What Good is Digital Advertising in Higher Ed?

There’s so much we could say, but our short answer is this: Paid digital ads may be a powerful complement to the higher-priority elements of your branding strategy. If you’re not currently using them, it’s definitely worth considering.

Increasingly, online advertising is getting students’ attention. According to recent research from Ruffalo Noel Levitz, 45% of juniors, and 41% of seniors have clicked on a digital ad for a college. Additionally, 30% of seniors and 44% of juniors would go to a school’s website if they saw an ad but didn’t click on it. Most higher ed institutions, though, are not using online advertising as a major part of their recruiting practices. (This means your ads will stand out even more!)

While we don’t recommend moving all your advertising money into digital marketing, we do see it as a way to strengthen your brand and to reinforce important announcements like upcoming visit opportunities and application deadlines. The more often prospective students are exposed to positive presentations of your brand, the more likely they are to engage with you.

So, if you are going to pay for digital advertising, what’s the best way to make the most of it?

+ Keep your advertising part of a coordinated, multi-faceted plan. According to the RNL report, a very low percentage (12–26%) of digital ads were clicked by students who weren’t already familiar with the school. Be sure that the messaging and style are consistent with your printed materials, email campaigns, and social media initiatives.

+ Commit to adequate frequency. An occasional ad doesn’t give you the exposure you need to accomplish the purpose of your advertising. Facebook Marketing Science has conducted experimental research to help answer questions about frequency. While there’s no “magic” number, it’s important to study all the factors and make a calculated plan.  

+ Don’t skimp on creative design or copywriting. Just as today’s teens judge your school by your website, they’re rating the quality of your ads, too. Keep the message simple and compelling with the intention of getting students to your website.

+ Carefully choose your media. Ads on Google lead in student popularity, followed by various social media. Do you know where your prospective students are spending their time online? Meet them there.

+ Keep them clicking. Once you’ve gotten their attention with your ads, draw them into greater interaction through a first-rate experience with your website and opportunities to engage through social media.

Connecting with students where they live puts you on your way to the real goal—

building relationships that invite them to be part of your story.



Facebook IQ. “Effective Frequency: Reaching Full Campaign Potential.” www.facebook.com/iq. July 21, 2016.

Ruffalo Noel Levitz & OmniUpdate. (2018). 2018 E-expectations report. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Ruffalo Noel Levitz. Available at www.RuffaloNL.com/Expectations.

Four Little Words


Colleges and universities across the country say these four little words to thousands of students each year. And prospective students typically hear these words from multiple schools. According to Niche’s 2017 College Acceptance report, the typical incoming freshman applies to four schools and is accepted by three of them.

We know that a student’s commitment to a particular college or university is influenced by a variety of factors that seem to constantly change. How does a college or university stand out and continue to recruit students even after they’ve been accepted?

Well, as is true in so many situations, it’s not necessarily what you say, it’s how you say it. A growing number of schools are taking a unique approach to college acceptance milestone in an effort to foster a stronger commitment to attend. Treating acceptance like a celebration (who didn’t love the videos of the remarkable Little brothers last year) presents a creative opportunity for schools to really stand out.  

Instead of a form letter sent in a regular envelope (which looks a lot like everything else already in a student’s mailbox), a growing number of schools are utilizing customize acceptance packets to celebrate this milestone and foster commitment with future students. Depending on budgets and the typical number of students your institution accepts, a custom acceptance packet can be a great way to stand out.

We’ve recently helped create a variety of customized acceptance packets focused around three common goals:  

  1. Celebrate the student

  2. Build a connection to the institution’s brand

  3. Provide clear next steps

Many schools are working hard to help their acceptance communication stand out. Smart acceptance packets put their packaging to work in different ways:

  • Colorful converted envelopes and small boxes stand apart from the more standard business envelope, making it clear that acceptance is something to celebrate.

  • The use of inclusive or celebratory language on the outside of the mailer promotes the “you’re in” mentality right from the start.

Building on the official acceptance letter, including a variety of branded items can be a great way to build on your school’s brand identity or introduce campus traditions. From custom items like vintage pennants or beach towels, to affordable die-cut stickers and car decals, admissions teams are shifting budgets to invest in quality branded items that an accepted student will actually use (and be excited about).


Some of the most effective acceptance packets, though, aren’t just full of promotional items. They include helpful literature that draws potential students one step closer to enrollment. Think insider guides and helpful checklists of next steps.

