Why reengaging stopped-out students provides a well of opportunity for enrollment

"It's really easy to get them restarted than to try to reach completely new audiences," says Hayley Warack, vice president of Primacy, a higher education marketing agency. "Clients already know who they are, have their contact information and are familiar with their program and offerings.

More colleges and universities are stepping away from focusing on enrolling potential prospects, opting to reengage with stopped-out students. Colleges overlooking this cohort may not be aware of the data that illustrates they’re ripe for picking.

Despite freshman enrollment dropping this fall, overall undergraduate enrollment grew for the first time since the pandemic thanks to swaths of students choosing to reenroll, many of whom dropped during the pandemic. For example, Middlebury College was offering its third- and fourth-year students $10,000 to take the fall and spring semesters off due to an abscess of enrollment, Seven Days reports.

Moreover, a survey from StraighterLine and UPCEA found that 61% of stopped-out students were either extremely, very or somewhat likely to return to school and earn a degree. This is great news for schools seeing their traditional-aged student prospects dwindling.

At AMA, one of higher education’s most prominent marketing conferences, a topic at the tip of everyone’s tongue was finding new student demographics as traditional-aged prospects tighten, says attendee Hayley Warack, vice president of education at Primacy, a higher education marketing agency. She’s noticed from clients she’s worked with that more are ramping up efforts to reel back students who have taken a short-term pause on their education.

“It’s really easy to get them restarted than to try to reach completely new audiences,” Warack says. “Clients already know who they are, have their contact information and are familiar with their program and offerings.

Institutions engaging with short-term stop-out students, whom Warack refers to as “step-outs,” often yield high conversion rates, she says.

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Steps to engage a budding cohort of potential learners

There are several tactics some of her current or prospective clients she’s spoken to in the last month are engaging with. All of her clients she’s referring to are accredited colleges and universities under the condition of anonymity due to delicate business operations.

One private northeastern university’s prominent business program stays connected with stopped-out students by engaging with them via email newsletters. By providing insightful content related to the industry and current events, the program remains a viable resource to students and can pay dividends to them.

“Student may think that the best step to take is the university that has prioritized reaching out to and providing value to them, even though they paused their education,” Warack says.

Custom Relationship Management (CRM) tools are increasingly vital for institutions because they can customize and personalize a tranche of email messages, a must for today’s picky, consumer-centric students.

Another university has introduced 20 new online programs in recent years and has engaged in a tuition reset to attract this cohort. Among surveyed stopped-out students, 68% said the tuition or cost of the degree and 56% said the speed at which they can complete their degree would be critical when considering reenrolling in a potential degree or completion program, according to StraighterLine and UPCEA’s report. Moreover, almost half of today’s online learners are previous stop-outs.

How stop-out students’ preferences mirror Gen Z, Alpha

As keen older, stop-out students may be about college costs and the speed or flexibility at which they wish to complete their degree, colleges that engage primarily with traditional-age students should still take notes.

As young, digital native students get their hands on more information related to their college prospects, their preferences are starting to mirror adult populations, says Greg Clayton, president of enrollment management services at EducationDynamics.

“They’re looking at the cost piece, speed and flexibility,” he says. “Learners are looking for fast ways to upskill themselves and credential themselves short of a degree. That’s why we’ve seen the rise of certificates and we’ve seen the rise of these micro credentials and you’ve seen a lot of boot camps kind of spawn to kind of address that audience.”

Clayton’s thoughts align with results from StraighterLine and UPCEA that show that earning alternative or micro-credentials that could stack toward a degree would “increase” or “greatly increase” interest in completing a degree among 76% of stopped-out students.

“The market has been slow to address those things, and it’s becoming more apparent now that survival for higher ed institutions is going to depend on being able to quickly pivot to addressing what the preferences of these learners are,” he says.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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