Reinventing Student Recruitment
by George C. Dehne
Everyone knows that student recruitment is crucial to the health, if not the survival, of most private colleges and universities. Yet identifying an effective student-recruitment program presents several difficulties. Does success depend on reinventing the institution's programs and focus? Will dispatching admissions counselors on more high school visits, mounting a nationwide advertising campaign, or designing slicker brochures fill the dorms?
What's a president or trustee at a private institution to do? How, from a distance, can the president and the board judge if the admissions office is state-of-the-art in its practices?
Student recruitment is not a science by any stretch of the imagination. Fact is, it is not even a very precise art. Despite the incredible importance of a strong student-recruitment program at most private colleges, someone from outside the field has few guidelines about what should or should not be effective. The basic tenets of student recruitment outlined here should help boards and chief executives better understand and evaluate effective student-recruitment practices in the 1990s. (This piece does not discuss how to use financial aid in the marketing mix because that subject deserves a separate article. Financial aid is an important factor in student recruitment.)
A False Assumption.
Most colleges spend considerable time and energy attempting to increase the yield of applicants to enrollees, often to no avail. In fact, most colleges should concentrate on increasing the number of applications rather than expect to increase the conversion of applicants to enrollees. Despite the temptation to work on increasing the yield, the likelihood of success is limited in this arena. Applying to a college generally is a rational decision, while choosing a single college often is an emotional one. Students choose one college over another because the tour guide was cuter or because it was sunny in Seattle and rainy in Miami. For many students, the campus simply must "feel right."
Because converting applicants to enrollees involves an emotional commitment from the student, this is a difficult process to manipulate. Consequently, generating more applications and becoming the college of choice for these applicants is the best way to hedge against a decrease in class size.
Yet in order to generate more applications, the college must have a system for identifying and encouraging those students who are the most likely to pursue their interest in the college. An admissions staff cannot work effectively with everyone who inquires about the institution. Most small colleges will generate 15,000-25,000 inquiries. To allow the admissions office to concentrate on the most likely prospects, it is imperative that the inquiry pool constantly be culled for the most likely candidates. This requires using and managing the data on inquiries and sources of contacts. This is known as prospect management.
Each institution must massage its own data and history to determine on which segments to concentrate. Yet some items are standard. For example, students who place a telephone call or write a letter requesting information about the college are most likely to apply. These students and those who actually visit are "hot prospects." The objective is to screen the pool continually and concentrate on those most likely to apply and those the college wants.
Questions: Does the admissions staff -- not just the director -- know which first sources of contact by a student are most likely to convert to applications? What has the college done to generate more of those inquirers who are most likely to apply? What does the admissions office do to screen the inquiry pool to identify those students who are most interested and most likely to apply? When does the admissions office determine a student is a "hot prospect," and when does it determine a student is unlikely to apply? What steps does an admissions counselor take when a "hot prospect" is identified?
The Only Contacts That Count.
The only contacts that really count are those initiated by prospective students. Promotional materials sent to a prospective student and even a telephone call to an applicant are fundamentally passive. Unless the student does something, there is no way to measure the impact of the contact.
Think of the student-recruitment process as a dialogue between the prospective student and your institution. A prospective student is talking to your institution by returning business-reply cards, telephoning for more information, meeting with an admissions counselor at a college fair, submitting a high school transcript, and so forth. The number of student-initiated contacts tells you how interested a student is in your institution. An application itself should be viewed as a "hard" inquiry only if the student initiates further contact, such as visiting the campus or attending an off-campus reception. If this does not happen, you usually can assume your college is a back-up choice. A student who has initiated fewer than four or five contacts rarely will enroll. Devising ways for the student to continue the dialogue should be a top priority of an admissions office.
Questions: Does the admissions office know how many students have initiated contact with the institution more than once? Can it document what percentage of those students who have initiated three or more contacts with the admissions office are likely to apply? What does the admissions office do to ensure that a "dialogue" with the prospective student continues?
Knowledge is Power.
