The First “Digital Only” Admissions Cycle (Part 2)

Elizabeth Farrell |

Former Tambellini Author

Top of Mind: The First “Digital Only” Admissions Cycle Part 2
Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes

Part 2: Finding and Filling the “Top of the Funnel”

All but the most elite and well-resourced institutions of higher education have long been facing strong competitive pressures, and enrollment is not immune.

In part 1 of this four-part blog series, I outlined how demographic trends, skepticism about the value of a postsecondary degree, and escalating tuition are just some of the challenges in recruiting new students that dramatically intensified in 2020. Now we’re looking at how admissions offices are meeting those challenges.

When campuses across the country sent students home last March, enrollment professionals had the unenviable task of attempting to woo their admitted students without having a clear idea of how the next year would shake out.

Their institutions’ circumstances and plans were moving targets, so students and their families had a tough time making informed decisions about where (or even if) they should make a significant financial investment in furthering their education the following year.

Most admissions offices compensated for the uncertainty by extending final decision deadlines for newly accepted students. The results? While the small handful of highly selective institutions—many with single digit acceptance rates—still met their enrollment targets, on average, the rest took a hit, with a 4 percent national decline in fall 2020 undergraduate enrollments.  

Against this backdrop, admissions leaders and their teams had to contend with a fresh set of challenges as they attempted to build their pipelines of prospective applicants at the “top of the funnel” for fall 2021.  

When Tests Aren’t Just Optional, But Unavailable

Enrollment managers have long relied heavily on digital marketing tools, including CRM platforms with sophisticated data analytics capabilities, to personalize their targeting and outreach to potential students. But before they can begin marketing to students, they have to find them.  

To help fill the top of the funnel, admissions professionals buy lists of thousands of student names generated by standardized testing companies like ACT, Inc. and the College Board, each who have roughly two million students take their assessments annually, though many students take both exams.

The number of four-year institutions that don’t require applicants to submit SAT and ACT test scores has been growing for decades and is currently around 1,685. Institutions are typically applauded for having test-optional admissions policies, and some won’t even consider test scores at all.

Regardless of the impact these policies have on the volume of applications for any particular institution, almost all four-year institutions rely on the lists of names and student profiles created by ACT and SAT test takers.

But widespread cancellations of these tests throughout 2020 meant the testing companies had far fewer student names to sell than usual. Hundreds of thousands of students were unable to take the SAT. By September, two-thirds of registered students had yet to take the SAT, and three-fourths of registered students were unable to take the ACT. “We were test-optional prior to last year, but it was a double hit when the ACT and SAT tests were shut down last spring and this fall,” says Jay E. Murray, AVP for Enrollment Services at Western Connecticut State University. “The first wave of names we bought was around 60 percent of our usual volume, which slowed everything down because we weren’t able to generate the additional 40 percent until after November.”

Personalized Mobile Apps in Student Engagement

To compensate for the slower pace of lead generation, Murray and a lot of his colleagues relied more heavily on connecting with students who indicated an interest in their institutions through niche social media apps like SchoolsApp and ZeeMee to directly engage prospective applicants earlier in the admissions cycle.

SchoolsApp, which Western Connecticut has used as part of its yield strategy for years, is a stand-alone mobile app offered by TargetX. SchoolsApp allows students to build personal profiles to network with current students and admissions offices at the institutions where they have indicated an interest in applying.

With chatbots, roommate finder features, and analytics that project a student’s level of perceived interest in an institution, SchoolsApp helps enrollment leaders like Murray provide personalized and targeted communications to prospective applicants.  

The road to admissions goals is littered with failed startups that have promised enrollment leaders new and unique ways of connecting with students by cutting through the clutter of email blasts and providing meaningful opportunities for engagement. Few of them, however, offer any real value, according to Eric Stoller, a higher education technology consultant who has worked with numerous companies in the industry on product development and strategy.

“Zeemee is one of a small handful of these companies that can actually show a strong correlation between prospective students using their app and matriculating at the institutions they engaged with on the app,” says Stoller. “There is proof that these very specialized platforms can be effective and engaging for students if they are developed specifically to meet the need of the niche they serve.”

The axiom that there’s nothing new under the sun may not be entirely true for admissions technology usageeven in an exceptionally unpredictable year like this one—but it’s close to accurate. If anything, admissions deans have been leaning more heavily on the technology they already use, finding innovative ways to flex more features to meet admissions goals.

With the continued challenge of remote work and coordination across admissions teams, the ones with solid digital technology foundations have been confident in the early results their approaches and technology tools have yielded thus far.  

“Luckily I’ve been working with my CIO hand-in-hand since we both began at the university,” says Murray at Western Connecticut. “We’ve been connected at the hip on our journey to implementing Target X and expanding its capabilities and had already gone fully paperless as an admissions office a couple of years ago.”

In part three of this series on admissions, “Reaching and Engaging with Hard-to-Reach Students,” we’ll look at the technology and strategies that institutions across the country have used in their efforts to recruit prospective applicants from low-income backgrounds and from abroad.

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Elizabeth Farrell |
Former Tambellini Author
Elizabeth Farrell is an award-winning communications leader with a proven track record of success in delivering high-impact results for national and global colleges and universities, Fortune 100 companies, dynamic start-ups, and influential nonprofits. She has collaborated closely with higher education institutions over the past two decades in numerous roles including media relations, branding, marketing, business development, and as a journalist for outlets including The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Wall Street Journal, and PBS Newshour.

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