher education, we want to create loyal customers that return when they need something,” he says. Some colleges and universities are exploring subscription-based education and providing open educational resources as a way to differentiate and cater to the student market.

Students expect responsive communications. Reach students via their preferred contact channels. Consider reallocating resources and invest in ways that reflect how students communicate, like via email, text, podcasts, streaming video and phone calls. Make sure you respond quickly to contacts from students. “I talked to a college recently that said that it takes them two weeks to get back to a student who expresses interest,” Sallustio explains. “In a competitive marketplace, colleges and universities that have the right technology to get back to students within two minutes can differentiate.”

Screen time has increased exponentially. Don’t just sell to students but offer something of value to gain trust. Schools can become brand ambassadors by become a trust resource through social media. Institutions can also use social media assets to firm up student enrollment and utilize A/B split testing to gauge the effectiveness for paid social media ads. Tick up engagement rates to stand out in the crowd. There’s a gold mine in social media, if you can figure out ways to communicate to potential students, Sallustio explains.

Many colleges have to actively recruit students. In the past, institutions took a more passive approach to attracting and enrolling students, merely reviewing applications and accepting students. “Today, students are looking at multiple schools so if you’re not active in your recruitment strategy and in front of that student, he or she will go somewhere else,” Sallustio said.

For more articles from the Business & Leadership event, see:

Institutions Changing Priorities, Preparing for More Digital Careers