The Five Factors of Digital Maturity for Recruitment and Student Success

October 31, 2022
  • Admissions and Recruitment
  • Enrollment Technology
  • corporate
  • SEM
Young student working on a tablet.

By Tom Green, Ph.D. Director, Strategic Enrollment Management Salesforce

Note: This is the third in a series of three articles by Dr. Green on Digital Transformation and SEM. The first article appeared in the August edition (Part 1); the second in the October edition of Connect in Fall 2022 (Part 2).

Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM) is clearly on a trajectory to intersect with digital transformation in higher education. The use of technology to support enrollment strategies has been overtaken by digital transformation as an enrollment strategy. SEM has long been a vehicle for institutional change and the global pandemic caused by COVID-19 shined a spotlight on the areas of our operations and strategies that had not yet been transformed. Patching potholes isn’t the best way to advance the field, however, and we explored the concepts of digital transformation and digital maturity through the lens of SEM in the second article in this series.

This article moves further toward specific expectations for what SEM will look like when we arrive at the “intelligent” level of the SEM Digital Maturity Model. It uses five factors each for the two “halves” of the SEM student lifecycle: pre-matriculation (recruitment and admission) and post-matriculation (persistence, success, and completion). These factors can also be used to examine where an individual institution is today and as a means to plot the journey from that point to the “intelligent” level of the maturity model. Two themes that run through these factors are the use of data (analysis and action, lagging and leading indicators) and a digital-first strategy for enrollment.

In every examination of digital transformation and maturity, it is critical to place the student at the center of the work. Improving the student experience, from the earliest engagement between an institution and prospective student, through credential/degree completion, is the primary goal. There will be numerous benefits to staff, faculty, and administrators, the greatest being the time freed from routine processing or tracking information to meaningful student engagement and support.

Five Factors for Recruitment and Admission

Clear Strategy. At its simplest, this calls for a clear definition of the number and types of students sought to match the institution’s mission and vision. “More” and “better” students cannot define a recruitment strategy. This factor progresses towards the use of data to inform recruitment strategies, and the way that those data and strategies are shared with and embraced by the campus. Faculty, staff, and administrative units should know their specific roles in these strategies and have access to data that demonstrate their efficacy.

Cohort and Territory Segmentation. The starting point for this factor is whether or not any system of segmentation is used in recruitment. This can be by student type (i.e., first-year, transfer, graduate, dual enrollment, military), geographic coverage area, academic program, or some combination of these. Advanced levels have clear segmentation and the data associated with those segments are available and used by recruiters, and partners from academic and student affairs departments, to drive actions targeted to the enrollment stage and/or area for maximum impact.

Digital Commitment. This factor starts with a base level of email communication as the sole digital commitment to recruitment. As the levels ascend, the complexity of channels and the use of AI to optimize the delivery and opening of messages across channels is used. This factor encompasses automation and the use of digital documents in applications and processing.

Actionable Analytics. Application reports in aggregate totals are the starting point for this factor. The higher levels of this factor employ greater details in reporting, tailoring to end users, and with visualizations and dashboards that allow those users to explore the data for their own needs. Recruiters can see information across and within their own funnel/pipeline and disaggregate it quickly to identify short-term actions to impact progression toward enrollment. Leadership can identify issues and areas where broader, strategic moves can impact progress toward meeting and exceeding enrollment goals.

Stakeholder Competence. Technology can be a significant investment at any college or university. Providing tools to help staff do their jobs more effectively, provide better experiences for students, and engage faculty and other stakeholders, does not mean that they can and will use them. Training on technology is a basic assumption for this factor. As it progresses, the training is more specific to the end user, and tracking is enabled to identify who has and has not yet completed training on various platforms. At its most advanced level, an assessment at the conclusion of modules is used to determine if learning occurred.

These five factors provide a means to examine overall maturity. A deeper dive into how these manifest in recruiting actions is also needed. When examining the digital experiences of prospective students, parents, counselors, faculty, and other stakeholders, there are several areas to consider:

  • How do you use digital tools to develop the pipeline of potential students from dual enrollment, corporate/agency relationships, transfer partnerships, and other sources?

  • How can digital approaches be used to expand the recruitment base for your institution (new geographic regions or populations)?

  • Has your application process been streamlined and automated?

  • How can digital tools increase the personalization required to create effective yield?

  • What is the campus experience like for those students who are unable to initially visit you in person? Is your virtual presence for them engaging and aligned with their greatest questions and needs?

The labels of the five factors for persistence, success, and completion are similar and sometimes identical to those for recruitment and admission. However, the context for them becomes different in all but one case.

