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Colleges should always woo would-be students

Closing the deal from acceptance to enrollment requires continued selling of an institution
  • WELCOME ABOARD—During on-campus events for admitted students, current George Mason University students are on hand to help make peer connections as part of the wooing process.
  • GENERATING INTEREST—By hosting events that feature representatives and students from academic departments, institutions can help to reduce the anxiety new students have about attending school and fitting in.
  • SPECIAL BOXES—Admissions officers at Oregon State send boxes filled with an assortment of special offers, such as free bike rental for a year, to the top 1 percent of high school students who qualify for its Presidential Scholarship.

On the road from acceptance to enrollment, would-be students stray, often stepping off the intended path. However, led by admissions offices, higher ed institutions are enticing accepted students to officially enroll by using innovative communication approaches, developing peer connections and making students feel as if they are already part of the family.

That process starts when early acceptance letters go out in December and continues through May 1, the traditional deadline for deposits, although many schools accept them beyond that. And even getting a deposit, of course, is not an enrollment guarantee because students often send them to multiple colleges to hold spots.

At some institutions, as much as 20 percent of deposits will not produce enrolled students, says Michele Sandlin, managing consultant for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO). “You basically have to continue the courtship until they’re enrolled,” adds Sandlin, a former admissions officer. “And the courtship isn’t just with the students; it’s also with the family.”


Sidebar: Enrollment encouragement: Oregon State University’s Beaver Box o’ Swag


Because so many students get contacted, and so many departments—from academic schools to service offices—become involved, having a flexible, comprehensive management system is step one.

Other parts of the plan involve tailoring communication and making connections.

Traveling in the right lane

Constituent relationship management platforms organize incoming-student information, and most CRMs allow for automated communication and up-to-the-minute analytics. Customizing communication based on type of student and their interests is key, says Sandlin. For example, institutions can set communication strategies by traditional freshman student, transfer student or graduate student.

A CRM can also manage the full spectrum of a university’s interaction with prospects, from tracking tasks (such as submitting a FAFSA or applying for housing) to staggering communications sent by various campus departments so students are not overwhelmed.

“The No. 1 challenge for admissions can be defining lanes that will allow other campus departments to understand how we make decisions about when communications are sent, how they are sent and how we record what has gone,” says David Burge, vice president for enrollment management at George Mason University in Virginia, and president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC).

Using a CRM to organize all that information frees admissions professionals to concentrate on the messages and content being sent.

Avoiding communication lapses

Like with any proper courtship, making a good first impression can generate excitement and deepen interest. Admissions teams have enhanced acceptance packages beyond the simple letter. For example:

  • Chestnut Hill College in Pennsylvania sends a package that includes a pillowcase so students can “rest easy” now that they have been accepted.
  • Skidmore College’s 360-degree virtual reality experience shows new students what life at the New York school will look like.
  • Admissions officers at Oregon State University hand-deliver a “Beaver Box” full of school swag to students who qualify for its presidential scholarship (see Enrollment Encouragement).

Building on that initial enthusiasm with a steady, customized stream of communication strengthens the active relationship between the college and the student, says Burge, who cautions institutions against sending too many messages. “You don’t want emails deleted or letters thrown away as junk. What you send has to be relevant and prudent.”

Institutions can also leverage the viral power of social media by sharing students’ posts of their reactions to acceptance and student athletes’ posts celebrating that they’ve signed a letter of intent.

To stay engaged with its potential students, Oregon State University publishes The Orange and Black, a twice-yearly admissions magazine that provides a deeper introduction to the institution.

“The magazine covers some nuts and bolts—things like financial aid, upcoming deadlines, applying for housing—but also encourages enrollment through student stories,” says Blake Vawter, senior associate director of admissions, marketing and recruitment. Lists such as the “Top 5 Coolest Things to Do on Campus” give students an insider’s view of life on campus. 

The magazine, a joint effort by the marketing and admissions offices, has helped improve yield. Unlike with some other forms of communication, parents—who have strong influence in their children’s enrollment decisions—will spot The Orange and Black in the mail. “It gives them a sense of who we are and what their student might encounter when they’re here at Oregon State,” says Vawter.

Making connections that resonate

A coordinated campaign of emails, tweets, letters and other communication can be effective, but face-to-face interaction often seals the deal—since a student who visits campus is more likely to enroll than one who does not.

A good on-campus event should be as comprehensive as possible, says Burge of NACAC. Beyond meeting with an admissions rep and taking a tour, a prospective student should connect with financial aid, visit academic units and residence halls, and learn about clubs and organizations.

Institutions also hold on-campus luncheons, academic department workshops and other networking-type events where accepted students can interact with others in the fields of study they are considering. For example, Rutgers University offers a Women in Engineering Admitted Student Day where new students meet faculty and staff, see lab demonstrations, explore the facilities, and hear from current female engineering students.

Peer connections—particularly when formed with younger, recent graduates— resonate, says Vawter. “It’s great when you have alumni who are very well-known and established in their profession, but a lot of students will say, ‘Oh this person is only a few years older than me and look, they’ve gotten into graduate school or they’ve gotten this cool job.’ ”

Meeting students where they live

Spending time with students in their own communities also increases chances that accepted students will enroll. George Mason admissions reps take their “Mason Roadshow” around Virginia during yield season to build relationships with prospects. The event includes Q&A sessions, alumni and current student gatherings, and introductions to distinguished faculty.

At “OSU Destination Beaver Nation” events in Northern and Southern California, admitted Oregon State students meet with admissions, housing and financial aid personnel and with enrolled students from the region. These activities have eased students’ concerns about going out of state, says Vawter.

Reaching out to remote students also boosts yield. Rural students’ college enrollment rates indicate they may be getting neglected during the admissions process—only 59 percent of rural high school students go on to college following graduation, compared to 62 percent of urban students and 67 percent of suburban students, according to a National Student Clearinghouse study.  

“You don’t necessarily have to travel there to connect,” says AACRAO’s Sandlin. Almost every student has a cell phone, so social media, video chatting and texting can be productive ways to reach them.

Ultimately, “It takes a campus to recruit a student,” says Sandlin. “Even though admissions has that particular job, everyone who works at the institution is part of the process.”


 Ray Bendici is deputy editor of UB.