How mobile recruitment strategies can help higher ed rebuild enrollment

Personalized outreach campaigns, 24/7 access to information and text-first communications are keys
Tony Huffman, Perdia Education
Tony Huffman, Perdia Education

Recently, I have been speaking with clients at different institutions all across the country, and they all admit to being, in varying degrees, panicked about the drop in demand for higher education.

These are especially troubled times for higher-ed leaders, filled with anxiety over the recruitment, admissions and enrollment challenges that are threatening their universities. But here is what is truly alarming: I have been having the same discussions for more than 20 years.

Colleges and universities continue to focus on generating leads, allocating ever-larger chunks of their ever-tightening budgets to lead-gen campaigns. Yet all the resources and efforts spent on driving attention to their institutions are not paying off in higher enrollments. It is insane to keep taking the same approach to recruitment, admissions and enrollment and hoping that this time, the results will be different.

I would argue, instead, that institutions need to become much better at doing more with the leads they have by aiming for thoughtful conversions instead of chasing lead generation.

A massive shift in technology dependence means that the communication and enrollment interaction strategies that higher education has traditionally deployed— in-person high school visits, email campaigns, phone calls, etc—are no longer enough to engage with today’s tech-savvy prospective online students. This shift requires institutions to meet prospective students where they now are—on their phones seeking online opportunities.

Mobile moves the needles

Enrollment declines have not been breaking news for years, and no one should be surprised when the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center publishes a new report with more dire results. But the pandemic has exacerbated these trends, with community colleges being especially hard hit.

On the other hand, enrollments at primarily online institutions have surged. According to research conducted by Perdia Education based on data from, if we look at degree-offering programs that are available in more than two states and that provide more than 80% of their classes online, we can see that the number of online programs has doubled over the last four years.

Responding to the soaring interest in online learning, many traditional institutions are now seeking to develop remote learning programs themselves. But with more online program offerings and thus a more saturated market, leads per institution are bound to decrease.

These converging trend lines contribute to the importance of focusing and maximizing the leads institutions already have. It is therefore even more urgent for institutions to engage where their students live today in order to grow enrollment. That means recognizing that mobile is the place to be.

People are conducting more and more of their daily activities on their phones, from shopping to managing their finances to making telehealth appointments with their physicians. Americans now check their phones once every 10 minutes—that adds up to 96 times a day.

In 2019, adults were accessing the internet via mobile devices for about three and a half hours each and every day, and that number is expected to grow to over four hours by the end of 2021. Why, then, would prospective students not want to explore and enroll in higher education through their mobile devices?

Drilling down further into the demographics of today’s online learners, more than half of them are Millennials between the ages of 22 and 38 years old. These non-traditional learners want easy access to the most relevant information for their programs of interest, and research has shown that the best way to communicate with this cohort is through mobile platforms. In fact, 75% of millennials would rather lose their ability to talk on the phone than to text.

Given these trends, institutions need to consider whether they can afford to ignore enrollment strategies that cater to student communications preferences. Rather than focusing on lead gen efforts, institutions need to reimagine their admissions and enrollment practices to respond to shifting expectations and in doing so, become more student-centric.

Mobile technology is transforming the lives of prospective students, and today’s higher-ed leaders must respond with mobile strategies and management processes that center on: personalized outreach campaigns, 24/7 access to information, and text-first communications in order to attract and nurture students.

Tony Huffman is the CEO of Perdia Education, which specializes in recruiting, enrollment and retention for online higher ed programs.

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