“Now more than ever colleges need students!” So says Rick Clark, the director of undergraduate admission at Georgia Tech. It is an assertion that belies the common media narrative and cultural hype around college admission—that selectivity rules the day and unchecked application numbers make it nearly impossible to be admitted. Clark encourages students to examine the nuance in the numbers, going beyond the surface assumptions and headlines. For sure, there is a subset of colleges and universities who have seen record increases in applications this year (thanks in part to pandemic-induced test-optional policies), but the reality is that this is predominantly among larger, more selective schools and others are seeing declining numbers. The Common App reports that though overall application numbers are up 10% from last year, there has only been a 1% increase in unique applicants (in other words students are applying to more schools). The more concerning trends are that fewer first-generation and low-income students submitted applications and that completion rates for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) have fallen (by more than 9% as of late February). Meanwhile, schools are experiencing rising costs and revenue shortfalls due to the coronavirus and other pressures. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center recently released enrollment statistics for this spring and not surprisingly there has been a decline since last year at this time. As a result, many colleges, both public and private, are looking to grow the number of students they enroll this year and beyond. To grow enrollment and make up for this year’s losses, they will need more applicants. And, they are looking for you! The biggest challenge for these colleges is how to find you.
The global pandemic has disrupted many of the traditional ways that colleges and universities search for students and identify potential applicants. Brian Zucker is the president and founder of Human Capital Research Corporation, a private education research firm in Evanston, Illinois that consults colleges and universities on “enrollment management, market development, curriculum innovation, pricing policy, sustainability planning, and long-term outcomes assessment.” He explains that historically, schools have relied on three principal approaches to cultivating their admission inquiry funnel: name buys, in-person recruitment, and student-initiated contact. Let’s look at each of these strategies, how they have changed, and what is most effective. Then we can consider how students can be found, and new tools and platforms for facilitating this matching experience.
Students, did you know that you are being charged to have your personal information sold for others’ profit? That’s right, after you pay to take standardized tests (PSAT, SAT, ACT, TOEFL, AP/IB exams, etc.) the testing agencies turn around and sell your name and contact information to schools (almost $.50 per name at last check). For a long time, this business—called “search”—has been what Zucker calls the “hundred-pound gorilla” in college recruitment. Schools have leaned hard on big data and the ability to buy student names based on specific criteria (gender, ethnicity, GPA, test scores, geography, etc.). They then inundate young people and their families with brochures, emails, invitations, and other marketing materials. However, with fewer students able to sit for tests during the pandemic and large numbers of colleges and universities adopting test-optional admission policies, this ape has been losing weight.
Zucker argues that the ways in which many schools traditionally buy names through search, with such a wide net, “is an enormous waste of money and can mostly be eliminated.” He explains that this approach to “lead generation” often just creates “noise in the system and doesn’t allow for the ‘lead qualification’, which gets schools closer to warmer, more authentic prospects.” It is a high-volume way of building an inquiry funnel, but the low touch and impersonal nature of this strategy do not allow colleges to understand why an applicant might be in their pool. In other words, are you as a student applying because they sent you an email, waived the application fee, and eliminated the essay requirement, or are you genuinely excited about that school because you have done your due diligence and identified reasons why it would be a good match?
Boots on the Ground
Direct outreach is another approach to recruitment that is more personal but requires considerable human resources and expense. Colleges and universities have armies of admission officers whose job it is to recruit students. In most years they spend a significant amount of time on the road, visiting high schools, staffing college fairs, hosting events, and giving regional presentations. This, too, has its limitations and has often proved to be inequitable, with admission representatives focusing their recruiting efforts on richer and whiter high schools. It is also a recruitment strategy that has been disrupted by the pandemic, and though visits and fairs have continued in the virtual world—allowing for a wider reach—obstacles remain. College admission is still a human process that relies on relationships and this can be a challenge to scale.
Students are not simply passive targets in the admission experience. This is a two-way street where applicants often reach out to colleges and universities proactively before they are on the radar (sometimes this happens at the same time as schools are buying their name, which is another reason why search buys can be redundant and ineffective). Schools rely on prospects finding them through counselors, teachers, friends, family, college search tools, and other means. These are usually the most viable applicants because they have intentionally “opted in” to that specific admission funnel. Ideally, they have done so with thoughtful discernment and a focused approach to the experience they want to have in college, and an understanding of their “why”.
In non-pandemic times, this frequently happens as high school students visit colleges, touring campus, and connecting with current students, staff, professors, and others at each college. While this will return slowly in time, the absence of visits has forced colleges to think more innovatively about how they connect with prospects and build their funnel.
Billions of dollars are spent every year in what has been termed the “college admission industrial complex”. Families pay for consultants, test preparation, athletic recruiters, voice coaches, financial advisors, and other supports that help them search for, and apply to, college. Colleges and universities retain marketing firms and enrollment management strategists to help them position themselves, meet goals, and improve their standings in commercial rankings. Zucker laments how colleges and universities and their marketing approaches have become almost indistinguishable from one another. He equates this phenomenon to the transition from the unique and dynamic corner bakery to the franchised Panera model that lacks the richness and character of the former. No wonder schools are casting such a wide net and students are submitting applications to increased numbers of colleges. This lack of distinctiveness and personalization also impacts a college’s “yield” (the percentage of admitted students who ultimately enroll) because it is often difficult to determine which students are authentically engaged.
