Sarah Smith
Account Supervisor

Upcycling Your Enrollment Database

The DIY Approach to Enrollment Growth in a Shifting Market

Whether you’re a marketer or enrollment manager, higher ed is feeling the pressure of a shifting and, in many cases, shrinking market. Almost two-thirds of enrollment directors didn’t meet their fall 2017 goals.

Contributing to this is widespread concern among prospective students about student debt and an ongoing debate about the need for a college degree in today’s job market (spoiler alert: it is still necessary!). In addition to these concerns, high school graduation rates are projected to decrease in the coming years, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest.

So how do you ensure you’re not one of the two-thirds in the next enrollment cycle?

The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) indicates there’s been a 15 percent growth in adult learners since 2012, and that growth is projected to continue. Tapping into adult learners can help mitigate the enrollment gap. But how do you find and talk to these non-traditional learners? As a more mature audience than traditional-aged students, they see returning to school as an investment they’ll build upon for the rest of their adult lives. Similar to the investment in a fixer upper, they approach their decision with a different level of seriousness than younger prospects.

We love home renovation shows on HGTV or PBS because of the anticipation of transforming a dud into a stud. For schools, we’re not talking about “duds,” but rather adult learners with the resolve to make improvements, and the need for a “designer’s” eye. So let’s look at the parallels of an enrollment growth playbook for adult learners and a home renovation.

Working Within Your Structure

The first step is to identify the framework you’re starting with. In our case, that’s essentially who is already in your database. Your old undergrad leads have “ripened” and are now adult learners. These are prospects who raised their hands as 16- or 17-year-olds but didn’t enroll and are now in their mid-to-late-20s without a degree. Start by compiling a list of all of those “forgotten” audience segments and submitting it to the National Student Clearinghouse.

Next, you’ll determine what is essential and must be kept, and what you’ll get rid of in the renovation. To do this, you’ll have to sift through the returned National Student Clearinghouse data to find the students you want: remove currently enrolled students, those who already earned their bachelor’s degree, and so on.

Creating a Floorplan

Once the audiences are segmented, it’s important to think about the functional design, or the floorplan, for recruitment. You’ve decluttered by removing those students you don’t want to recruit, so now you must maximize your fit within the space. As you build out personas and messaging, consider how many different audience segments you have and what differentiates each segment. What is their mindset and motivation? What sacrifices and challenges will they encounter in their return to school? Why would they be a good fit for your institution, and how well can you serve their needs? What sets you apart from your competitors?

Establishing Your Design Aesthetics and Blueprint

In thinking about the finishing touches of a “flip,” or the execution of the previous strategies for an enrollment growth playbook, it’s important to consider style. Are you a contemporary institution with cutting edge programs, or traditional with a rich history in mainstay programs? How does this connect to your audiences? Figuring out how to reach your audiences can seem daunting. It often takes a multichannel approach with email and direct mail layered with paid media to get a conversion. Once a full communications plan—your blueprint—is finalized, what are the clearly defined calls-to-action and how long will a conversion take?

You can’t just tell a prospect, “we’re a great institution and you should apply.” Take time to build a relationship. For many traditional-aged prospects college is a given, but adult learners need to be reminded that the return is worth the investment, and reassured that your flexible programs are designed to fit their work/life schedules. Like the best home remodelers, to reach these audiences, you’ll need to consider the step-by-step approach you’ll take to roll out these messages: what is your message flow and timing?

Expecting (and Identifying) the Unexpected Twist

In order to determine if your efforts flipped or flopped, key performance indicators should be identified early on so you can adapt along the way. You never know what you’ll find under a floorboard during a remodel. Being nimble and optimizing everything are keys to success!

The Big Reveal

Just like home improvement shows display the before and after as part of the big reveal, take a moment to remember your before and after. Reflect on the process and the cornerstones of this work. You can’t build on a weak foundation—or in our case, on weak data. Audience segmentation and personalization is paramount. In our digital world, people expect you to research and know a lot about them, particularly if they’ve had prior engagement with your institution. Between all of the audience segments, specific messaging, communications flows, and advertising, there is a lot to keep track of, especially when you’re working with limited time and resources. But it can be done, and it can be a lot of fun. Creating curb appeal by making an investment in your institution and your prospective students can be incredibly rewarding, particularly when you lessen the enrollment gap.

For more enrollment marketing wisdom from our experts, try “Marketing’s Role in Yielding Prospects”  by vice president Kirsten Fedderke and enrollment strategist Suzanne Grigalunas.