6 Strategies for Successful Enrollment Management in Today’s Higher Education Environment

Andrea GilbertChief Solutions OfficerApril 16, 2021

Data tell a story. It may not always be the story we want to hear, but knowing what it says allows for intentional, strategic, successful enrollment management decisions to impact student recruitment and retention.

I have been involved in enrollment management for more than 20 years, both as an enrollment manager on campus and as a consultant for RNL. During this time, I have seen changes in higher education that are nothing short of revolutionary, expedited in the last year because of the pandemic. Shifts in access to higher education, the gender and ethnic composition of classes, the number of students attending college, and technological innovations are just some of the sweeping changes that have made higher education an increasing force in the social, economic, political, and cultural life of our country.

But change is hard. And we all know that the rate of change in higher education is slow. For all the ways higher education has propelled us forward, we sometimes resist and even fear the changes brought on by ensuing generations of college students. Advances in social media and digital marketing has forced the hand of change.

However, if there is a lesson I have learned from my own campus experiences as well as consulting with over 100 colleges and universities, it’s that adaptation is not an option in enrollment management. Change and succeed or resist and fall behind.

Student demographics, financial circumstances, technological advances, political pressures, and most recently the pandemic are all bearing down hard on colleges and universities. These changes are too big and sweeping to be avoided, and too powerful to be resisted. Simply put, enrollment managers are adapting.

While every campus is different, the following six strategies have helped many campuses not just stay ahead of these changes but use these changes for their advantage in recruiting and retaining students.

6 Strategies for Successful Enrollment Management
The way colleges and universities engage and enroll students has changed dramatically in the last decade and will continue to evolve in the post-pandemic higher education environment.

1) Set realistic enrollment goals—not projections

Think about the enrollment goals at your own campus. Do you know what they are? Do other key personnel know them? Does everyone support them? Every enrollment manager should answer yes to those three questions, yet very many cannot.

Why? Because goal-setting is often an abstract exercise free from relevant data and market analysis. It is crucial to look at who you have been enrolling and who your competition enrolls before you set future goals. Enrollment goals also need to go beyond one number. They need to be segmented into subpopulations—major, ethnicity, geography, nontraditional, transfer, and so on.

2) Devote as much attention to student retention as you do to recruitment

Let’s say you want to raise enrollment by 5 percent. You could increase incoming enrollment by 5 percent. Or you could increase new students by 2 percent while increasing student retention by 3 percent. The latter approach tends to be much more cost effective.

However, retention requires attention. Your campus has to be committed to persistence and completion and must develop a system for identifying which students need and want assistance, so you can help more succeed and graduate.

3) Build your recruitment database and inquiry pool by design, not by chance

Over the last several years, many of you have spent time and resources to upgrade your CRM. The effort to just get the system stood up is extreme. But what you do with the system is what matters. Importing data, setting up reports, and implementing communication flows are important, but using reports to make intentional decisions around outreach and the omnichannel approach to communication is imperative. Getting the enrollment you want begins with a plan to build and manage a database, including an inquiry pool of the right size and shape.

4) Engagement drives enrollment

Michael Porter famously said, “What gets measured gets done.” In an era of limited resources for campus marketing and the need for digital marketing and engagement, you cannot afford to put time and dollars into activities with no measurable return on investment.

This process can be boiled into five main components:

  • Identify which metrics to track.
  • Know how to track the metrics you identified.
  • Guide your decisions with the data you collect.
  • Monitor the effect of your efforts and adjusting accordingly.
  • Attribute the metrics back to individual students so you can qualify and grade prospective students precisely. Are students moving towards you or away from you? How can you use the data to help build an affinity for your institution for students who are the right fit?

Having a solid set of marketing and recruitment metrics you can track allows you to benchmark your efforts from year to year and make crucial decisions on allocating resources and strategies. It also allows your pivot your strategy in the moment rather than waiting for the end of the cycle to update. Don’t forget the parents and other influencers!

5) Develop an annual marketing and recruitment plan as well as a three-to-five-year strategic enrollment and revenue plan

Much like asking what your goals are, do you know what’s in your annual enrollment plan? Is it visible from your desk, or tucked away like a library book? Successful enrollment plans are living enrollment plans. They are working action documents that should be referred to regularly and routinely modified. They should also include daily tasks, monthly objectives, and 90-day action plans.

In addition, it’s important to have a working, realistic strategic enrollment plan that looks three to five years ahead. That plan should chart a course for your campus from what it is now to what it will become.

6) Award financial aid so students get what they need and expect to enroll

The ability to afford a college education has emerged as the biggest roadblock to attending college. Perhaps nothing will turn away a prospective student faster than a feeling that they cannot afford your institution. You have to address this concern immediately and accurately.

Begin the affordability and value messaging early in the recruitment process. It’s never too early to highlight all the great things about your institution to help showcase value and the different ways you will help make it affordable for a student and their family. New technologies such as personalized financial aid videos are a great way to make the award announcement understandable and exciting for students and families.

You also need awarding strategies that address need and willingness to pay (something we partner with hundreds of campus for every year). Doing this successfully means that you have to understand the price sensitivity of the various student populations you hope to recruit. It is also important to allocate aid for the career of the student. Front-loading awarding could put students at risk of dropping out, which hurts both the student and your campus, as recruiting new students’ costs far more than retaining them.

How you can you implement these enrollment management strategies?

I hope you found these strategies helpful. Of course, we could write posts on each of these individual strategies (and many of my colleagues have). As an industry, we must move away from reactive decision making and focus on a systematic, forward-thinking approach to enrollment management. With so many changes in the higher education marketplace and the economy, you must take a data-informed approach to every aspect of recruiting students so that you focus on the types of students you want to enroll and don’t waste your limited resources in trying to recruit them.

Let’s talk about what you can do to engage the students you want and reach your enrollment goals year after year. Reach out to set up a time to talk about enrollment strategy with us. You are also welcome to email me with any questions or feedback.

Most importantly, continue to move your recruitment and retention efforts forward and learn how you can adapt and thrive, even in an uncertain higher education environment. The opportunities to succeed are always there.

Talk with our enrollment experts

Let’s talk about how you can find the optimal strategies for digital marketing, inquiry management, financial aid awarding, optimizing yield, and other key actions.

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About the Author

Andrea Gilbert

Andrea Gilbert is a seasoned leader who propels the success of RNL partner clients across enrollment, student success, and donor engagement. A solution-focused leader, she is passionate about client success, retention, and satisfaction. During her...

Read more about Andrea's experience and expertise

Reach Andrea by e-mail at Andrea.Gilbert@RuffaloNL.com.

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