8 Enrollment Insights to Shape Your Strategy

June 10, 2022
  • Marketing Research
  • corporate
  • Market Analysis
Illustrated representation of segmentation marketing.

Sponsored by Niche

One of the most significant challenges in enrollment management and marketing is planning for the future based on the behaviors of teenagers. Luckily, Niche can get feedback from tens of thousands of students searching for undergraduate and graduate programs annually to understand how their preferences are changing and turn those into tactical insights for colleges and universities. Here are eight topics that stood out from surveys and interviews with potential students and professionals:

“The first question a student asks is usually not the one they want to ask.”

This quote from the University at Buffalo’s Ryan Taughrin during an episode of the Niche Enrollment Insights Podcast was so insightful and has stuck with me. While he is approaching from a graduate enrollment perspective, the same applies to undergraduate students and their families. Address common concerns throughout the comm flow and recruitment cycle, but the best thing to do is to create space with open-ended questions and personal outreach to get to know what questions and concerns a student has. Waiting for students to ask questions rewards those who feel comfortable raising their hand, but so often, we hear from students that they don’t want to ask a “dumb question” and hurt their chances of acceptance; even though there is no such thing as a dumb question with students coming from very different base levels of knowledge about the process and terminology. Creating a space where students can ask questions and find answers easily on your site and beyond from both staff and current students is a way to help remove barriers and open your institution to more students.

Brand matters, but it’s not the only consideration.

The brand and name recognition of a college mattered to 69% of juniors in our spring survey. Being recognizable does influence your ability to attract inquiries and applicants. Still, there are other ways to earn their attention because 97% of students said they would apply to a college they haven’t already heard of. The most likely thing to warrant their consideration, and the only thing most students said would make them consider a college they hadn’t heard of, was having a conversation with someone from that college. This could be counselors on the road, current students acting as influencers, or faculty and staff in the community. Other highly regarded tactics are rankings, reviews from current students, and personalized and relevant mail from a college. You should also be influencing the influencers: students would consider colleges recommended by their school counselor, family, and friends as well. When planning your strategies for 2023 and beyond, think about how you’re engaging and educating the people who can help increase your reach and influence students for years to come. This might be a newsletter, swag boxes, or reward referral programs.

Personalized and relevant email is critical to earning student interest.

There is a mismatch between what students expect from colleges and what they receive. When asked about personalized and relevant outreach's influence, 79% of students said it would influence their decision. However, only 16% of juniors say they receive personalized and relevant information from colleges, and 21% say that all colleges look and sound the same. Email is the most desired contact for students, yet when they don’t engage, it’s often the response to claim that email doesn’t work. Good emails work, but there needs to be care taken to craft comm flows that speak to what the students care about and are tailored to their stage in the search. Autoresponders should be relevant to where and how the student inquired, not just pushing for an application or visit. Creating nurture campaigns tailored to major, extracurricular, arts, or athletic interests can significantly increase student engagement. Some great tactics outlined in our latest Niche Playbook can help you lay out your nurture campaigns to maximize relevance.

Address affordability early on.

Scholarship availability is the most important thing students are looking for, and affordability is their biggest source of anxiety. The total cost of a college can be a detriment; 91% of juniors said that they were eliminating colleges from consideration solely because of the total cost. Financial aid and talking points about affordability won’t matter to students if they won’t inquire or apply because of the cost. Parents or guardians play a role in helping students determine where to apply, so remember to include them at the inquiry and prospect stage with educational materials about affordability. Some colleges are making progress, such as Hope and the Hope Forward program, but the vast majority continue to increase the tuition annually and eliminate themselves from more students’ consideration in the process. If you’re waiting to broach cost and net price until after a student applies or even after acceptance, you’re far too late.

Students do want to get on campus, but taking the visit to them is an incredible way to increase reach.

One of the best ways I’ve seen to rethink in-person events is what Kent State has done to take a group visit experience on the road. Virtual events have a place and open up your campus to students who are coming from further away or otherwise would have a hard time visiting campus early in the search. Traditionally, travel has been to high schools and fairs and featured relatively short and basic information to gather inquiries. Instead, Kent State took the energy of a group visit to larger venues and included whole families and advocates. I’m excited to see what else colleges come up with using this as a jumping-off point.

While students still want to be the gatekeepers of information, parent/guardian comm flows are important to design.

Parents engage with the college search well before the first application is submitted, but often colleges don’t communicate until after. This could be to the detriment of recruitment, yet it’s also what students may prefer. Only 35% of students surveyed in the class of 2023 reported that they want colleges to communicate with their parents directly. Those who want colleges to contact their parents directly were most likely to want them to receive financial aid and general information about the college. Tailoring information to parents about what they’re most interested in; such as safety, rankings, and graduation rates while providing stories in the form of reviews from parents and the experiences of currently enrolled students may be a way to build advocates while still allowing students to be the gatekeepers of recruiting information.

You can’t do more with less, so limit losses and reinvest resources.

Budgets are tight. Turnover is high. Expectations are higher. Admission staff turnover has harmed offices across the country, and it’s hard to succeed when hiring multiple positions mid-cycle and spreading the remaining staff thinner. In our survey of enrollment leaders, we asked about staffing changes and found a strong correlation between staffing levels and the pacing of enrollment deposits. Only 12% of those with fewer staff reported an increase in deposits compared to 45% of those with similar staffing and 57% of those who increased admission staffing. Staff retention is key, but so is evaluating your outreach methods and partnerships to know what works. With more challenges in recruiting students, spending your budget on what is working best for you is even more important.

In-person grad programs are still preferred, but flexibility for colleges with a physical presence is desirable.

On-campus programs are the most often considered format, with 35% of current searchers saying that they are only considering them and an additional 44% saying that they are considering some on-campus programs. Online grad programs are the least desirable, with 16% saying they only consider them and 46% considering some online programs. However, half of the respondents want online programs offered by institutions with a physical presence, and only 22% prefer them to come from fully online institutions. A college can offer grad programs on-campus and provide the flexibility of online options, where applicable, to fully capture student interests.