Making Student Search Smarter: 4 Imperatives

Posted by Rebecca Brown on Apr 22, 2016 8:58:38 AM
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At Wheaton College, which is located in Norton, Mass., between Boston and Providence, RI, competition to recruit and enroll the best students is so fierce that last year admissions counselors went door-to-door, hand-delivering acceptance letters to 75 of their top-recruited high school students.

Even the university president himself was in on the gig.

Wheaton is by no means alone.

For college admissions officers across the U.S., student search is becoming increasingly and ferociously competitive. 

Consider the following trends: 

1. There are more institutions.  For the eight-year period from academic year 2005-06 through 2013-14, the number of four-year, degree-granting, post-secondary institutions with first-year undergraduates increased by 20 percent.  


2. There are fewer students.  Total undergraduate enrollment decreased by 3 percent from 2010 to 2013 (the latest year for which data is available). Among males, undergraduate enrollment isn’t expected to reach 2010 levels again until 2019.


3. The most important trend of them all: prospective students are applying to more schools. Just this week, the New York Times reported that applications at more than 70 percent of colleges have increased for 10 of the past 15 years. As students apply to more schools, that necessarily means that matriculation rates decrease. Kids apply to more schools, but the fact remains they attend just one of them.

The bottom line for college admissions officers is this: Colleges and universities simply have to market smarter.

Here are four imperatives to be successful in this competitive environment: 

1. Reshape student search efforts around matriculation instead of application. The student recruitment funnel has three distinct phases: 

  • From prospect to application, the student is deciding. The school seeks to generate awareness, interest, and engagement resulting in an application. 
  • From application to acceptance, the school is deciding. Provided things have gone well, the school has a great pool of candidates from which to shape the incoming class. 
  • But from acceptance to matriculation, the student decides again, and if they’re applying to an increasing number of schools, most schools will necessarily yield a smaller percentage of those for which they’re competing. 

The important thing, then, is to understand who will ultimately choose which institution — and to therefore model and optimize marketing processes against students who matriculate, not just apply. 

From a profiling project involving a university client

2. Use household-specific data and predictive modeling to identify those prospects most likely to matriculate. An effective predictive model will rank-order your prospect universe based on each prospective student’s likelihood to matriculate at your school. 

The top 30 percent of the prospect universe (i.e., your list buy) will matriculate at approximately 8 to 10 times the rate of the bottom 70 percent.  This will allow you to eliminate waste and prioritize your budget and effort in favor of those prospects most likely to enroll. Following are just a few reasons some institutions aren’t seeing those sorts of gains: 

  • The major data providers offer valuable audience selection services, but they don’t go far enough. In many cases, selection variables based on high school and neighborhood classification are extremely helpful (they are based on relevant and important data like academic achievement and high school characteristics), but they are still at an aggregated level. 
  • Every student in the same high school and “neighborhood” share the same cluster values. But we know they’re not all equal. Some are excellent candidates for your school (i.e., you’ll both choose each other), and others are not. Household-specific demographic and behavioral attributes provide additional insight and granularity with which to more precisely identify the best candidates. 
  • The model must be based on your school’s data. It is predicting those prospective students with the highest likelihood to matriculate at your school. Some search consultants talk about “modeling” but they offer a generic model which does little to help you identify your future students as opposed from your competitors. 

3. Understand familial connections to your institution. If a prospective student’s siblings or parents attended your school, her likelihood to enroll is generally higher. While it's likely the student with legacy status will let you know it at the application stage in hopes it helps her chances, you should know it in advance — for all students in your prospect pool — and it should be a variable in your predictive model for predicting matriculation. It is simply too easy to match your prospect pool to historical enrollment and alumni files, and too important a data point to miss out on. 

4. Use lead scoring that is accurate. Measuring all engagement each student has with your institution (e.g., inquiring, completing online forms, visiting your site, opening your email, visiting campus, meeting with an admissions representative, etc.) is vitally important to know how serious their interest is, and for you to deploy your resources appropriately.  

Many schools use some form of lead scoring where activities are tabulated and a score is assigned to reflect the prospective student’s level of engagement. The problem at most organizations using lead scoring — both academic and corporate — is that the values associated with each action are un-scientific. In order to be effective, lead scoring values should correlate to an application (in this case, matriculation).  For example: A visit may be 15 times more valuable than opening an email. And opening an email may not matter at all unless it’s a certain kind of email or the prospective student opens three or more emails. Assigning values without the math based on real data to back it up can be counter-productive. 


So let the competition get tougher. The stronger — or in this case, smarter — institutions will thrive. And if the admissions officers at Wheaton would like us to help rank-order their next round of high school students, we're happy to help!

Reach out to us! We're happy to talk through how we can help your team.

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Topics: analytics