Perhaps the most effective tools for building applicant pools are those that allow colleges and applicants to meet in the middle. In its most perfect form, college admission is a process that matches institutional mission and priorities with student mission and aspirations. One such resource is Scoir, a cloud-based software network designed to connect colleges and students. Scoir (pronounced “score”), is an Irish Gaelic verb meaning to exit, retire, or transition from one phase to another. This is exactly what the company’s founders want to help students do: find a fulfilling post-secondary match as they transition out of high school. The platform allows users to build a profile of interests and involvement, explore aptitudes and careers, and search for and follow specific colleges that meet the students’ needs and wants. Scoir co-founder Gerry McCrory emphasizes, “Our goal is to improve student access to college and improve outcomes through our solutions and offerings.” He says, “We’re the network where college-bound students live and breathe college admission.”
This is one of the reasons that admission leaders at Bates College choose to work with Scoir to build their applicant funnel. Elizabeth Pinnie McGonigle, senior associate dean of admission at Bates says, “We really appreciate Scoir’s holistic and measured approach to an equitable college search process, and their focus on supporting Title I schools (Scoir wants every student to have access to its network, so it doesn’t charge schools with over 40% of students accessing free and reduced lunches).” She adds, “there is a strong focus on helping students find the right fit that takes into account the many parts of them as a person and an academic—not just a specific major, career, or ranking. Bates believes in the power of intentional exploration, and Scoir stands out for creating an exploratory space for college-seeking students.”
Meanwhile, Scoir enables colleges to find applicants that meet their enrollment priorities and would be a good fit for their institution. Their “Outreach” feature permits schools to personalize their communication with prospective students and tailor content and messaging to the unique interests of applicants. It is a tool of engagement that is student-centered and, ideally, provides the specific information that applicants need to determine whether they could see themselves at a given school. Scoir is clear that they are “NOT in the business of selling student data and information to colleges.” Student privacy comes first and they assure users that colleges will not have access to their names, email addresses, or other personal information, therefore allowing control to remain with the applicant. This was another compelling commitment that attracted the admission team at Bates. McGonigle explains that “Scoir isn’t selling names—and we like that. It fits with our mission to share the Bates name and identity nationally in an ethically sound way.” She says that the platform does, however, “provide space and resources to more richly articulate what is unique about the Bates experience and they are also sharing broad insights on talented students who might be looking at similar institutions, and aren’t looking at Bates. This allows us to think critically about how our outreach is being received (or not received).” She adds, “as we look to thoughtfully expand our reach and student awareness of all that Bates has to offer, naturally we’re curious about how students across the country are searching for and finding schools.” Scoir’s commitment to equity extends to their work with colleges, offering a discount based on the percentage of their students on Pell grants.
Georgia Tech is also using Scoir’s Outreach tool. Clark explains that “because of the severe reduction in testing, as well as the inability to host students on campus at the same rates, colleges are looking for ways to build their prospect pool for future recruitment.” He says, “Scoir and other ‘platform-based’ tools are increasingly popular and strategic because they are right in front of students in a more Amazon-like experience. Because they integrate into the medium a student is using to build their list or interact with their counselor, a college’s marketing materials feel less invasive or forced.” Clark adds, “while most schools saw single-digit returns on buying names from testing agencies, and then still had to produce pieces and mail them out (i.e. a long process), working with Scoir or other platform-based tools shortens the process and allows colleges to track click-throughs, etc. That can impact your communication flow and inform you on which pieces to mail students.” In Zucker’s bakery analogy, Scoir is helping schools alter the recipe and bake the bread to individual taste rather than mass produce indistinguishable loads of educational opportunity. Scoir and other platforms are re-humanizing enrollment management.
What Applicants Can Do
What does this all mean for college-bound students? Should it matter to applicants how colleges and universities are searching for, and marketing to them? Yes. By understanding how schools are looking to build their applicant pools, students can be intentional about being found by colleges that will be a good match, while also increasing their chances of standing out as competitive candidates for those institutions. Zucker argues that as a culture, “We are so frenetic, always onto the next thing—drawn to the shiny object.” This is especially true in marketing and college admission, and he says that it stems from a confluence of students not knowing what they are looking for and schools not providing quality, layered information. As evidence, he points to the median time spent on any one URL at a highly selective college for which he consults—10 seconds.
While colleges and universities need to get better at presenting valuable, dynamic, and specific information about their institution through tools like Scoir, students must deliberately consider the aspects of a college experience they want and why. What do they want to improve upon? What skills do they want to master? What are their interests? Who do they want to be surrounded by? Students will not have all the answers but need to share their priorities with colleges via networks like Scoir or by directly opting into specific school’s inquiry funnels. This is a time to be a self-advocate and put yourself out there. College admission is not a spectator sport, so engage thoughtfully and keep an open mind but direct approach. Visit campus (virtually or in-person), raise your hand by completing inquiry forms on colleges’ websites, or even reach out directly to the admission office and the regional representative for your area.
Kortni Campbell, vice chancellor for admission & financial aid at the University of North Carolina Asheville argues that “a change in the way colleges and universities engage prospective students is long overdue. Massive name buys, deluging students’ mailboxes and traditional travel are steeped in privilege and miss the mark when it comes to true access and engagement.” She says, “We must be willing to try new things and to collaborate with one another and new partners, and students and their families should do the same. Colleges and universities need to take a hard look at our approaches and the barriers preventing access and student success. We must help students to lean into the process, raise their hands, and ask the tough questions.” Campbell adds, “If Covid has taught us one thing it’s that we’re all figuring things out as we go. Some things will fall flat and some will take us forward. And just when we think we’ve figured it out, we should shake things up again. This work should never be about selling. It is education, hopefully with a side of empowerment.” And remember, in order to educate, colleges need students, so go out there and be found!