The more you know about a student's academic and extracurricular interests and avilities, the more likely you are to convert the student to an applicant and enrolee. Comprehensive information provides numerous openings for continuing the dialogue necessary for success. Too often colleges ask only for minimal information. Some do not even ask for high school grade-point average or standardized-test results on their inquiry cards.. Yet without information on a student's abilities, there is no way to tell how much energy to spend recruiting an individual.
Additionally, such information helps predict likelihood of interest in the college. A student who asks for more information on a special program offered at your institution is likely to consider your college seriously. This is much like fund-raising. The more you know about the interests of a donor, the greater the likelihood of a match. With this knowledge, the sharp admissions professional will be able to tailor the kinds and content of the contacts made to the individual students.
Questions: How much information is requested about a student when the student is first contacted by mail and in person? How does the admissions office gain knowledge about those who inquire about the college or university on their own? Can the admissions office determine what activities a prospective student is likely to participate in before the student actually applies? How does the admissions office use the information on activities that accompanies a student's SAT scores? What is the activity and interest profile of the prospective students who are most likely to apply and enroll?
In the strongest admissions programs, the days of general mailings sent out on a regular basis are over. These programs rely on the admissions counselors to know the prospective student well enough to be able to identify what type of contact works best. Each counselor has access to a set of approaches and materials and has the autonomy to use them appropriately. In fact, at some colleges, admissions counselors have a modest budget at their disposal so they can determine what activities and approaches to use in their territory.
The advantages of giving admissions counselors more autonomy are threefold:
1. Prospective students will receive the personalized information they need and want, not just the material the college wants to send them.
2. Admissions counselors will have to make a special effort to know a prospective student to determine the appropriate mailings or the appropriate contact. This extra personal attention pays dividends.
3. Admissions counselors will move into the realm of regional marketing managers and out of the role of amiable "road runners." Too often, young counselors leave an institution because they are simply messengers. They learn little from their job. Putting more responsibility in the hands of the counselors makes the job more difficult, but it also makes it more exciting and challenging.
Questions: Does each admissions counselor have a specific territory and/or target groups, such as high-ability students, African-Americans, and so forth? How much control does the admissions counselor have over how to "work" that territory? What kinds of materials do they have at their disposal? Does each admissions counselor have a specific goal? Does the annual plan of the admissions office include only an automatic sequence of mails and telephone contacts?
A Mobilized Campus.
A college no longer can count on the admissions staff only to recruit students. Although college-bound students may appreciate the attention and help of an admissions counselor, they expect other sources or individuals to verify the claims of promotional materials or admissions staff. Current students, faculty and alumni often have a greater effect than admissions personnel on a student's decision to enroll. The role of admissions staff, consequently, no longer should simply be to carry the good news about the college to prospective students. Instead, admissions counselors should view their work as coordinating volunteers from among the student population, faculty, and alumni.
Questions: How does the admissions office involve current students in the recruitment effort? Are faculty regularly involved, or are they simply asked to participate occasionally in on-campus network? If so, how many contacts do alumni make with prospective students? Is information about the admissions program shared throughout campus? Is the admissions staff visible on campus, and do they have good relationships with the faculty?
The Only Predictor
The campus visit is the only real predictor of enrollment. This is true whether your institution is in an attractive New England town or in a Rust Belt city. A student who does not visit your campus is extremely unlikely to enroll. Over and over, students say that "as soon as I walked on campus I knew this was where I wanted to go."
The only reason for a recruiter to go off campus is to persuade students to visit their campus. Generally, 40 percent of the seniors who visit campus will apply.
Questions: Does your admissions office keep track of the number of prospective students who visit campus? Is the number of visiting prospective students increasing, decreasing, or stable? When a student visits, what on-campus activities convert the most inquiries to applicants and applicants to enrollees? What does the admissions office do to get students to visit?
