Summer’s over but the pool is still crowded

Recruitment efforts for the 2020–2021 school year are already well under way, but the path to success looks quite different than it used to.

Declining high school graduation rates in the Northeast and other areas. An increasing lack of trust in the higher ed industry. Rising tuition and greater competition. All of this means that, more than ever, admissions professionals are searching for effective ways to fill the seats in the class of 2024.

Colleges and universities are employing a number of new and established tactics to recruit these students. Some are looking to increase in-state enrollment, via College Promise programs or other incentives. Others are focused squarely on out-of-state enrollment, extending their reach with regional admissions counselors, or offering extremely competitive scholarships. And most institutions are also trying to figure out ways to recruit more international students, in an era when fewer foreign scholars are choosing to come to American schools.

Whatever the goals, the bottom line is this: admissions officers — and the materials they use —  have never had to work harder than they do right now.

The usual recruitment pools aren’t running dry, exactly. It’s more like they’ve become rivers that run the length and breadth of the country. And they’re crowded with new players in new places, all vying for attention and interest from prospects in far-flung states. Of course, this makes introducing your institution in a different geographic area that much harder. How are you adjusting your admissions messaging to appeal in new areas? How are you conveying the benefits of your school to a crop of prospects who have never heard from you before?

Here are three things to keep in mind:

Embrace your location.

It never serves you well to dilute the characteristics of your location. If you’re a Midwestern school trying to reach prospects in sunny California, you might feel inclined to make apologies for your hometown weather. Don’t do it! Instead, lead with the benefits of learning at your institution, with the promise that what happens on your campus can’t happen anywhere else. Are there programs or initiatives that are tied to your city or region? Start there and don’t look back. Every location has its benefits, and it’s important for prospects to understand them. 

Tap into your assets.

A student who expresses interest in your school from a particular faraway place likely isn’t the first to do so. What are some ways to use current students and alumni to amplify your message? Think about helping a prospect engage with people on your campus from the same area. A simple phone call with a current student from the same hometown could be pretty powerful — and you just might convert that applicant to a committed enrollee. And how might you use this tactic with local prospects? What experiences could your students share with applicants just down the road?

Target, target, target.

The things that prospective students from Texas need to know may differ greatly from what their counterparts in Oregon want to hear. By employing targeted ad buys that are compelling and human focused (instead of institution focused), you can show all kinds of prospects that your school truly understands them. People want to be seen. They want to know that you’ve thought about their experiences, and that you can meet their needs and exceed their expectations. Consider what that student might need for, say, a campus visit: If your school is in a cooler climate, could you send a branded scarf to prospects visiting from warmer parts of the country? What about sending rural prospects a branded map of your city, marked with the top student hang-out spots (and the public transit options that will take them there)? The dividends could be significant.

The thinking and tactics that got your institution to where it is today aren’t what’s going to get you to tomorrow. Today’s recruitment pools are crowded. And as schools come up with new policies and priorities — each designed to keep prospects closer to home or to entice them from further away — the competition is only going to get more intense. Your best bet will be to suit up, have a compelling strategy, strap on your floaties, and jump in the pool. With a thoughtful plan and an authentic approach, you’re sure to make a splash.