The headlines for the future of college enrollment are terrifying for any admissions team, enrollment manager, provost, or president - “The enrollment cliff is coming,” “More college mergers expected,” “Prepare for the crash.” What’s a college or university to do when the market is shrinking and each institution is fighting for the same students?
The key is the student experience. I’m not talking on-campus swimming pools, movie theaters, or Chipotle (although those are very nice perks). What I’m talking about is much simpler - build relationships with prospective students through personalized experiences to show them all that your school has to offer in the present and for their futures. Today’s student’s can see straight through the fluff. Sure, they love a good Taco Tuesday, but do you know what they love more? Being able to find out information relevant to them when they visit campus, to know that they can graduate with low or no student debt, and that they will be able to find a job that provides a good return on their education.
So, I recently set out on a little bit of a fact-finding mission to see if colleges and universities are actually tailoring the experiences to the needs and expectations of prospective undergraduate students. To find the answers, I scheduled and attended multiple campus visits in several states over the last few months. These visits ranged from large state institutions to small private institutions; in or near major metropolitan areas and those a little more off the beaten path.
The clearest answer that I have found thus far is the status quo of undergraduate admissions no longer works. I’ve sat on 2+ hour bus tours at multiple universities, walked a campus in the rain without the offer of an umbrella from the admissions team. I’ve been told all about the triumphs of an athletics program without the mention of career services. I’ve seen a lot of building lobbies. I’ve seen exactly one dorm room. I’ve been asked to give my cell phone number countless times without receiving a text message from the institution. I’ve given all my personal information in an online form just to be asked to fill out more paper when I arrived on campus.
None of this meets the expectation of a marketer, and none of this meets the expectations of a prospective Gen Z student. In an increasingly crowded market, and with more institutions vying for the same pool of students, it’s time for institutions to set themselves apart by thinking of what a prospective student actually wants.
Here are four simple fixes that any undergraduate admissions team can implement immediately:
1. Do your research
It’s key to understand two things - 1. What Gen Z wants and 2. What your competitors are doing. First, understanding the profile of a Gen Z student will go a long way towards creating experiences that they want to attend. One great way to do this is by creating very specific surveys for different audiences. This will give your team the real pulse of prospective students and the market. Additionally, it’s key to know exactly what your competitors are doing - their strengths and weaknesses. Send team members on fact-finding missions or hire a team to handle this (👋, we offer this for you). This will give you an honest appraisal of your program compared to your competitors.
2. Craft a campus visit program that meets the demands of prospective students
Once you've done your research, you'll have a better understanding of the landscape and what's needed to stand-out in the market. It's key to create engaging and inviting experiences for prospective students. Go beyond the standard walking or bus campus tour. Offer experiences with academic departments, create experiences for alumni and prospective students to interact with each other, and offer digital experiences for students who can't make it to campus or an in-person event. This will go a long way with prospective students and make your institution stand-out, ultimately impacting yield.
3. Find out the intent of prospective students
It’s increasingly difficult to recruit students without gaining insights into their thoughts on your institution or their intent to apply or enroll. This type of data is gold for admissions teams. By offering quick, personalized, mobile-friendly (meaning the surveys can easily open and be completed on a mobile device) surveys, you can gain the pulse of prospective students. In less than 5 questions, you should be able to know what they thought of your staff, what they thought of your tour, and their intent to apply or enroll to your institution.
4.Create engaging post-visit marketing campaigns
After the campus visit is completed, the fun part is just beginning. As an enrollment marketer, the insights gained from research, student experiences, and surveys are exactly what you and your team need to craft and execute the strategies to win enrollment. So, now you know your targeted market and their intention - it’s time to get creative. Don’t rely one or two templated emails to send to all students and don’t focus solely on sending physical packets to students. Think digitally. Create targeted digital ads for prospective students and their parents, create customized emails based on academic interest, make sure you have clear and personal calls to action in each campaign, and track the success and ROI of each campaign (👋 again, we can help with this, too).
Taken together, each of these steps will help you gain more students and stay ahead of your competitors.