College acceptance is also valuable social currency. Instructions, or a hashtag, give accepted students a way to share their excitement socially, creating a gold mine of sharable content (check out #seeyouatthepoint or #westmontsaidyes). Or, for a handful of local students, consider delivering your acceptance packets in person. Bonus points if you take your mascot like the folks at Butler - their handful of drop-in deliveries of their acceptance packet have made local and national news, along with heart-warming social content.

Are you ready to re-think your acceptance process and communication? We’d love to brainstorm along with you.

Caffee, Alex. “2017 College Admissions Report.” June 5, 2017. https://www.niche.com/blog/the-class-of-2017-goes-to-college/

Communicating with Prospective Students via Social Media

Connecting with prospective college students today requires the strategic and successful use of social media. There are a couple of things you can’t lose sight of, though, when using these platforms to reach today’s students. To be effective, your plan has to fit the way they actually use social media. To sum it up, the experiences should be 1) interactive and 2) personalized.

Best Practices for Recruiting Gen Z Students

We know that Gen Z students are headed to college in dramatic numbers. And we know that traditional recruiting has to take on new dynamics. So what are the best ways to connect in their hyper-connected world? New in-depth reports from Ruffalo Noel Levitz offer a wealth of data. We’ve summarized some of the high points for you, along with our own insights.

Gen Z: What’s College About, Anyway?

The 70-million-and-growing Generation Z. They’ve been dubbed “world-changers,” and now they’re transforming the landscape of the college experience.

They’re tech natives. There’s no such thing as “normal.” They want to do something meaningful. And they’re mindful of the value of a dollar. So what does this mean for your university? Is your campus the kind of place they want to be?

Recruiting Parents

As parents of teenagers and college students ourselves, we’re thinking about college with fresh perspective these days. How involved are we when it’s time to start researching, visiting, and decision-making?

Will we subtly press our preferences on our children? Probably. Will we make information-gathering phone calls and website visits? Sure. Will we visit campuses? With pom-poms waving!

Fine-Tuning Your Campus Photography

Photos hold an incomparable power to tell your story. To show what your students value. To capture one-of-a-kind moments on your campus. To communicate what makes your school something special.

There’s no secret trick, no silver bullet, for a masterful photo shoot. Rather, it’s a fine art that requires careful planning and execution—along with a healthy dose of flexibility.

Winning with Print

If you work in admissions and enrollment, you’re moving quickly to connect with students wherever they are. Though a strong digital strategy is essential, print holds a critical place in reaching your audience. There’s certainly no substitute for a tangible take-away piece when meeting with students in person. And while email is the primary preferred means of initial communication for 49% of students, preference for direct mail is still strong, at over 37% (Ruffalo Noel Levitz).

No doubt, though, the Gen Z attention span for print is limited—so it’s more important than ever to make every page count

Our Top Five Web Design Trends for 2017

It’s no secret how important your website is. The 2016 E-Recruiting Practices Report from Ruffalo Noel Levitz found that 71% of high school seniors rate college websites as the most important communication channel for learning about a college.

If you want Gen Z to take you seriously, your web design has to meet their heightened expectations, and your content has to be relevant and real. Let’s start with design. Are you up to speed on the latest trends? You’d better be, because they are—and prospective students equate the quality of your site to the quality of your institution. According to the 2015 Ruffalo Noel Levitz E-Expectations Report, "nearly eight out of 10 high school juniors and seniors said that a college website affects how they perceive an institution."

A recent Forbes article identified “The Five Most Important Website Design Trends That Will Emerge In 2017.” But slapping on glitzy new styles may not be so simple for higher ed websites, as you’re necessarily dealing with large amounts of content.

Since applying new trends in our context requires some unique skill and creativity, the Forbes article inspired us to come up with our own “5° Top Five” for higher ed websites.

