graduate & online enrollment

Why Timely Response Is Critical to Enrolling Online Students

Scott JeffeVice President, Research (Graduate and Online)July 28, 2022

If there is one clear message in RNL’s new Online Student Recruitment Report, it is that online students expect and reward timely responses to both initial inquiries and acceptance decisions. In a series of survey questions, our 1,600 prospective online student respondents provide a road map not only for how quickly they expect a response or decision from the institutions that interest them, but also how to respond, when to respond, and at what pace contact should be maintained from inquiry to enrollment.

In a recent webinar, I discussed the critical importance of speed with two colleagues who regularly consult with our clients. Bob Stewart served for many years as an enrollment leader – most recently at Jacksonville University. Holly Tapper served in academic leadership positions – most recently at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota.

Watch the summary of our conversation here:

Is timely response only important to online students?

Bob Stewart: There might be some people at institutions that are responsible for face-to-face enrollment saying “this doesn’t this apply to me, right?” I want to say that this absolutely applies to you – students of all sorts expect a level of responsiveness that institutions are not used to meeting – traditional age students just as much as older students or online students, etc. Whatever the school’s strategic vision is, institutions that want to grow will have to get better at their responsiveness.

Scott Jeffe: Our 2021 study of the graduate population also demonstrated the absolutely essential importance of timely response. Irrespective of preferred or intended format of study, all graduate students have the same expectations of speedy response to both inquiries and admissions decisions.

How do prospective online students first contact institutions?

By far the greatest proportion of online students at all levels email the schools/programs of interest as their first inquiry, closely followed by submitting an information request form.

Bob: Institutions need to know if these national trends match the trends of their inquirers. If they do not know, they need to find out. Pretty much any CRM can answer this question if all records are being captured and tracked. This is just the first of many aspects where “knowing your own data” is of critical importance. Once an institution knows how leads are coming in, they can focus on follow-up strategies for the methods most frequently used by students.

Holly: From a leadership perspective, it is important that you are clear with your recruitment team about your expectations for not only responding, but recording and tracking inquiries of all sorts. If you’ve got faculty responding to inquiries by email versus someone on the enrollment team, you have to be clear about what is needed – and why. You may also have to adjust your expectations when the person responding is beyond your immediate control and authority.

Bob: Another thing that these data make clear is that – at least nationally – far fewer online students are in the “stealth applicant” category (not making any contact until submitting an application) than is often assumed. This is another thing that a good CRM can tell you, and you need to know your own data. If you don’t know for sure what your percentage of stealth applicants is, look into tracking this ASAP.

Scott: The proportion of those who send an email rather than use an information request form also highlights the importance of having a sophisticated and regimented record-keeping system in place to record, organize, and track all inquiries that come in that manner. I can’t tell you the number of times that I have seen the best CRM usage for information request form leads and then no discernable system in place for those that come in via email (or phone). This is an area of critical importance where enrollment leaders should consider including accurate record keeping and tracking (as well as timely response) part of the performance evaluation process.

Acceptable and Preferred Communications Channels:

There is a vast difference between acceptable and preferred communication channels used by institutions to communicate among online students. Preferred methods are led by email, followed by texts, and then by phone.

Holly: Institutions really need to pay attention to the differences between acceptable versus preferred methods. Again think about staffing, if you receive an email in the evening, that non-personalized email that will be sent is acceptable, but must be built upon as soon as people are back at their desks. As soon as possible, team members must engage in one of the personalized methods – and probably more than one of them within the first 24 hours.

Bob: This is one of those areas where an effective enrollment team cannot just use the most popular methods – email and text – but also must incorporate phone. Why? Because we all know that phone calls close deals. So while fewer than 10 percent prefer a phone call, exponentially more find phone calls acceptable, and you’ve just got to do them.

Scott: One way to use these data on preferred communication methods from institutions is to ensure that as you build your communications plan for each program – for example, over the first 21 days after the inquiry – the various methods of communication should be approximately proportionate to the preferred percentages in these data. So you should employ many more emails than texts, and more texts than phone calls, and include a mix of all of these things.

Time of Day of Inquiry and Preferred Time of Response:

The vast majority of online students make their inquiry during the work day, with far smaller percentages doing so either in the early morning or evening. This represents a significant change to past practices of non-traditional student audiences.

