Are You Sabotaging Your Enrollment?

February 19, 2024
  • Corporate partners
  • Enrollment Management
Illustration of to human heads attempting to communicate.

Sponsored by Interact Communications. Written By Dr. Diane Walleser, Interact Communications CEO and former Vice President for Enrollment Management at Borough of Manhattan Community College, which served over 20,000 students in the City University of New York system. Diane was awarded AACRAO’s SEM Award of Excellence in 2013 for her leadership in strategic enrollment management at two-year institutions.


Onboarding Dos and Don’ts from Interact’s Extensive Research

Too many colleges stumble over similar onboarding problems, losing as many as 40% to 70% of their prospects between application and the first day of classes. To make matters worse, the 2025 enrollment cliff is fast approaching, where traditional-aged student enrollment is projected to decrease by 15%. Now, more than ever, we need to make every prospect count.

In doing extensive research for colleges across the country with Interact Communications, a marketing and enrollment agency specializing in two-year institutions, I realized that schools share many common pitfalls in onboarding processes. Here is a behind-the-scenes view of where most colleges are fumbling and how you can fix it:

Don’t Leave Prospects Hanging

Imagine this all-too-common scenario we find in our secret shopper research when our undercover staff test-drive college onboarding systems: 

A prospective student calls and asks if receiving financial aid for a particular program is possible. The representative says yes, thank you, and goodbye.

What’s missing in this exchange? Three things. First of all, the representative didn’t help the student take the next step in the onboarding pipeline. Secondly, they never asked for the prospect’s name and thus did not make a warm connection. They also didn’t collect the prospect’s contact information, so the college can’t send them further encouragement or track their engagements in a CRM.

So many of these interactions are just lost prospects. Not only are these calls cold and transactional, but the staff member is more interested in answering the question than understanding where the student is in the process and how they can help.

Without creating a sense of belonging and connection, you’ll have a hard time convincing prospects to apply, let alone getting them to the first day of class. And with growing competition compounded by a dwindling applicant pool, we must go to the next level in our student support. 

The fix is simple: Have a “frictionless service” mindset. Don’t make students go on a scavenger hunt for solutions. Instead, map out their onboarding process and guide them along each step with a warm, caring attitude.

Target Communications Effectively

Another common mistake is “spray and pray” outreach. Does your college send out the same email over and over again to everyone who applied? Our research shows that repeatedly broadcasting the same information is ineffective and irritating.

A better approach is to target your emails. Every week, ask yourself: Who has applied but hasn’t made an advisor appointment? And if they’ve seen their adviser, have they completed orientation and filed for financial aid? Look at who is at what step and help them reach that next milestone.

Watch Your Tone

Another major pitfall we find in colleges’ communications audits is cold, transactional — or worse, punitive — language.

Take this:

“Student: YOUR TERM BILL IS OVERDUE. Failure to comply will result in you being DROPPED FROM CLASSES IMMEDIATELY.”

Versus this:

“Hey, Samantha, do you need help paying your term bill or setting up a friendly payment plan? We’d hate for you to be dropped from your classes. Call us today at 555-555-5555. We’re happy to help!”

Our job is to deliver regulatory messages without disengaging students while ensuring help is available. And while your staff members certainly care about students, they may need more training in customer service practices, or what we call “frictionless service training.”

Consider taking a sales approach: Even after you enroll a student, continually reinforce that your prospect has made the right decision by coming to your institution. Keep your messages warm and welcoming throughout the onboarding and retention process. 

Ask Not What Your Students Can Do for You …

In the many failure-to-appear research studies we’ve done for colleges, we see that students typically drop out of the onboarding process for “personal reasons.” All too often, staff will throw up their hands and say, “Well, students have too many problems, and we can’t fix that.”

Consider shifting your mindset to see what else you can do for your students. We should create opportunities for everyone to learn and be successful. So, how can we adapt our systems to meet their needs? If age-old processes and systems are causing students to abandon ship, then it’s time to change tactics. 

Remember, students wouldn’t have applied if they weren’t interested. In our research, we ask stop-out students if they would consider returning, and a staggering 80% typically say “yes.” So, keep in mind that if your processes are too difficult, or your staff aren’t warm and welcoming, then those students will turn to the competition.

Make Every Student Count

From application to the first day of school, prospects can leave anytime. Since our applicant pool is dwindling, we must understand where and why we are losing students and get specific about tracking conversion process milestones.

If you have a low conversion rate, spending more money on marketing won’t help because you will continue to leak those students from your onboarding pipeline. Instead, you’ll find the biggest enrollment gains in strategic conversion and retention efforts. 

Ask yourself:

The most powerful opportunities for boosting college enrollment are in understanding the entire student onboarding process and how you interface with your prospects. 


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