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7 Ways College Search Recruitment Is Changing. Are You Ready?

Updated 10/23/2023

We often hear recruitment and enrollment efforts in higher education compared to running toward a constantly-moving target. Especially in the Digital Age, the processes and tools that students use to search, explore, and ultimately choose colleges are changing rapidly.

In 2013, RuffaloCODY conducted a survey that explored how high school seniors prefer to interact with colleges and universities and how cost and financial aid considerations affect college choice. Based on the findings, there are clear indicators that the college search process is changing and related conclusions we can draw regarding how recruitment strategies need to evolve in order to meet the expectations of this new breed of prospective student:

1. The majority of students will initiate contact with the schools of their choice. The traditional idea of the enrollment funnel and its associated rules are being upended. According to the RuffaloCODY findings, a whopping 97 percent of potential students reached out directly to the colleges that interested them instead of waiting to be contacted. To meet students where they are, it’s essential for institutions to create a rich online presence — complete with site features that include thorough search functionalities, an intuitive UX, and a broad range of relevant information for all types of searchers.

2. Response is becoming a fuzzy concept. Students’ response methods are more fluid than ever and traditional, easy-to-measure search-and-reply models shouldn’t be expected. Students are gravitating toward independent online searches, regardless of campaign calls-to-action or neatly-packaged direct-mail prompts. To tap into this "gray segment" of informal inquiries, colleges, and universities first need to leverage research in the right way and tailor communications to fit the source.

3. Students have challenges connecting all the application dots. Less than half of the students surveyed indicated that they completed all the college applications they started. As they gather new pieces of information, prospective students may quickly determine a particular college to be a bad fit without a holistic understanding of its value and benefits. Institutions can preempt drop-off risk by expanding communication channels, segmenting messaging by response history, and reaching students with relevant information at the right times.

4. Students gravitate toward experiential and social online content. Nearly half the students surveyed reported viewing online videos to learn more about a college. And of those students, more than one-third viewed campus tours, watched testimonials, and used social media as part of their research. To be responsive, institutions need to realize that prospective students are leveraging online tools to ultimately answer these questions: “Can I picture myself here?” and, “Does this seem like a place where I can be successful?” To address these questions, online content should be designed to spur an in-person visit through compelling virtual tours, student interviews, and testimonials.

5. Students are sophisticated multi-channel audiences. Roughly 75 percent of students have a smartphone and access information through a variety of channels. For colleges and universities, the message should always fit the media. Generally speaking, email should be reserved for communication that happens over a longer time horizon, phone calls are perfect for personal feedback or answering complex direct inquiries, social media connects students with the larger campus community, and texts work best for brief status updates.

6. Now more than ever, price and financial aid are critical parts of the decision-making process. Nearly 60 percent of surveyed students had discussed finances with their parents before initiating their college search. And students who started the financial conversation early were more likely to research aid sources independently and be more positive about funding options than those who hadn’t.

Here, the lessons for institutions are clear: Provide counselors with the right information so they can start aid discussions early. Weave affordability, value, and financial aid messages into multiple and redundant touchpoints with students and encourage families to begin conversations with the aid office immediately. Put simply, when it comes to price and financial aid options, when in doubt — over-communicate.

7. Students face competing messages daily. At this stage in their lives, students are inundated with higher education messaging. To stand out and be heard, communication should be transparent and finely orchestrated across departments. Students have high expectations about the information they receive, the tone in which it’s presented, and the method by which it’s delivered. Institutions that meet those expectations with clarity and efficiency put themselves at a real advantage in the hearts, minds — and attention spans — of prospective students.

At Enrollment Builders, our team of consultants offers a broad range of services designed to help schools reach and retain students, build better programs, and improve operational efficiency. If you’d like to learn more about how we can help your student recruitment efforts, contact us at 513-518-7824 or request more information here