Despite increased competition for students, soaring costs, and news of small colleges closing, we see a bright future for college recruiting. Your freshman classes may look different than ever before. So does the world they live in.
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.
Prospective college students are eager to experience your campus as up-close as possible before they visit in person. With today’s technology and widespread use of video, you can deliver remote engagement like never before.
Yes, they’re reading your direct mail and your email messages. And if that gets their interest, what’s the next step for a prospective student? Far-and-away, your website.
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.
You already know that high school students and their parents are using college and university websites as an opportunity to form one of their earliest opinions about an institution. They’ll even remove a college or university from their list based on a poor website experience.
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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.
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.
It’s a reality. Most college students aren’t venturing far from home.
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.
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.
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
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.
If you work at a four-year institution, are you overlooking a tremendous under-tapped pool of enrollment prospects? If you’re not intentionally recruiting community college students, you may be missing out.
How would prospective students rate a visit to your campus? —Apart from the attractive landscape and stately buildings, the impressive credentials and classroom content. Beyond the presentation of social activities and athletic events. How well are they welcomed?
With enrollment in gap year programs up 23% since 2015, if your institution is overlooking this trend, then you may be missing a key contingent of prospective students. While the idea of a “year off” between high school and college is not new, what’s different is the breadth of students the idea is attracting. An investigative report with Katie Couric finds that the gap year is “not just for rich kids anymore.”
In last week’s post, “Words Matter,” we considered how excellent writing gives your institution a competitive edge. This week, let’s dig in to some of the how-to’s of producing powerful marketing copy for your school.