Student recruitment… and the state of higher education marketing

How marketing oriented are higher education admission offices?

Something unexpected happened while I was at the ACT Enrollment Planners Conference in Chicago in July. 

Steve Kappler, assistant vice president for market strategy and services at ACT, did a presentation over lunch one day urging colleges and universities to buy fewer names of college bound students from ACT. 
Ignoring valuable and free market research data
If Steve didn’t use those exact words, that was the impact of what he said. Far too many admissions and enrollment people who buy ACT names (and one suspects PSAT/SAT names as well) don’t pay attention to the free marketing data available to create a profile of the people most likely to attend an institution. The first result: too much money spent buying names and sending initial contact pieces in the mail. The second result: low conversion rates that lead people to decide that “search” isn’t an effective recruitment tool.
I’ve known Steve for years. And years. He’s a smart person who can’t quite believe that the research data provided by people taking the ACT test isn’t being better used by those who recruit new students. 
ACT data reinforces one point that too many people ignore: most high school students end up doing just what they say they will do when registering for the ACT. This includes:
  • Staying close to home (very few, mostly those at the top of the ACT test level, will go far away).
  • Enrolling at a private or public institution (difficult to get people to switch from their first choice).
  • Enrolling in the academic major they selected. (Forget whether or not they will change after enrolling, that hasn’t happened yet.)
Download a copy of the excellent 24-page ACT “Enrollment Management Trends” report for more insight into crafting an effective prospect profile.
Direct marketing success: start with the quality of the list contacted
What’s often missing in the list buying process is attention to the most important point in direct marketing: success depends most of all on the quality of the list you are contacting. The more a marketing effort deviates from that rule, the lower the results achieved.
For many schools, times are desperate. And so there continue to be many whose recruitment plan starts with adding as many people as possible to the top of an outdated “funnel” system of recruitment. Better instead to build a smaller inquiry pool based on people with a higher (but never guaranteed) probability of enrolling. From that point, seek the highest possible conversion.
Self-reported ACT takers: many ignore their most valuable inquiries
One more point stood out in Steve’s talk: when admissions offices receive self-reported ACT scores (the most valuable inquiry you can get), far too many just toss them into the general inquiry pool and pay no special attention to them from that point forward. And that, simply put, is insane. 
Students who self-report test scores should convert to applications at a higher rate than any other inquiries. But if you treat them like everyone else (and especially if your competitors do not) you run a high risk of offending those most interested in your school. 
Winnow out people with test score and GPA profiles lower than you know you will admit. And then pay very close attention to everyone left. Start with a phone call the day after you receive the profile information from ACT. These people are worth the effort. 
Admission marketing in 2012
Many years ago I read results of a NACAC survey where nearly half of higher education admissions directors reported that their “market” was every high school student planning to attend college. That made me cringe.
Steve’s comments on list buying practices and treatment of self-reported test takers told me that at far too many schools, marketing isn’t nearly as strong in 2012 as it should be. I’m still cringing. 
Too much attention to “brand” and not enough to recruitment cultivation and conversion? Maybe so. 

That’s all for now.

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