The False Choice in Higher Education Enrollment: How Quality vs. Quantity of Prospective Enrollments Is Leading Us Astray

Brett Frazier

September 11, 2018

There is a never-ending dialogue in higher education enrollment between quality vs. quantity, as more colleges and universities focus on reaching more students and also recruiting the right students. This is an important dual objective—recruiting more students powers enrollment growth to sustain an institution, and recruiting better students with the right fit who actually reach graduation is the ultimate goal.

National enrollments have declined for a sixth straight year. It’s tougher than ever to fill a class. But it’s not just numbers institutions want. The pressure has been to not only recruit more students, but also to ensure that students find their best-fit institution, as colleges and universities must make better progress on student retention and success.  National graduation rates (within six years) still hover at 60 percent.

The false choice in higher education enrollment
The false choice in higher education enrollment  prevents institutions from meeting their goals for numbers and the shape of their classes.

The response from many institutions—and the recruitment strategists and firms that support them—has been to simply turn up the volume. They say: you can either recruit en masse or recruit the right students. Colleges and universities are often forced to choose between massive, impersonal recruitment strategies OR customized, smaller, more personal enrollment strategies. There is this notion that you can’t have quality of applicants as well as quantity when it comes to higher education enrollment.

In any other business—think of those successfully reaching consumers and driving revenue—marketers are not handcuffed by this kind of false choice. Our commercial counterparts use technology, tools, and insights to get there, and are encouraged to test and innovate to find smarter ways to reach the right people at the right time with the right message—at scale.  The success of companies like Amazon has hinged on driving high quality consumer loyalty/conversion as well as volume—while still delivering a personalized, high-quality experience tailored to the individual.  Whether we like it or not, this is what today’s higher education “consumer” expects and what is needed to reach them.

Students, parents, adult learners, and their influencers are no different.  The same approach must happen in higher education marketing and recruitment. Institutions need to adopt a similar thought process to meet their enrollment goals AND do so in the way that reflects the applicant quality, diversity, and student fit for their academic programs.

How do you do it? First, you need to think differently about the student recruitment funnel and how you convey your value proposition.

1) Focus on your unique competitive advantage

Colleges and universities are not monolithic single entities. They exist as multiple expressions, and much student choice hinges on the quality of individual programs. Your recruitment efforts must change to reflect a tighter connection to the elements of your institution that are most compelling—your academic programs, campus life, student support offerings, jobs, etc. Then, it’s imperative that you clearly communicate the unique value your programs offer for a true competitive advantage.

2) Embrace a new marketing paradigm

To effectively communicate your value and engage the right students, you’ll need to adopt a marketing and recruitment strategy that is truly multichannel and much more nuanced, flexible, scalable, and dynamic than creating massive campaigns that rely on more names and one approach. Align your efforts with the right partner to build a smarter, more scalable framework that can adapt to your varied markets and leverage big data and advances in digital marketing. Think about how you will focus on the last mile of recruitment to better convert applicants reflective of your value.

3) Remember that your students’ world is changing

While ranking and selectivity has traditionally played a significant role in staying competitive and standing out to prospective students, the data suggest that selectivity and price will be soon be outpaced by markers of quality, the perceived ability to secure a career, and postgraduate success as deciding factors in choosing the right education option. How will you frame your institution’s value with return on investment in mind? This will soon become your key differentiator as the populations’ behavior, experience, and demographics change how students will approach their decision and ultimately achieve success.

Higher education enrollment is not about quality vs. quantity. It’s about achieving both objectives.

Success in today’s higher education environment means taking an advanced approach to managing enrollment, shaping your classes, and increasing the number of students who are a good fit. Simplistic strategies of mindlessly inflating application pools to drive growth or arbitrarily throttling acceptance rates to appear more selective will not produce sustainable results. Ultimately, colleges and universities need to realize they not only can have the best of both worlds, but that having it all is the desired end state…and that if they communicate value to the right students, both goals are achievable.

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