Strengthening recruitment and enrollment strategies for the long haul

Four approaches that can help reverse enrollment slides and prop up recruitment in higher education.
Mirko Widenhorn is senior director of engagement strategy for Anthology.

Admissions cycles continue to be incredibly challenging for many higher education institutions as we rapidly approach the “demographic cliff” that is expected to impact enrollment beginning in the 2025-2026 academic year. Last year, undergraduate enrollment declined from 2019 numbers, down 6.6 percent compared to before the pandemic. While it might be the easier path to throw in the proverbial towel, there are strategies and tactics institutions can consider adopting now to meet these recruitment headwinds.

Embrace students and alums as ambassadors for recruitment

In Anthology’s recent admissions and enrollment survey of over 1,000 primarily non-traditional students, it was evident that while selecting a university is driven by numerous factors, location, and personal connection with someone either currently at the institution or who has attended the institution are key reasons why applicants choose to apply and in the end attend. Nearly half of respondents heard of their future institution from a friend or family member or from knowing someone who attended the institution. While not a terribly surprising stat on its own, it presents an opportunity for current students and alumni to become influencers in encouraging prospective students to apply to their institution. Many universities don’t actively encourage either of these groups to help in the recruitment process, and while tour guides and ambassador programs are utilized by most institutions, the reality is that every current student serves as an “ambassador”. Finding ways to encourage them to share their experiences motivates students to become advocates – whether it’s providing a fee waiver code for them to share or sending a token thank you gift.

When it comes to graduates of the institution, admissions can work more closely with alumni offices to encourage alumni to recommend prospective students. A collaborative alumni-admissions communications plan specifically geared toward alumni encouraging student recruitment formalizes an often haphazard approach to alumni-prospect recruitment. Application fee waivers and recognition of alumni assisting in these efforts are other ways to help build participation and encourage prospective students to apply.  If an entire program isn’t feasible, institutions can consider adding periodic email communications highlighting the current student experience and include a way for alums to recommend potential students.

Personalized, multi-channel communications

Today’s prospective students indicated that they prefer email as the primary communication vehicle, however that’s not always the case depending on the circumstance. For example, a text message alerting a prospective student that you will call them later that day and discuss potential enrollment has been shown to work well. Institutions looking to engage more deeply with students have become more personalized in their recruitment process and diversified their use of communications channels using the preferred method of the prospective student. And, then segmented and targeted communications using the data they already have.

Almost every communication received from companies today is personalized based on buying habits, interests, and more – that’s the norm. There is tremendous opportunity for admissions to communicate in similar ways with prospective students. For example, a potential applicant visits your site and spends time looking at information on STEM fields and campus life. The next communication they receive should include more information about STEM majors, a profile of a successful recent graduate from a STEM field, and perhaps information about student organizations or other aspects of campus life. As applicants start to share more information with institutions, this opens more doors to personalized and targeted communications in a variety of channels. Given how technology has changed over the past few years, each applicant could theoretically receive their own set of communications – sent at different times, focused on different topics – all geared toward building or deepening the relationship between the institution and the applicant. And this can be automated to create a streamlined process for institutional teams.

Emphasizing outcomes during recruitment

Increased chatter on the value/ROI of higher education has led to a more intense focus from prospective students and families on outcomes. As research continues to point to the value of a degree with notably higher salaries for college graduates, it is important for universities to tackle and participate in these discussions by engaging with prospective students and their families. Institutions can highlight successful alumni in communications – subtly demonstrating outcomes – with a focus on recent alumni that students and families may connect with, rather than individuals who graduated twenty or thirty years ago. Additionally, career services can play a greater role in the recruitment process through, for example, virtual meetings as part of the open house schedule.

Beyond connecting the dots between recent alumni and prospective students, it’s important that admissions and advisors provide clear, valuable insights into specific courses and course sequencing and the associated skills graduates will need to land a job in their interested field/s. These insights help create a student pathway that highlights how courses contribute to skill development in one or more areas. Overwhelmingly, the admission survey respondents wanted deeper insights into courses, course sequencing and skills development. They also indicated that if this information had been provided by another institution they considered, it would have impacted their enrollment decision. This is a definitive opportunity to impact enrollment decisions, much of which can be implemented through technology.

Strategies for improving overall admissions and enrollment process

A significant majority of survey respondents (70%) indicated that there were opportunities to improve the process. A key element to reducing this percentage is developing a better understanding of how to reduce friction for students during the application process and looking at automation to minimize frustration and possible abandonment by the applicant. Put yourself in the shoes of an applicant and act as if you’re going through the application process for the first time. Does it seem daunting or difficult? A critical component in streamlining the process is communicating with applicants at each step. Once they’ve applied, further communications should continue to engage and excite them beyond tactical next steps. This is the ideal opportunity to grow their connection to the institution and if accepted, affirm their decision that this is the institution for them.

Prospective students and families want to be heard and institutions that lean into personalization as well as easing the overall process of admissions and enrollment will have the competitive edge. There is much at stake for your institution so it’s critical to increase the level of personalization in the admissions process, encourage current students and alumni to get more involved in recruitment, to highlight outcomes and career support, and review the entire admissions and enrollment process holistically to find ways to simplify it. Making these changes will help move your admissions process well into this decade.

Dr. Mirko Widenhorn, Ed.D., is Senior Director of Engagement Strategy at Anthology, a leading provider of proven higher education solutions that support the entire learner lifecycle. Bringing over 11 years of higher education experience, he was formerly the Director of Alumni Relations and Annual Giving at Wilkes University and currently collaborates with Anthology’s institutional customers to yield successful engagement and strategic planning outcomes. 

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