  1. Responsive Design—This fundamental is now an expectation, and it’s been the norm for the past five years. A responsive website is designed to be viewed and experienced in a similar way regardless of what device you’re using. Some sites even take a “mobile first” approach in their initial conception. With over 70% of U.S. web traffic coming from mobile devices, a site that is not responsive is inadequate, and prospective students are taking note. Pull up SEBTS and the University of Nebraska on your phone to see examples of quality responsive design.
  2. GO BIG and go small—The first of the four C-R-A-P design principles is Contrast, and this principle is critical for higher ed website design. Fear of scrolling and an “above the fold” mentality have given way to larger, more immersive interfaces and content organization. Big is in, but so is small. Large, full-width images, full screen video, big buttons, and sweeping headlines can merge with areas of smaller content, patterns, and micro design to create engaging contrast and visual hierarchy. Bucknell and the University of Tennessee offer good examples of sites that have embraced this principle.
  3. A Robust Style Toolbox—Beyond the basic H-styles and div tags, .edu sites should take a page from Kenyon College and UNR to develop a toolbox of styles and design elements for use throughout the site. The goal is to balance uniformity with unique content needs in a way users feel at home as they view your site.
  4. Parallax Scrolling and Interactivity Paired with Micro-Interactions—The idea of layering content to move at different speeds as you scroll (parallax scrolling) has been around for several years. Rather than a fad that will come and go, we see it as an evolving tool to engage the user and aid in storytelling. The Forbes article describes micro-interactions as “user enabled interactions that provide control, guidance or rewards, or just impart fun to the experience for the user.” Johns Hopkins University and the University of Texas capital campaign site show innovative use of this idea. 
  5. Beyond the Home Page—Because prospective students and other site users are entering your site through a variety of channels (Google search, SEM campaigns, cross-linking, etc.), your site can’t put all its eggs in the home page basket. Gateway, landing, and program pages are just as important as home page interface design and functionality. The University of Nebraska knows this well. See the value they’ve placed on a number of pages beyond the home page—Why UNL?, visitor, about, and cost & aid.

Your prospective students are increasingly engaging websites with today’s best design features.

Are you incorporating these “Top Five” trends in your web design?


Ruffalo Noel Levitz (2016). 2016 e-recruiting practices report for four-year and two-year institutions. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Ruffalo Noel Levitz. Retrieved from www.RuffaloNL.com/BenchmarkReports.

Ruffalo Noel Levitz, OmniUpdate, CollegeWeekLive, & NRCCUA. 2015 e-expectations report. Cedar Rapids: Ruffalo Noel Levitz, 2015. Available at www.RuffaloNL.com.

Kloefkorn, Sheila. Forbes. Forbes Community Voice. Dec. 21,. “The Five Most Important Website Design Trends That Will Emerge In 2017.” www.forbes.com


What's Up with College Yield Rates?

Yield rates—the percentage of admitted students who actually enroll—are important indicators to college enrollment officers as they help schools predict new student enrollment each year. After a long and steady decline in yield rates, the average seems to be stabilizing. But let’s take a look inside the numbers—and what we can do about them.

Soaring Financial Aid & Competition for Students Increasing Pressure in Higher Ed

As college recruiters scramble to keep up enrollment numbers, financial aid has become the chief competitive tool. In fact, an annual study last year by the National Association of College and University Business Officers found the average institutional discount rate for first-time, full-time freshmen in private schools reached 48.6 percent.

Is Your School Engaging Today’s Growing Minority Population?

For Gen Z students, ethic and cultural diversity is a natural part of everyday life. Minority student groups now make up more than 40% of the total college population in four-year schools. How diverse is your campus?

According to NCES reports, all categories of ethnic minorities are on the rise, while the percentage of white students is falling.

From fall 1976 to fall 2014, the percentage of Hispanic students rose from 4 percent to 17 percent, the percentage of Asian/Pacific Islander students rose from 2 percent to 7 percent, the percentage of Black students rose from 10 percent to 14 percent, and the percentage of American Indian/Alaska Native students rose from 0.7 percent to 0.8 percent. During the same period, the percentage of White students fell from 84 percent to 58 percent. Nonresident aliens, for whom race/ethnicity is not reported, made up 5 percent of college students in 2014.

For many schools, achieving diversity is a complex issue that will involve significant strategic planning and systemic changes, but we’ve identified a few points to get you thinking about the possibilities.


Some universities near large minority populations are reaching out to local high school students through special funding. The Johns Hopkins University, for example, recognizes high-achieving Baltimore City public school graduates (a school system with 92% minority students), with scholarship assistance up to 100% for eligible students. In the University of California system, the president herself, Janet Napolitano, recruits minority students in high schools. She breaks down misconceptions about affordability by highlighting the system’s generous system of financial aid.

Dr. Brian C. Mitchell, director of Edvance Foundation, adds further perspective: “In the end, the problem may be less about specialized recruitment counselors and money than about how to fix a broken pipeline and provide a better safety net.” He suggests that four-year institutions start by partnering with community colleges,  where enrollment rates are high for minority students—creating a pathway for student transition.  (See more here about recruiting community college students.)

Care and Retention

As minority students arrive on campus, without proactive outreach in place, they may feel isolated and experience culture shock. Minority students at Northeastern University in Boston rely on the African-American cultural center on campus as a safe space to discuss racial issues. Mitchell suggests mentoring programs for black students, as well as changing staff and faculty recruiting policies.

Marketing Approaches

When prospective minority students look at your school, can they picture themselves there? Here are some tips that just touch the surface, but they’re critical if you want students to take a look below the surface and discover your school’s true heart for diversity.

