Put student stories at the center of your recruitment strategy

Put student stories at the center of your recruitment strategy

By Anthony Juliano

Years ago, when I was just starting my career in higher education marketing, I was preparing to lead a series of focus groups for a public college. The goal was simple: we would share some creative examples with high school students to understand what might resonate with them–and what wouldn’t.

As the date of the first focus group approached, the college’s staff and I evaluated the creative and made predictions about what would score highest with the students with whom we were to meet. I confidently selected a piece that had a clean, modern design, just the right amount of copy, and stellar photography. Also, because it featured a faculty member, I thought it would set the institution apart in terms of quality, personal attention, and career relevance.

Guess which piece finished dead last with the focus groups?

When I considered why I got it wrong, I chalked some of it up to the age difference between me and the focus group participants. In my late thirties at the time, I assumed that the design qualities that attracted me might be very different from what teenagers might appreciate. But as I listened to the comments in the focus groups, I learned a lesson that has stayed with me–and been validated over and over again ever since.

When students are considering their choices, the determining factor is what they hear from those already enrolled at the institution. If they can see themselves fitting in among the student population, hear authentic stories about what the experience is like, and hear the brand attributes reflected in their peers’ voices, that choice will rise to the top. If not, the institution has little chance of recruiting them–despite any accolades it receives, any campus amenities it touts, or credentials its faculty can claim.

This experience continues to inform Asher’s work with its higher ed clients. We’re proud of all the creative we develop for colleges and universities, but we continue to encourage them to put student stories at the center of their recruitment efforts and develop new ways to connect students to prospects. A few examples of this work include:

  • Indiana Tech, “You Are Welcome Here.” During a time when the U.S. as a whole was seen as inhospitable to immigrants, Indiana Tech sought to share messages that welcomed and encouraged international students–long a key part of the university’s campus community. Asher and Indiana Tech partnered on a video series that featured students from Argentina, Brazil, England, India, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Sweden, and Vietnam–among others–discussing their experiences. The students spoke candidly of their first impressions of the campus and the U.S. as a whole before sharing why they felt at home at Indiana Tech. While this series was produced pre-pandemic, it took on new meaning as international students understandably became more hesitant to study in the U.S. in the wake of Covid-19.

 

  • Ivy Tech Community College, “I Am Ivy Tech.” Community colleges are often stigmatized as less rigorous as four-year institutions, leading prospects to believe they need to enroll elsewhere to achieve their career goals. Given Asher’s long standing relationship with Ivy Tech Community College, we knew the truth was very different–and that there were dozens of students who could prove otherwise. Asher worked with Ivy Tech to profile students and recent graduates who were thriving in career fields not always associated with community colleges or who had taken a different path than their peers. Their remarkable stories–including a high school valedictorian who has chosen Ivy Tech and a nurse who moonlighted as an Indianapolis Colts cheerleader–gave prospects the opportunity to see community colleges very differently, while giving the college the chance to compete for more students.

 

  • Saint Mary’s College, “Moms and Daughters.” Just as it’s true that prospects need to be able to see themselves at a given institution, they also crave the approval of their influencers when it comes to their choice of a college. That’s why Asher encouraged Saint Mary’s College to develop a “Moms and Daughters” series to reflect the importance of family in the decision-making process. A Catholic women’s college with a large legacy student population, Saint Mary’s is an outlier in terms of parental involvement in decision making. Still, it is critical that Saint Mary’s prospects understand what the college has to offer from the student perspective. By documenting conversations between students and their mothers, Asher and Saint Mary’s captured both perspectives in a way that uniquely reflects the conversations prospects would have on the way toward enrollment.

 

None of this is to say that faculty profiles, academic accolades, completion rates, and job placement statistics are valueless. However, nothing is as compelling as the power of student stories. As Jonah Berger says in Contagious: Why Things Catch On, “People don’t think in terms of information. They think in terms of narratives. But while people focus on the story 
itself, information comes along for the ride.” And when college and universities focus on student stories, prospects themselves often “come along for the ride” all the way to enrollment–and beyond.