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Attracting the Right Mix of Applicants to Your College

Every institution has its own goals when it comes to driving diversity in admissions. You might be focused on increasing your pool of:

  • Residential students
  • Minority students
  • Out-of-state or international students
  • First-generation college students
  • “Degree completers” who already have some college credit

Overall, the Mix of Students is Changing

The pool of available applicants continues to shift. Many parts of the country, particularly New England and the Midwest, are facing a growing shortage of high school graduates. Here in Texas, business is booming—but campuses are reporting huge growth in the number of first-generation college-going families. There’s also an increase in the number of students seeking financial aid.

An October 2018 blog by Campus App shares some of the nuances: year over year, the percentage of students under age 25 is declining. Minority attendance is growing. Overall, 26% of undergraduate students are also parents. That percentage is higher among minorities and low-income and first-generation students.

As generations of students change over time, they have different ways of viewing education and valuing the experiences they’re going to have.

And Students Have So. Many. Choices.

With more than 4,000 universities in the U.S. alone vying for applicants, students today have a lot of choices. Let’s say a student is seriously considering 12 universities. Maybe they tour four schools and apply to seven. That’s still a big competitor set. It’s different than buying a car, where you might visit two or three dealerships for test drives. The market is deeply saturated.

So with shifting demographics and an abundance of competitors, how can your institution attract the right mix of students and keep their attention through the application process?

Start with Research

You don’t know what you don’t know. Start with simple user research into potential applicants and current students in each of your key target audiences. Find out what prospects think about your institution. Ask what matters to them, and what they’re looking for. Measure the satisfaction of current students in your target groups. Track how well their needs are being met—or not met.

Have Strong, Distinctive Messaging

You have to hold prospects’ attention from those sophomore year direct mailers through senior year applications. For that, you need good infrastructure and a compelling narrative. Ask yourself:

  • What are your strengths?
  • What do you offer that is distinctive?
  • Why is that relevant to how the world is changing?
  • How prepared will students be when they leave college and go into the workforce?

Take these insights about your offerings, combine them with the research you did about your audiences’ needs, and create a messaging platform.

“You want to meet students where they are and tap into whatever the generational needs might be at the time,” says Tracy Manier, Vice President for Enrollment Management at St. Edward’s University. “As generations of students change over time, they have different ways of viewing education and valuing the experiences they’re going to have. That should inform the way a university positions itself.”

Every Touchpoint Matters

One of the things we know about Gen Z is that they’re a multi-channel generation. They may be sitting in front of a TV, browsing school websites on their laptop while messaging with friends on their smartphone. They live in a world where they’re surrounded by messages. They’re sophisticated, skeptical consumers who recognize their value as an audience.

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To break through and hold their interest, schools need consistent messaging across all touchpoints, including:

  • Printed materials
  • Recruiter visits
  • College fairs
  • Tour guides
  • Website
  • Advertising
  • Chatbots
  • Social media
  • Admissions office
  • Alumni

Ideally, everyone who creates materials or interacts with prospects will follow your messaging platform. You want them all on the exact same page.

Show Prospects What to Expect

Take steps to show target students that your institution not only admits them, but welcomes them. Segmented materials can help you communicate the big messages to each new audience. Make it easy for prospective students to picture themselves at your school. Let them see the community, the support, and the post-college life they’ll experience.

Nonprofit Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) has received much press for its national ads targeting working adult students on a non-traditional schedule. Focusing on the numbers, the ads are making an impact. Huffington Post reports that this year, the school is expected to double its online enrollment numbers from 2012.

Real Life Matters Most

Ads and websites don’t mean much if they don’t reflect the in-person experience. Make sure your recruitment team represents (and reaches out to) the students you want to attract. Diversity feeds diversity. When students visit your campus, they should see themselves in other students.

And it doesn’t stop once prospects become students. Your messaging should reflect the reality of your institution. Your programming has to be attractive to—and accommodate—prospective students who have more responsibilities and barriers holding them back from higher education.

College, ho!

Remember, achieving a better mix of students goes deeper than the pictures on your website. Once you’ve got the right insights, you can make an action plan to modify your experiences and communication tools to attract the students you really want.

Special thanks to Tracy Manier for her insights and point of view.

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