  • On your website and in your recruiting materials, be sure to include photos that naturally capture the student diversity of your campus.
  • Identify affinity groups for under-represented students, and highlight organizations that welcome and celebrate ethnic diversity.
  • Feature testimonials of a wide-range of students.
  • Be intentional to include outstanding students of different ethnic groups as leaders for student recruitment events.

Growing diversity on campus reflects the multicultural world students will be entering after graduation. We encourage you to ask minority students on your campus, “How are we doing?”


National Center for Education Statistics. “Fast Facts.” https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=98

The Johns Hopkins University. “The Baltimore Scholars Program.” https://baltimorescholars.jhu.edu/

Watanabe, Theresa. Los Angeles Times, February 5, 2016. “UC expands its recruiting efforts targeting black and Latino students.” http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-uc-diversity-20160205-story.html

Mitchell, Brian C. The Huffington Post, April 27, 2015, “College Minority Recruiting.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-brian-c-mitchell/college-minority-recruiti_b_7151494.html

National Center for Education Statistics. “Digest of Education Statistics.” Table 306.20. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d15/tables/dt15_306.20.asp?current=yes

Krantz, Laura. Boston Globe. “Diverse campuses, but still few black students.” http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2015/04/24/boston-area-colleges-struggle-attract-african-americans-campus/ULApCGSF8aIn74RKnZGgUK/story.html

Re-Imagine Recruiting to Reach More Non-Traditional Students

Students age 25 and older now make up about 40% of the total college population. And their numbers are on the rise—at even faster rates than traditional students. Reaching this growing market means an intentional look at your message and your methods.

Your Marketing Message

Let them know you get it. Busy with full-time jobs, families, and other grown-up responsibilities, the biggest question for adult learners is how they can possibly take on the demands of college. Show them you understand and that you care. Share testimonials of other students like them who have navigated the program with success.

Show them you mean it. It’s no secret that non-traditional college programs have to be structured in out-of-the-box ways. And the list of requirements for this audience is not simple. In fact, a recent Ruffalo Noel Levitz survey of adult learners identified 15 factors that are rated at 70% or higher as important for enrollment in a four-year institution. Because their decision-making is a complex mix of factors, this means your marketing message can’t simply focus on the top two or three.

  • 93%        Availability of program I wanted
  • 92%        Convenient time and place for classes
  • 88%        Flexible pacing for completing a program
  • 88%        Time required to complete program
  • 86%        Availability of financial assistance
  • 85%        Ability to transfer credits
  • 85%        Requirement for current or future job
  • 84%        Cost
  • 83%        Reputation of institution
  • 80%        Availability of online courses
  • 79%        High rate of job placement
  • 78%        Program accreditation by professional organization or trade group
  • 76%        Credit for learning gained from life and work
  • 74%        Distance from campus
  • 72%        Tuition reimbursement from employer

Exceed expectations. The RNL survey also measured “performance gaps” in adult learner satisfaction. While these students are largely satisfied with their non-traditional programs, there are identified areas for improvement. Topping the lists were variables such as: the opportunity to self-pace coursework, availability of course offerings within a program, and timely feedback from instructors. Can your institution shine in communicating these factors?

Your Marketing Methods

Keep it personal. When institutions ranked top methods for generating inquiries, face-to-face information sessions were rated as the number one most effective method by far for private and public four-year institutions. While referral programs and website forms were next for private schools, public institutions indicated more success with open house events and off-campus group meetings. Phone calls and personalized email messages were the most effective follow-up practices.

Customize the technology. An article by Craig Maslowsky, CEO and Founder of New Ed, explains that marketing resources for adult students “must be optimized to enhance the student’s experience, and designed in a way that they felt understood.” This includes particular attention to website design and content, search engine optimization, and CRM.

Is it time to re-imagine your marketing message and methods for reaching this critical audience? Let's talk about how we might collaborate with you and make an immediate impact.



National Center for Education Statistics. Digest of Education Statistics: 2014. Table 303.40. www.nces.ed.gov.

Ruffalo Noel Levitz (2015). 2015 adult learner marketing and recruitment practices benchmark report. Coralville, Iowa: Ruffalo Noel Levitz. Retrieved from www.noellevitz.com/BenchmarkReports.

Ruffalo Noel Levitz (2016). 2015-16 adult learners report. Cedar Rapids: Ruffalo Noel Levitz. www.ruffalonl.com.

The Evolllution (2017). Top Five Ways to Market Higher Education to Adult Students. www.evolllution.com.