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STRATEGY

6 Enrollment Marketing Yield Strategies for Small Colleges in 2024

Megan McCorkle
April 4, 2024
13 mins

TL;DR:

With ongoing news of demographic cliffs, budget deficits, and college closures, this yield season feels more important than ever. Delays with FAFSA and financial aid awards have created additional uncertainty for students and families. As they wait anxiously for the information needed to make enrollment decisions, clear and frequent communication is key. We recently sat down with our Head of Enrollment Marketing, Scott Smith, who was formerly the Head of Growth for Southern New Hampshire University and now lends his expertise to 90+ small colleges launching programs through Rize. Implementing effective enrollment marketing yield strategies is crucial for small colleges and below he shares 6 ways small colleges can impact yield before decision day.

1.‎ Building Trust Through Ongoing Dialogue

Although some schools are getting ISIRs back, there are still unknowns in regards to FAFSA and financial aid awards. Small colleges, who often take a more personalized approach to outreach, can position themselves as the primary source of information and support for prospective students. By providing reassurance around timelines and financial options, schools can ease anxieties.

To start, you need to address the uncertainty and make sure that you're continuing to clearly message around financial aid for students and parents. We're still seeing schools who are successful at this get deposits ahead of the award letters, which is great. But there's a lot of people waiting to see what it's actually going to cost and if they can actually afford it, especially for schools that primarily serve first generation college students. Actively communicating around that and bringing a sense of reassurance and notion that everybody's in this together is key. We're all waiting on the federal government.

Make sure that you've told prospective students and parents that they've submitted everything they have to. That there's nothing else they have to do. Once that is all set, you want to end up being the place that students and parents are comfortable getting their information from. Because if you get there, essentially you've won the battle. They may not end up attending, but that is still a really advantageous place to be from a yield perspective.

2.‎ Rallying Campus Stakeholders as Enrollment Allies

In today's climate, an "everyone is enrollment" approach is essential. This is something we reinforce a lot at Rize. If you look at all of the Rize partner colleges and what their results look like for the last two years, the schools that take this "everyone is enrollment" approach do significantly better on average. That means admissions, faculty, coaches, facilities staff, and more play a role in recruitment and retention. By emphasizing shared goals and pride in the mission, campuses can motivate involvement. Everybody plays a role in making students feel welcome when they come on campus, communicating to students and taking ownership over their piece of that puzzle. If you're a faculty member or dean and you have students who have applied to your program, you should reach out to them. They should know who you are. They should be able to build that sort of connection beyond just their admissions counselor to feel included in the campus community.

As a faculty member, you have the opportunity to transform hundreds of lives every year... reaching out to students early and starting to build that relationship gives you a chance to magnify that impact and capture the attention of students who are gravitating towards what you have to offer. That is the perfect scenario for any faculty member seeking to impact young lives.

Ultimately, everyone on your campus has a vested interest in making the college successful which means growing enrollment and making sure the institution remains financially stable. It's a challenging environment and it's about to get more challenging, so enrollment teams need to have cross-campus buy-in in order to be viable moving forward.

3.‎ Helping Prospective Students Picture Themselves on Campus

While college decisions involve practical factors like programs and cost, emotional connections drive enrollment. Schools should facilitate a sense of belonging through student stories and facilitated peer-to-peer interactions.

College is a huge financial decision. What program you study drastically impacts your life after graduation. There's all sorts of data that students and parents probably should be looking at, however it often still ends up being largely an emotional call on one college versus another.

A lot of that emotion is: where can you see yourself? where can you see yourself fit in? where are you comfortable? This goes back to that financial aid piece. Do the parents trust the school? Do they feel comfortable sending their child there? All of those factors play a big role in the college enrollment decision. They're somewhat intangible, but there are ways you can facilitate that sense of fitting in and improve the odds in that final, decisive, and emotional moment.

Involving current students in recruitment events, by leading tours or answering questions, can help prospects imagine themselves at college. We have one partner that leverages current student interns to call prospective students. This is a tactic that's used in other areas, such as calling alumni for donor gifts. It is not often utilized for the admissions funnel and it's a compelling way to get students on the phone and create peer-to-peer interaction. Scott suggests, "If somebody needs to be nudged to fill out their information and they have not responded to their admissions counselor, having a student intern do that outreach is an interesting tactic."

From a marketing standpoint, you want to include your own student stories as often as possible. The head of admissions at one of our partner colleges shared a story about how her daughter chose where to enroll because of a video of a student skateboarding through campus. That being the decision factor conveys how impactful campus lifestyle content is.

