Keeping the human touch in admissions–at scale

In the hyper-competitive world of admissions, schools are seeking an edge by using tech solutions to engage prospective students one-on-one at scale

admissions-IT“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” Dickens may have been writing about the French Revolution, but he could just as easily have been describing life in the admissions offices of the nation’s colleges and universities. Stratospheric tuition rates, changing student demographics, the universal application, and a challenging employment picture have dramatically changed the expectations—and behavior—of prospective students.

While some colleges struggle to attract enough students to keep their doors open, others have been inundated by record numbers of applications. Today, admissions offices must work harder and smarter to recruit and enroll students who meet their institutions’ standards and values. And, in many cases, it means implementing sophisticated tech solutions to assist them.

This was certainly Penn State’s experience. When its application numbers shot up sharply in recent years, the university recognized that its old e-mail-based admissions process simply could not cope. Given the volume of applications, it’s not surprising: For the 2015-2016 academic year, for example, the university received more than 69,000 baccalaureate applications, an increase of 3,000 from the previous year. In aggregate, the university attracted more than 131,000 undergraduate and graduate applications.

The problem was exacerbated by the university’s decentralized setup, with communications from prospective students siloed within each of the university’s 24 campuses or the online Penn State World Campus. “Employees handled communication with prospective students and applicants through their university e-mail accounts,” said Kate Tornatore, CRM project manager at Penn State World Campus. “If prospective students changed majors or choice of campus, they would speak with different admissions counselors. The history of their [earlier] interactions did not follow them to the next Penn State employee. This was not the ideal experience for prospective students to have with the university.”

Looking for a solution, the Undergraduate Admissions Office turned to Talisma CRM from Campus Management Corp., which the World Campus has been using since 2007. After a two-year implementation phase, the CRM launched in May 2014.

“We created a solution that can scale up while opening the prospect’s communication history to the entire university,” said Tornatore. “No matter whom a prospective student talks to, that employee will be able see the communication history, such as meeting a recruiter at an event, receiving a mailer, a call about admissions questions—to name a few. We wanted to improve the prospective student’s experience.”

A Personal Approach

A single-minded focus on the student experience is also what drove Manchester University in Indiana to begin its own search for a tech solution. In recent years, the 1,400-student liberal arts school has added a host of new degrees and undergraduate programs including a new Doctor of Pharmacy offering. “We were advancing our enrollment, creating new programs, and things were going well,” said Adam Hohman, assistant vice president for enrollment and marketing. “But we hit a point where student entrance started to explode.”

The school has always prided itself on its personal touch and didn’t want to lose that as its enrollment grew. “We realized we were going to have problems having conversations at the level of intimacy we wanted without the assistance of a CRM,” said Hohman. “We’re really devoted to the close meaningful relationships in our community and it’s something that our software system has to represent.”

Manchester researched six different CRM solutions before choosing Liaison EMP, an enrollment management platform. The system allows the school to customize its communications with each prospective student via personalized e-mails, text messages, and even direct voice messages. “It gives us the incredible ability to be a human talking to a human rather than a software system talking to a human,” said Hohman.

Liaison EMP also gives Manchester the ability to create custom websites for each prospective student using personalized URLs, known as PURLs. “We’re able to use these PURLS for students to give them customized content,” said Hohman. “They choose what they want to view—certain interests or academic program or scores.”

Penn State is also using Talisma to create a more personalized experience for potential students. If a prospect attends a recruiting event, for example, subsequent e-mails and other communications can be tailored to reflect this. The school is also looking to follow students where they are—on their smartphones. The Admissions Office is currently evaluating Talisma’s online chat function and is exploring SMS to send brief messages to prospects. “The messages could be informative, such as a reminder about an approaching deadline, or something more personal, such as ‘Happy birthday!'” said Tornatore.

Tracking Demonstrated Interest

In today’s hyper-competitive market, the ability to engage students meaningfully is key, but the job of the admissions office doesn’t stop there. Admissions counselors are also tasked with identifying those students who are serious about attending their institutions and with pulling together a student body that reflects their schools’ academic and cultural values. For both purposes, the ability to crunch data is critical.

Penn State deals with 300,000-400,000 prospects each year, most of whom will not attend the university. By tracking every interaction—known in the business as “demonstrated interest”— between prospective students and the university’s campuses, admissions staffers are able to narrow down the number of students who are truly serious about attending the school. “One of the most highly anticipated results was an improvement in the quality and reliability of our data,” said Tornatore. “We know how many times a prospective student called, e-mailed, or chatted with us. We can start analyzing the data to determine how many or what types of interactions are going to lead to the best conversion rates.”

At Manchester, the admissions office also sifts the data to determine which interactions are likely to result in a student ultimately enrolling. “We assign point values to interactions to learn if one student perhaps is more interested than another,” said Hohman.

But Manchester admissions officers also want to ensure that incoming cohorts reflect the school’s diversity goals, which “means many things,” according to Hohman. For example, Manchester takes into consideration where prospective in-state students live. “Many of our students come here from our home state of Indiana,” he explained. “We have a system where we assign students to admission counselors based upon the Indiana county where they live.”

Because this approach is not used by many schools, Liaison had to restructure the data to accommodate this need. Ultimately, though, the finished product gave the school the ability to slice and dice the data the way it wanted. “The EMP helped us to shape our class better,” said Hohman. “We’re able to engage new geographic regions, we’re able to grow enrollments in targeted programs, and we’re able to increase the diversity of our incoming class.”

Refining Recruitment Strategies

As staffers become familiar with the new systems, they are also able to use the data to improve their own recruitment efforts and the efficiency of their offices. “Data is now available at the push of a button,” said Tornatore. “For example, if the marketing office at Penn State World Campus sends an e-mail, we will know how many people took action from that communication, inquired about Penn State, applied, and ultimately enrolled.”

Indeed, the granularity of the data allows admissions officers to refine outreach programs to a remarkable degree. “EMP allows us to see when e-mails are most opened, so we can develop a trajectory knowing that an e-mail is best served on a certain day at a certain time,” said Hohman.

Equally remarkable is the fact that all of this can be achieved with less staff time. At Penn State, for example, the admissions staff was able to populate a report for an outbound calling campaign in just a few minutes, something that previously would have taken someone a day or two to complete. “Automated processes such as automated campaign delivery free up time for people to implement ideas and projects that keep Penn State competitive,” said Tornatore.

At the same time, Tornatore cautions schools not to look to the technology as some kind of turnkey miracle. “I can’t underscore enough how important it is to take the time to plan your CRM strategy and understand the resources and data necessary to support it,” she said. “The payoffs from which Penn State is benefiting now did not come easily or instantly. A CRM is just the technical application used to execute your CRM strategy. The better thought-out your strategy, the more benefits you’ll see from your CRM.”

Andrew Barbour is a contributing editor with eCampus News.

Laura Ascione