Digital transformation on campus: Attracting and admitting students

Digital transformation on campus: Attracting and admitting students

How your college or university can improve the student experience through technology and data


In 2019, there is little that can’t be accomplished or aided by smartphone. The ubiquitous devices used to be primarily tools of communication and, to a lesser extent, information-gathering, but now they are part of most everything we do. We, as consumers, expect to shop (complete with personalized product and sizing information, stored payment data, and lightning-fast delivery) from our phones, work and complete banking transactions—protected by fingerprint identification—at the push of a button, order food and transportation, and even get examined by medical professionals digitally.

The more we’re able to do via phone, the more we expect to be able to do. And this is truer for traditionally college-aged young adults than anyone else. This generation of graduating high school seniors are digital natives, meaning they’ve never known a world where they needed to wait for information, options, connection, or delivery. This digital immersion means that, more than any other consumers, students (and yes, students are consumers: of knowledge, of the promise of a better future, of a tailored, immediate experience) expect a real-time, personalized experience throughout the life of their higher education. At no point is that expectation more important than before they enroll.

When your college or university can digitally transform its marketing, recruitment, admissions, and engagement efforts, you start making students feel wanted and engaged before they ever speak with a representative, submit an application, or register for a class.


How digital transformation can impact marketing


One of the most crucial aspects of digital transformation in higher education is the ability to recruit best-fit students digitally, using social media, text messaging, and other forms of digital outreach as part of a data-driven decision process.


According to Inside Higher Ed, however, simply personalizing marketing materials for prospects within these channels is no longer enough. Millennials and members of Generation Z are essentially immune to seeing emails personalized with their first names, local college and university campuses appearing in their Instagram feeds, and may consider text messages without real value to just be spam.


Where digital processes and tools can still impact outreach is by making it easier for your staff to truly connect with prospective students. Technologies that harness and analyze personal information about the people who may be interested in your school provide a platform for your employees to leverage their skills and experience to create true connections with prospects. When they don’t have to spend their time manually keying in data or confirming the accuracy of leads, they can spend time making prospects feel special. The same Inside Higher Ed article took Nancy Schlossberg’s Five Dimensions of Mattering—attention, importance, ego extension, dependence, and appreciation—and applied them to student communication:


  • Attention: The feeling that one is noticed.
    This is where personalization comes into play. By gearing your communications to a prospective student’s interests and journey, you can help them feel that they are noticed and personally acknowledged. Remember, though: this is what students already assume you’ll give them.
  • Importance: The belief that one is cared about.
    Find ways throughout the admissions process to make a prospective student feel cared about as a person. This could be a follow-up call after a campus visit from a current student on your admissions staff, checking in on how the prospect’s college search process is going.
  • Ego Extension: The feeling that someone else will be proud of what one does.
    Consider how to involve family members more intentionally in the traditional experience of the acceptance letter. This could be including a note from a family member along with the acceptance information, or even sending a kit of decorations to the parent contact to make the acceptance experience a special family memory.
  • Dependence: The feeling of being needed.
    The college search process can often make a prospect feel like a number. Find ways to make students feel needed and important. For example, the data collected about a student through their application could populate an interactive digital display about the makeup of the incoming class, illuminating how their background, interests, and passions are needed to enhance the campus population as a whole.
  • Appreciation: The feeling that one’s efforts are appreciated by others.
    After a prospect has chosen to enroll at your school, instead of immediately sending them mountains of housing and registration paperwork, take the time to show your appreciation. It takes quite a bit of effort for a student to make this life-altering decision. After a student enrolls, send them a communication that simply expresses gratitude that they chose your institution.


How digital transformation can affect enrollment


Once you’ve used technology to gain information and insights about your prospective students (and used that information to reach out and make them feel wanted), you still need to translate those fuzzy feelings into applications and—most importantly—enrollments.


According to the 2018 Survey of College and University Admissions Directors by Inside Higher Ed and Gallup, most colleges that responded (62 percent) report not meeting their enrollment goals by May 1 last year, the traditional day for admissions acceptances. Just 45 percent report meeting enrollment goals by June 1. Most admissions directors—90 percent—report being very (55 percent) or moderately (35 percent) concerned about reaching their institution’s enrollment goals this year.


Because getting information about schools and applying to colleges and universities continue to get easier, due to the information available online and “one-stop-shop” mobile processes like The Common App, prospective students are applying to more schools than ever before. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 36 percent of first-time freshmen applied to seven or more colleges in the fall of 2015. Just ten years earlier, in the fall of 2005, only 17 percent of freshmen applied to seven or more schools.


The Survey of Admitted Students: Targeting Yield Strategies, produced by Eduventures, surveyed more than 100,000 high school students from across the United States and identified seven key “decision segments” that influence students’ choice of where to go to school:


  1. Affordability
  2. Availability of desired program
  3. Reputation/academic quality
  4. Career outcomes/job opportunities
  5. Value of education for cost
  6. Feeling of fit
  7. Proximity to home


It found that 80 percent of students listed at least one of those seven factors as a key decision point in their enrollment choice—and all of these seven remain as relevant as they’ve ever been. One aspect that the survey didn’t account for, however, is response time.


Now that students are applying to several schools before enrolling in one, their expectation of near-immediate connection from an admissions department is stronger than ever. In 2016, Aslanian Research conducted a survey that found nearly half of undergraduate students enrolled in the first institution that responded to their inquiry. “This new landscape of increasing competition among institutions, additional complexity in managing marketing channels, and higher expectations from students creates a more challenging landscape to navigate,” says marketing agency WalkWest.


While faster response times don’t have to be the result of digitally transformed processes (for example, when Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) found its nontraditional prospective students tended to research options late at night and responding within 24 hours was missing a window of opportunity, it set an internal goal of following up with a personal phone call within eight and a half minutes of contact. This means having 160+ admissions counselors who monitor the phones, especially on weekends, to guide prospective students into the right degree program), having the right technologies in place can certainly help.


When your school is able to automatically capture, classify, and reconcile data from transcripts, for example, it can evaluate those transcripts significantly more quickly than if every transcript needs to be evaluated by hand. This fast evaluation means you’re able to respond to students with an admissions decision more quickly, thus increasing his or her chances of enrolling at your institution.


Yet, responses to a 2017 AACRAO 60-Second Survey show institutions are not taking advantage of the automated processes that are possible with electronic transcripts. The study found just 38 percent of respondents used the electronic transcript data it captured in any automated process. Therein lies the challenge of digital transformation: in 2019, it isn’t enough just to have automated processes in place. Your college or university needs to be able to take the information and extra time afforded by these technologies and turn them into competitive advantages.


By making students feel wanted and providing them with a decision on their application more quickly than your competition, you can harness the power of technology for increased interest and enrollment.


Join Career College Central in the next edition as we take a look at how digital transformation can impact your course registration processes, student success monitoring, and retention efforts.


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