Five Factors for Persistence, Success, and Completion

Shared Strategy. Similar to the recruitment factor, this starts with having a strategy for persistence, success, and completion. As it matures, this requires greater use of data to inform and measure the effectiveness of those strategies. Representatives of the areas that will implement it should develop the strategy collaboratively, and the faculty, staff, and administrators in those areas should have a clear understanding of their specific roles in the broad student success strategy of the institution.

Digital Commitment. This factor addresses the need to ensure that students have a consistent and easy experience with their learning and the transactions required to support it. Policies, processes, and technologies should be as consistent as possible, and students should be able to complete them online (not by downloading or completing an online PDF) with automation supporting the business process. As students move between learning modalities, their experience with technologies should only shift in the amount of learning engagement online, not in how they may have to engage with the institution for other needs and support.

Actionable Analytics. Higher education has vast experience in the analysis of student performance and enrollment patterns. These use lagging indicators, those data that tell us what happened in the past, to guide the development of improved policies, supports, experiences, and communications. As it matures, this factor must include ways to engage in real-time with students, knowing where and when students are engaged and when that engagement appears to be waning. This can allow the institution to intervene with the right student at the right moment, guiding students to resources and tracking engagement to ensure those resources are provided and that they make a difference in student success and persistence.

Stakeholder Competence. This factor is identical to the same one for recruitment and admissions. In this context, the training required to support tools is more focused on advisers, faculty, student support staff, and academic/student affairs administrators who are engaged with current students. The tracking and assessment measures allow the institution to pinpoint those who need extra assistance to master these digital tools so that they can fully engage with them.

Meaningful Engagement. This factor starts with an assumption that the institution is participating in some study of engagement (i.e., NSSE, CSSE) and is reviewing the reports from it but perhaps not creating engagement strategies based upon those results. As this factor matures, the use of data to create and measure engagement in and outside the classroom (where applicable) is required. Behaviors are complex and the tools to capture engagement and see the interrelationships between engagement academically, socially, and financially are in place and being used in real-time.

The deeper dive into student success can be overwhelming, as the data points increase dramatically. Using a student success model (Tinto, Kuh, or others - there are many) can help organize the discussion and inquiry into how the institution’s digital transformation is supporting student success, inside and outside the classroom, and extending to areas outside the control of the institution. Key questions include:

  • Is there a solid loop of assessment data that ties together academic performance, support, and success, so that the institution can see the relationships between them and their outcomes for individual students?

  • How well does the institution support the use of instructional technologies for students and faculty, including support when students and faculty appear to struggle with them?

  • Is there a system that captures, records, and assesses the quality and frequency of student engagement outside the classroom with appropriate contexts for students seeking a traditional college experience and those who may be older, working, and require different engagements to be successful?

  • Does the institution have data to understand the levels of belonging and multiple lenses through which campus climate can be perceived?

  • Is data on financial support and status shared appropriately, allowing it to be used with other factors, and allowing multiple support roles across the institution to guide the student to resources when needed?

  • Does the institution study and understand the efficacy of its institutional aid in supporting student success and institutional enrollment/financial health?

  • How do data and technologies support the career preparation of students, including career exploration/confirmation, experiential learning, and other means, early and often?

  • Does the institution collect information on the student’s external commitments and levels of support that impact student success?


Digital transformation is a journey from where the institution is today to where it seeks to be in the future. Maturity occurs over time and can be carefully planned or haphazard. The former ensures that it is as cost-effective and impactful as possible. The latter results in slow, expensive, and frustrating progress. One key to success is the establishment of a clear vision for digital maturity that aligns with the mission and vision of the institution. This is the same key that allows for success in SEM. If the north star of the institution is bright and clear, the enrollment manager can create a path toward it through the institution’s enrollment of new students, and its success with current students. This work now must include a pathway toward digital maturity, as digital transformation and SEM are on a faster intercept trajectory following the pandemic.

Enrollment managers must absorb and understand digital transformation and maturity, then partner with other campus leaders to drive the assessment of its level today, and discussion of how to align digital transformation to institutional goals. Over time, the student experience, from first encounters through successful completion, should be surrounded by data that is holistic in scope, joined in a single source of truth, and meaningful in its ability to inform strategies and policies.

Salesforce offers free workshops on digital maturity and SEM at various locations across the United States and Canada. If you or your enrollment team are interested in attending a workshop, please contact Salesforce is also a premier sponsor of the AACRAO SEM Conference; meet Dr. Green and the higher education team at SEM in Toronto.


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