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Student Recruitment Strategies (Part 1)

Competition for top students has always been fierce, but it is especially so in a world of risk aversion and discourse that frequently questions the value of an in-person university education. Recruiting students and minimizing attrition will only grow more difficult as the applicant pool shrinks, financial pressures mount on both the student and institutional end, and the legacy enrollment tradition weakens.

Based on our experience working with a spectrum of institutions from private universities to trade schools, here are some strategies we recommend for attracting and retaining top students.

Gauging the landscape

In order to concentrate your efforts in the most targeted way possible, we recommend beginning with a brand study to gauge consumer awareness and sentiment (how people perceive your institution).

If you operate in multiple states or even different countries, then you might uncover moderately different results between markets, which is why you want to know where you stand with communities.

Whether you are a four-year private institution or a trade school, you’re maximizing resources by getting at the heart of what your students, current and prospective, truly value.

Since the community’s acceptance of your brand will likely be a source of influence, especially if your primary applicant pool is local or regional, it would not hurt to interview community stakeholders either.

Returning the focus to students, absorbing this feedback can also give insight into the core equities of your value proposition, the brand promise you want to stick with every student. When you hear directly from students about what they think your institution stands for, you might find yourself needing to refine or re-evaluate some messaging.

In order to conduct this macro-level study, we recommend enlisting a research firm, or at least experts in conducting brand studies and facilitating the interview process.

This partnership will help you determine the best questions to ask focus groups, what ways respondents should interact, and the format of the surveys (e.g. scaled questions, multiple-choice, open-ended, etc.).

Go out into the field

With the groundwork laid, it’s time to look deeper into the factors influencing recruitment success and attrition.

Lived experience and student testimonials will tell us that there are certain periods that are particularly stressful for students:

  • Orientation
  • The start of the semester
  • Midterms and finals
  • Adjusting to college life as a first-year student

However, that sense of doubt can also creep in during times of reflection (i.e. student breaks), leading to student melt. Alternatively, a student could progressively question whether they are getting a good return on investment.

Considering that student unhappiness can arise at essentially any point in the semester, you likely have the following programs in place already:

  • Academic advisors assigned to first-year students from the onset of the semester
  • Mandatory campus housing for freshmen to provide structure
  • Learning communities where students studying similar disciplines are placed in the same housing to facilitate collaboration and build community
  • Student health and wellness centers

In contrast, a program geared toward current career professionals might have the following programs and initiatives in place:

  • Employer tuition reimbursement
  • Academic advising
  • Competency-based learning curriculum

Taking into account current and future plans, we would recommend going more granular with the research process. That is, pairing results from the brand study with an audit of institutional programs and initiatives.

These are some areas you can survey students about to see not only how much the programs are being utilized, but how effective they are:

  • Library orientation
  • Priority registration for honors students
  • College-readiness courses
  • Faculty mentoring
  • Learning center (tutoring opportunities)
  • Internship and career readiness programs
  • Peer advising program

Student receptiveness to these programs can heavily guide administration in focus, therein saving finite resources. Whereas it wouldn’t make sense for an institution geared toward older adults to focus as much on the self-assessment or personal development initiatives, a full-time liberal arts student might desire those resources.

That is not to imply that administrative attention is not critical to working adults pursuing higher education, as those students would seek out and need peers and faculty who understand the balancing act of work, school, and family commitments.

While you want to be careful about eliminating programs entirely, it’s crucial to determine what factors are most impactful at your institution. For instance, campus culture or faculty relationships might carry more weight than an institution focused keenly on job guarantees.

Stay tuned for part two where we go in-depth about how to turn your extensive data into actionable recruitment and retention strategies!

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