The High School Visit Myth
Well-intentioned presidents often urge their admissions directors to visit more high schools. Yet only the high-profile or regional public institutions gain significantly from a visit to a public high school. (This is not the case for private secondary schools, where college counseling has a higher priority.) Prospective students say visits from admissions officers to their high school have little effect on their decision to apply. Many high-ability students will not leave a class to meet with an admissions counselor, even if the counselor is from a college of great interest to them.
Effective student recruitment requires one-on-one contact. When counselors see three or more students in the high school, they are really only conveying information. With a group this size, the counselor can neither deal with each student's special questions, nor establish a personal rapport. Instead of scattershot high school visits, admissions counselors should contact "screened" inquiries, arrange personal interviews, and most important, get students to campus.
Questions: How many high schools does the admissions staff visit each year? Has that number increased or decreased? What percentage of the inquiry pool is generated by high school visits of college fairs? What percentage of these contacts convert into applications and enrollees? How does the admissions office choose the high schools it visits or the college fairs it attends? What does the admissions office do to arrange individual one-on-one meetings with prospective students outside the high school?
Data for Decision Making.
Many colleges are dangerously short of quantitative data needed for effective decision making in student recruitment. Managing such information is a critical function in modern student recruitment. Knowing your market and monitoring different aspects of each admissions cycle is crucial.
For example, consider a college that has gathered and analyzed the appropriate data. On any given day, it can find out how many students have had three or more self-initiated contacts and what percentage of that group is likely to apply. It also can tell if the number of prospective biology majors from a certain territory and academic background is up or down from the previous year. Or it can determine whether an admissions staff member has the appropriate number of inquiries in his territory to determine the likely conversion needed to make his goal. When any indices are low, steps can be taken to improve the situation.
The kinds of critical data are too numerous to list here, but the process involves tracking all steps of the student-recruitment process.
Questions: What kinds of data do the admissions office collect and regularly share to demonstrate where it stands in the current year versus the previous year? Can the admissions office provide the number of contacts initiated by each prospective student, the number of students who have visited, the goals and successes of each counselor, and a breakdown of first source of inquiry in each counselor's territory?
The Name's the Thing.
Gaining name recognition is one of the best ways to aid the student-recruitment effort. Name recognition is critical for four reasons:
1. Direct Mail Students will open and read the unsolicited materials colleges send only if the college is in a location of interest or if the student immediately recognizes the name of the college.
2. Self-initiated Inquirers.The most likely students to enroll are those who inquired about a college on their own. Students can initiate contact only if they know your college exists.
3. Connotation of Presige. Students say only one thing distinguishes a high- quality college from a high-presige college. This characteristic is immediate name recognition. Students believe prestige is automatically attached to a college that is "well known in any region of the country" or "known throughout the nation."
4. "Brand Name" Mind Set.Credential-conscious students are sensitive to an institution's visibility. Because of the advantage of name recognition, it is far less risky for a student to choose a large, well-known public university than an unknown college that will require constant explanation. Name recognition makes a college a "brand name."
Questions: What is the college or university doing to gain or maintain its name recognition? Which offices, in addition to the admissions office, are responsible for gaining visibility for the institution? Is the institution relying on efforts to achieve recognition in regional or national newspapers to gain name recognition? How is the institution gaining visibility in high schools or with prospective students and their parents? Does the institution have a long-range plan to increase its visibility?
A Key Distinction
Don't confuse admissions and recruitment. Admissions is the process of choosing a class from among your applicants. Recruitment is the planning and work it takes to get serious candidates to apply. Not all aspects of an effective student-recruitment effort fall on the shoulders of the admissions office. All departments, offices, and committees should know that their decisions and behavior can affect student recruitment. Such factors as how a telephone is answered or the decision to drop or add a course offering may influence a student's decision to attend.
Student recruitment in the 1990s is a sophisticated and complicated business. It requires a dedicated and well-managed admissions staff as well as state-of-the-art technology.
For some, this article should reassure those with little knowledge of modern student-recruitment practices that their admissions operation is on the right track. For others, it should provide the tools to evaluate a student-recruitment effort that appears to be treading water.
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