Achieving Enrollment Success: The Where, Who, and How

Jason Frost Jun 06, 2024 Jason Frost VP, Enrollment Strategy Persona The Scrappy + Exploratory Researcher

When I sit down with colleges and universities to talk about bringing in the right students, the conversation tends to focus on three big questions: Where should we be looking? Who exactly are we aiming to attract? And how can we get them interested and engaged?

In this blog, we’ll explore the three pivotal questions—the where, who, and how—that will guide you in shaping a successful enrollment marketing strategy.

The Where: Using Data to Expand Geographic Reach

Modern Student Search tools enable us to communicate with students in high schools in every neighborhood in the country—amazing, right? The reality is that licensing data for all 17 million+ U.S. high school students is financially impractical for most universities. There are lots of different filters and criteria we can use to narrow down that massive pool of 17 million students to a more manageable number. But for many colleges, focusing on specific geographic areas is one of the simplest and most straightforward ways to keep those search volumes under control.

By leveraging advanced market research technology and institutional knowledge, you can identify high-yield areas close to your campus, including feeder schools and markets where your university is already recognized. This is Admissions 101: you take care of your backyard, and you continue to nurture your feeders. But what about when these areas aren’t enough to meet your growth and shaping goals?

To expand beyond your immediate area, consider using geographic predictive analytics to identify regions with similar environmental factors—such as high school profiles, demographic trends, and other relevant factors—that predict similar student behaviors.

Check out Jared Brickman’s latest post, Mapping Opportunity: Tackling the Question of “Where” With Geodemographic Information, for an in-depth look at how we use geographic data analysis—what we call the Market Opportunity Index (MOI)—to pinpoint the specific areas and regions schools should focus their recruitment efforts.

Incorporate these insights into your larger Student Search strategy by identifying promising new markets and ranked ZIP codes based on factors such as historical inquiries, local higher education culture, and proximity. Then tailor your search geography to align with your Student Search resources, focusing your efforts on the most promising areas.

The Who: Defining Your Target Audience

Now that you’ve identified the geographic areas for your Student Search, it’s time to take a detailed look at the last few years.

This analysis should go beyond just examining your enrollment funnel data; you’ll want to gather all the valuable qualitative information as well. Have there been changes to academic programs? Have there been new opportunities with athletic teams or conferences? Did you just lose a top-performing recruiter in a key territory? Essentially, you need a comprehensive understanding of where your university has been and where you are now.

Then comes the fun part—determining where you want to go. What are your major goals for the upcoming recruitment cycle? You want to grow?  Great, but how do you want to grow?  Do you need to grow in headcount AND net tuition revenue? Want to shape your incoming class?  Great, but how do you want to shape?  Do you need to move the needle on academic profile?  Selectivity?  Perhaps diversity (gender, geographic, nationality, etc.)?

Once you’ve set your goals, develop a Student Search strategy that includes targeted geographies, data sources, and key demographic and academic parameters. This strategy should vary from specific initiatives targeting seniors and application generation to broader approaches for underclassmen and inquiry conversions. Hint: There is a fascinating shift in behaviors relative to a student’s college search that occurs mid-way through a student’s junior year.

By the end of this process, you’ll have a strategy that not only identifies but effectively targets the right “Who” for your institution.

The How: Engaging Effectively with Prospective Students

Effective student engagement relies on personalized communication—customizing messages, design, timing, and platform to align with each student’s unique preferences.

Let’s take a step back, and I’ll compare my own college search experience with that of my children to illustrate how the process has evolved. Indulge me, and please read this next section as if David Attenborough were narrating.

My college search was like that of a hunter-gatherer. I was interested in geology, so I scoured limited online resources and thumbed through books in my high school’s counseling office, searching for schools that offered my desired major and even scholarships specific to that major. I sat down and “hunted” for my college/prey.

In contrast, my children approach their college search more like opportunistic ambush predators. They’ve grown up in a Web 2.0+ world where customized content finds them, whether they’re shopping online or just watching the latest MrBeast or Markiplier videos on YouTube. As soon as a college’s brand resonates with their personal interests, they swiftly engage.

Carnegie leverages this current student behavior with its Motivators and Darts. These psychographic clusters and profiles go beyond basic binary audience segmentation, providing clear guidelines on how prospective students prefer to engage with the university.

Integrate the valuable data from the Where and the Who with student-level preferences and priorities. Create profiles for your university and develop specific personas for the student clusters making up the largest portion of your student body. Highlight what’s important to them—whether it’s experiential field courses, international study opportunities, social spaces on campus, or cutting-edge lab environments. This tailored approach will help ensure your engagement efforts resonate with prospective students and effectively meet their expectations.

Reflecting on the Evolution of Student Search

Twenty years ago, Student Search was simpler: we built and licensed lists from a limited number of data sources focused on a handful of specific parameters. We would prep our import, and then upload the file into our internal system.  Back then, we referred to those files as tapeloads—if you know, you know! Once those lists were secured, our strategy for the year was essentially in place.

Today, the landscape of Student Search has transformed dramatically. It’s more complex, providing earlier and broader outreach to students from diverse backgrounds—a definite improvement for student engagement but a challenge in terms of strategy management. Just last week, my daughter, a high school freshman, mentioned a college I hadn’t heard of. That is a WIN for Search!

Navigating the complexities of the where, the who, and the how of modern Student Search can seem daunting, but you don’t have to do it alone. Whether you’re looking to expand your geographic reach, refine your recruitment objectives, or tailor your engagement strategies, our Enrollment Strategists are here to guide you every step of the way.

Start the conversation with us today, and let’s make your recruitment goals a reality.

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