Student Search Reflections

For decades enrollment offices have followed a distinct cycle and workflow. Student search is just one of those tried and true traditions in higher education marketing. I’ve invested the last twelve years in the admission world, both directly from the trenches in admissions and also from the vendor side. For the past seven years, I’ve been devoting my attention to meeting and resolving client needs related to recruitment strategies. One constant in those twelve years is the rapid pace of change.

The concept of lead generation is ever-present and changing. For instance, the days of purchasing an enormous number of PSAT names in January and feverishly working to be the first one to land in a students’ mailboxes has lost traction. The customer journey for students of all types is self-directed and sits apart of the decades-old ritual of student search. Information must be quickly accessible and easily digestible. Ways of engaging with information have also changed. Colleges and universities need to reevaluate their timing, mediums for information delivery and even redefine what it means to be an “inquiry”.

Just as significant, list vendors have expanded and dramatically changed their processes as well. List releases are more frequent. With states offering more in-school testing options, list vendors are able to continually produce new and fresh names for colleges. Yet, many institutions still operate on a traditional student search cycle which means names that are released throughout the year may be under-searched. Institutions that can adopt a continual search model, have the upper hand. As the consequences of the ACT/NRCCUA merger progresses, the ways in which we approach list acquisition will undoubtedly continue to change. Institutions can get ahead of this by adjusting the communication flows to accommodate a more ongoing and fluid recruitment cycle.

Search is no longer a stand-alone strategy; instead search should be an important part of a larger plan. Colleges and universities have access to incredible technology empowering them to be more intentional and more strategic with disseminated appeals for engagement. Likewise, the reliance on external search providers is diminishing. CRMs like Slate and Salesforce are gamechangers. Instead of spending immense portions of their annual budget on search vendors, institutions can bring search in-house. Not only does this save resources, it allows institutions to control, create and send succinct and current appeals that:

  1. align with their brand,
  2. personalize messaging to connect better with prospective students, and
  3. track student engagement closer to real-time.

Institutions can also use this technology to be more mindful of how they are using print and digital marketing resources. The practice of using print in search is diminishing; rarely does a school need to send print to their entire list, for example. Instead institutions can specifically target populations by adding supplemental print and digital media. Bringing search in-house allows colleges to ensure their marketing supports institutional priorities whether it is increasing net tuition revenue, shifting academic profile or diversifying the student body. Technology enables institutions to do their own list purchasing and build meaningful campaigns that enhance the recruitment process beyond traditional student search. Search now becomes the best avenue to launch and build relationships rather than serving only as a lead generation tool. Utilizing landing pages and portals creates a new dynamic way to interact with prospective students.

The definition of an inquiry isn’t as clear as it once was. If colleges only work with students who raise their hand in a formal way (completing an inquiry form, visiting campus, as examples), they will isolate much of their market. The concept of “stealth applicants” is no longer a mystery. Students aren’t appearing and applying out of thin air. They are skimming websites, reading search emails and looking at the postcards that show up on their doorstep. The advancement of technology allows colleges and universities to understand this group of students better by observing and recording their actions and engagements. Bringing search in-house allows you to know exactly who is opening your emails messages and exploring your website. These more engaged groups of students will have a strong impact on a school’s applicant pool. While these activities may not be weighted as heavily as a traditional inquiry (there is still a lot of value in a student who reaches out directly) they also shouldn’t be ignored. This middle group of students who interact with an institution on a secondary or tertiary level can be challenging yet with positive CRM management, these issues can be mitigated by working this group of students into appropriate elements of their communication flow. In the past, stealth applicants were always a surprise; now that this kind of information is at our fingertips, colleges and universities can have more insight over their enrollment cycles.

Possessing live data makes admission offices more nimble and powerful. Keeping students engaged will help institutions improve conversions and take control of their applicant pool. In order to keep up with a more tech-savvy generation, colleges and universities need to rethink some of their traditional approaches starting with search. Institutions are already investing in great tech stacks to improve admission operations, why not reap the benefits by bringing search in-house? Cut expenses, connect with students on a more personal level and take control of your data.

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Jaci McGrew

Jaci is an Account Service Manager at RHB.