Scott: The combination of everyone doing everything on their computers and so many people having worked from home over the last two years, the online student audience has likely mastered blending personal and work responsibilities into what was once thought of as the “traditional work day.” This is almost certainly why so many prospective online students make their inquiry and prefer to receive communications during weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. rather than during evening “off hours.” The pandemic has blended “work time” and “personal time” for millions of Americans, with Millennials and Gen Z being reported as least interested in returning to offices.

Holly: As Bob has said, this is one of those areas where you need to know your own data on when these things are happening. In order to do this, enrollment leaders need to ensure that staff maintain accurate and detailed records of every call, email, information request form, etc. After confirming what the trends are, institutions should align staff hours with these patterns. If this is a realignment of the more traditional mindset that such students attend to their personal business in the evening or on weekends, this is indeed a big change and one that recruitment teams need to understand at the local level.

Bob: I hate to sound like a broken record, but again this should spur institutions to confirm these data at the local level. When I saw these data, I was trying to remember if we even recorded this when I was working at an institution just a few years ago. To be honest, I never would have thought to pull this data, but after reading your report I would have wanted to.

How quickly do online students expect a response after submitting an initial inquiry?

Whether by email, text, or phone, about one quarter expect a personalized response within minutes, another 20 percent expect a response within three hours, and about 30 percent expect a response within 24 hours. Only about 25 percent will be satisfied with a response that takes more than one day.

Scott: Institutional leaders need to separate their own preferences from those of the typical online student – which is quite a different demographic than an enrollment or academic leader of a higher education institution. When we reviewed the data by age groups, more than 40 percent of those who are 45+ years of age were ok with a response that took longer than one day. This is precisely the demographic of most institutional leaders, but represents less than 20 percent of prospective online students.

Holly: These data align perfectly with something I recently experienced with my daughter who is in college now. Five minutes after inquiring about something online, she was staring at her phone lamenting that she had not received a texted response yet. We as institutional leaders and planners need to constantly remember that we are serving a generation (two generations) of students that have grown up in a customized, instantaneous access world. They’re just not going to take “well, we aren’t Amazon” or something like that as a reason for not matching the type of service they get anywhere else.

Bob: I may or may not be the outlier here, but as someone who is over the age of 45 I am becoming accustomed to timely responses myself. I recently refinanced my mortgage and while I don’t want to equate college enrollment with the mortgage industry, I went with the firm that was the quickest to respond rather than with my long-standing bank which was very slow. I think institutions are well advised to think this is even more pervasive than the data indicate. I’ve been with that bank for years, but it was just not worth the wait when I got just as good a deal – or better – from some other organization.

What is the ideal pace of communication after the initial inquiry?

More than one-third of prospective online students expect contact two to three times per week, while another third prefer once per week. Only about 20 percent want to be contacted less than once per week.

Bob: The fact that online students want very regular contact from the institutions and programs to which they inquire and apply is a clear indicator that communication cannot be transactional. You can’t have a content strategy that just says apply, apply, apply, deposit, deposit, yield, yield, yield. It has to be built out in a thoughtful and personalized way that continues to engage in a qualitative manner with these prospective students. I worry that I often see very transactional content that is unlikely to keep a student positively engaged with the institution.

Scott: Think about the volume of content that it would mean for an institution if they were sending communications 2-3 times per week over a 21 day (or longer) period. There’s no way that a strategy centered on simply pushing students to the next step would work. The best strategies I have seen include messaging about the program, messaging about future careers, messaging about the institutional environment, and customized messaging that uses AI to engender a sense of personalization for each student.

Holly: Whatever you do, you’ve got to keep in mind that today’s students want to feel that they are important to you, that you are addressing them personally. If you do this, you will benefit over an institution at which students feel they are getting the same generic messages that everyone else is getting. In a world of personalized recommendations, and superior customer service, we’ve got a lot more to think about in order to have them choose us.

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About the Author

Scott Jeffe

Scott Jeffe has worked with more than 200 institutions in 40+ states to apply market data to strategic decisions. With a focus on profiling the demands and preferences of nontraditional (adult, online, etc.) students, Scott...

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