The ability to collect and interpret data has become critical for higher-ed admissions and strategic enrollment planning

This is what innovation looks like in higher-ed admissions


The ability to collect and interpret data has become critical for higher-ed admissions and strategic enrollment planning

College enrollment took a significant hit in 2020-2021. The latest findings from NSCRC reveal that this spring’s overall college enrollment fell to 16.9 million students from 17.5 million, marking a one-year decline of 3.5 percent, or 603,000 students–seven times worse than the decline a year earlier.

While the pandemic created a greater enrollment dearth for many colleges and universities, some schools had record years in recruitment and admissions numbers. From small, liberal arts colleges to the preeminent HBCU, these institutions had one thing in common: the use of data and AI to personalize, promote, and propel student recruitment.

Today, higher-ed admissions and enrollment professions are steeped in data, and the ability to interpret and apply that data for the purposes of short-term and long-range strategic enrollment planning has become fundamental for success. Recently, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers identified data analytics as a core competency.

By embracing analytics around student behavior and AI that can predict intent, modern admissions teams are discovering how to be agile, create a personalized approach, and stay one step ahead of their candidates’ needs.

Embrace an agile mindset

Traditionally used in software development settings, an agile approach requires a set of methods and practices where solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organizing, cross-functional teams.

Today, every company (and higher-ed institutions are no exception) is working in the era of disruption. If an organization is struggling to adopt an agile approach, then it is likely falling behind. According to McKinsey & Company, marketing organizations saw revenue uplifts of 20 to 40 percent after adopting agile techniques.

In a higher education setting, adopting agile as part of a student recruitment strategy might begin by creating a single team with talent drawn across multiple departments such as IT, marketing, admissions, enrollment operations, as well as data and institutional research teams. Including members from various functional teams breaks down operational silos and ensures different viewpoints are considered to tackle and solve problems.

Consider, for example, a digital ad campaign. It’s common practice for a higher-ed admissions team to develop the creative, run the ads, and evaluate the results. In an agile approach, the data team might be brought in from the start to identify goals and design experiments for different ad and audience variations. Creative would be developed accordingly, and admissions would share insights about the ad and messaging performance and with the marketing and enrollment teams, who would use the results to improve their digital ads. 

Personalize the journey

Deciding where to attend college is a huge commitment. Cost, degree type, major, location and post-graduation job placement are all factors that weigh heavily on parents and students in such an unparalleled time.

From a recruitment standpoint, no two students are alike. So why are institutions still marketing that way? With more students following a non-linear path through higher education, managing the journey has become more complicated than ever. An admitted student may choose to return to program discovery and consider a different major or a prospective student might decide to take a gap year after applying to a program.

On top of all this, students are savvy consumers of information and have likely formed an impression about a college long before a campus visit or live event. For higher-ed admissions and enrollment leaders, here is a key, self-assessment question: “Are we demonstrating to students that we understand their needs and connecting with them on a personalized level — on the right channel, at the right moment?”

Students want more than a trifold brochure in the mail and email with their name on it. Personalization is now an expectation in everything we do–and colleges need the insights that will enable them to build better relationships with their students and offer them a better experience. Using AI to personalize the recruitment experience and to make a student feel valued can make all the difference.

Level the process

With colleges and universities confronting increased competition for a shrinking pool of college applicants, the current state of recruitment sophistication in higher ed now varies widely depending on the institution. Elite schools have the luxury of an excessive pool of applicants, many of whom can afford tuition. But what about the rest of the U.S. higher education market?

There are more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. with public, small private, and community colleges making up the bulk of that number. These institutions are vastly more affordable and represent the promise of a new start or a chance to finish a degree and earn higher wages. Finding and engaging with these prospective students–many of whom do not fit into a traditional, linear, apply-enroll-study-graduate continuum–is the new secret sauce in higher-ed admissions innovation.

The modern, AI-powered admissions office is dramatically shaping student recruitment for more precise and unbiased recruiting and to boost enrollment. For the vast majority of higher-ed students, their socio-economic situations are such that jobs, families, the ability to commute to and from school, let alone paying tuition, are all major, often deterring factors along the path to a certification or a degree. 

Colleges and universities have an incredible opportunity to up their recruitment game and avoid the record melt that occurred in 2020. By articulating and delivering a clear value proposition at the individual student level, come the start of school, a student’s decision to enroll in higher education should feel like less of a leap of faith and more of a commitment to the journey and the promise of a better life outcome.

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