Best Practices for Overcoming Recruitment Challenges

Mary Beth Cahill |

Former Analyst

recruitment professional reviewing prospective students information
Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes

Higher education recruitment and admissions professionals faced strong headwinds and a forthcoming enrollment cliff long before the pandemic hit, with National Student Clearinghouse data showing that total postsecondary enrollment declined by nearly 2 million students between 2011 and 2020. 

Though institutions were already using a wide array of technology tools to help in their efforts to attract students, the pandemic ushered in the first digital-only admissions cycle. For the better part of at least two years, virtually all institutions lost crucial in-person opportunities they had traditionally relied on to attract prospective students—they couldn’t travel to high schools and meet with students face-to-face or host visits and tours to help prospective applicants see the campus firsthand, attend classes, and assess if an institution would be the right fit.

For high school students considering a traditional four-year residential college experience, these visits tend to weigh heavily in their final decisions. So proactive institutions rushed to compensate for the loss during that time of extreme unpredictability by using more technology tools and platforms to employ a more comprehensive array of digital recruitment strategies and tactics.

The result? There were pockets of notable success, but overall enrollment numbers continued to decline. According to a May 2023 National Student Clearinghouse report, total postsecondary enrollment remains well below pre-pandemic levels, with a drop of 1.16 million undergraduate students overall compared to spring 2020. Even though institutions can now return to high-touch analog interactions, economic uncertainty combined with skepticism about the value of a degree has only further compounded the challenges of reaching enrollment goals.

As we head into the Fall 2023 recruitment cycle, the stakes are even higher, and the circumstances are more challenging. At this point in time, however, the good news is that there are two new advantages in the current environment that savvy institutions can leverage in their favor:

  1. Sophisticated Tools: There are more sophisticated tools and tactics available than ever before to help institutions successfully identify, understand, track, and precisely target prospective students in their recruitment and engagement activities.
  2. Lessons Learned: The rapid experimentation over the past couple of years yielded valuable lessons and best practices from the institutions that defied the downward enrollment trends in a tough market.

There will never be a single set of tools or specific strategies that will work across the board for all institutions. However, based on my recent research and ongoing collaborations with our existing clients, I have identified some recurrent trends in how successful institutions incorporate technology tools and broader strategic approaches to meet their enrollment goals that their colleagues can follow to boost their chances of recruitment success.

Squeezing Value Out of Every Data Point

Admissions and recruitment professionals are well-known for being early and enthusiastic adopters of new technology tools and relying heavily on data to inform their strategies and measure progress toward meeting enrollment goals. After all, tuition dollars are most institutions’ primary source of operating revenue.

Though almost all admissions offices are harnessing data to some extent, the main differentiator of the most successful ones is that their institutions have built robust, institution-wide data management programs to ensure data is standardized and shareable across multiple platforms and functions.

Maximizing the volume and quality of data available to admissions offices is vital to ensuring they get the most out of their technology investments, especially web tracking tools and chatbots, as providers are regularly adding more sophisticated automated and AI-powered features: 

  • Web Tracking Tools: Consider that most CRM vendors are currently offering solutions that can track web behavior, and some are also working to include functionality that can identify which prospective students are a good fit (academically and socially) for an institution. Gathering these insights about prospective students is especially important given that Gen Z students have somewhat contradictory tendencies: they are hesitant to self-identify as interested in a school or opt-in to communications, but they expect institutions to personalize communications based on their interests.
  • Chatbots: Chatbots are another popular tool that is more dependent than ever on quality and voluminous institutional data. As vendors add more generative AI capabilities, these tools can go beyond simply answering questions to taking action on behalf of a prospective student IF they have the right data to inform their responses and workflows. With budget cuts and mass retirements leading to staffing shortages, properly training these AI tools is even more essential to provide the rapid response and meaningful support prospective students expect.

Collaborating with External Experts on Marketing Strategy

Institutions can have all the data in the world and the most sophisticated technology tools at their disposal and still fall short of enrollment goals. That’s because the tools and data are only as good as the strategy behind them. Many colleges and universities can benefit tremendously from bringing in independent higher education marketing experts who can help them better understand the demographics and personas of their available target markets and how to differentiate themselves relative to other institutions. Many Tambellini Group clients have moved the needle significantly on enrollments by working with such firms to uncover their unique value and create messaging that resonates with those audiences. Once their positioning and strategy are clear, the tools and internal data become much more powerful tools for recruiting students.

Reach out to a Tambellini analyst for more guidance on how to enhance your enrollment strategy, including identify marketing firms and how to best leverage the latest technology tools to meet your recruitment goals. Our Future Campus™ Framework is also helpful for understanding how Tambellini Group can assist your institution on its modernization journey to create a sustainable, leading higher education institution.

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Mary Beth Cahill |
Former Analyst
As a former senior analyst for Tambellini Group, Mary Beth Cahill focused her research on CRM and advancement initiatives. She has led numerous research efforts, specifically in vendor administrative systems and student information systems (SIS) software solutions, data and learning analytics, CRM, learning management, and social networking. Mary Beth was also the co-author of several published industry reports, including Tambellini Group's "Upgrade or Replace" and "Vendor Review" series of reports.

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