The story of Emily getting a job and earning x number of dollars after graduation is much more powerful than the story of the bureau of labor statistics saying the median salary is x dollars. The more you can highlight  stories and videos of students who are in the program that a student is interested in, the more students can picture themselves on campus.

It's much like selling a house. Houses that are staged sell much faster than a house that is empty because the buyer can see themselves in the home. Right now your campus is a blank canvas and you really want to fill in the gaps and allow students to see themselves there.

Student takeovers on social media are really effective. They tend to get a bunch of engagement from both current and prospective students. Handing over the password to your social media account to a 19 year old is a little nerve wracking. But many social media tools now offer approval queues and feature lockdowns to make the process more secure while enabling current and prospective students to have an authentic back and forth.

4.‎ Reinforcing Brand and Stability

With some colleges closing, it's important to communicate institutional strength. If you live in a state where a college has closed, you've likely seen it on the news and so have your prospective students and parents. While financials don't need to be an up-front focus of your marketing, you should reinforce the stability of your institution and highlight the growth and opportunity ahead.

Candidly speaking, launching new programs with Rize is a great way to do this. Program expansion messages stable growth and commitment to providing graduates with the most in-demand skills.

Sharing student success stories, achievements and new programs contributes to an aura of energy and momentum. Highlight your athletic team success, any awards that faculty members get, and make sure that is a part of your constant flow of communication on social media, a blog (if you have one), press releases, and more. The more you can talk about the good things that are happening on campus, the more stable that campus feels to the local community. 

5.‎ Communication Volume and Variety

This may be a contentious opinion, but most schools are under-communicating to students and parents. A few emails a month is not enough.

On a good day, only half of your audience is ever going to open any given message, and even fewer are actually reading it. 

The best case scenario is an individual you're trying to reach is going to open your email 50% of the time and maybe read it 25% of the time. For every four messages you're sending, likely even in a great case scenario, your perspective student is only reading one of them. That math lends itself to the strategy of being present all the time and continually reinforcing the messages that you're sending.

If you have ten students in front of you, each of them is going to engage and have a conversation about a different thing. They will self-select and read what hooks them. To consistently provide value in your touch points and try different messages, you'll need it to come from different audiences. This is where coaches, faculty, deans, and the president can play a role in increasing engagement level.

You are competing with very full inboxes - from J.Crew to political campaigns. Your emails are going to be filtered and missed - make sure you’re in the top of that inbox when students are actually looking for you. Because if you're not, another school will be, and you want to make sure that you're present in order to give yourself a fair shot. Give the impression that there is always SOMETHING going on on campus. This helps with the stability point and fitting in. Highlight everything you can. 

Also think about the variety of channels you're leveraging to reach out. Email is easy, cheap, and scalable, but text messages are typically more effective. Combine texts with emails if you need to give more detail. The number one indicator of a student's intention to attend is if they're engaging actively in a conversation with admissions. Allowing for authentic 1:1 texting with admissions can help foster those conversations.

Striking the balance of being top of mind while not annoying students can be challenging. From my time at SNHU, in the first 30 days after an inquiry there were 21 emails, up to 45 phone calls, and another dozen text messages. That is too much for most audiences, but they found that that was actually the optimum amount of communication for the adult learner audience. It's going to be a little bit different for 17 and 18 year olds, but it's clear that once a week isn’t enough. If you think about your first 30 days, most of our partners send in the area of five emails compared to the 21 for SNHU. That's a good indication that there is room to grow. You will of course want to monitor your unsubscribes. Once you rise above a 2% unsubscribe rate, you should evaluate message quality and quantity, but most schools are far below that right now and they have never tested or pushed the envelope enough to find that optimal balance.

6.‎ Getting Students on Campus Seals the Deal

Ultimately, in-person events offer the best opportunity to drive conversion.

Having somebody on campus, generally speaking, will 2-3x their probability of enrollment. You really want to lean into those events and make them attractive to come to.

Creative programming can entice attendance from both students and parents. One of our schools in New York did a really fun event for parents who attended admitted students day. They had a wine and beer happy hour where they could meet and greet with different deans and faculties from across the college. The president was there to help build a community with the parents and make them feel comfortable.

For students, going out into the community to see local attractions like a tour of the town can be impactful. If you're a school up in the mountains, do a hike with all the students to a peak that overlooks campus. If you're in a city, that might mean going to the famous diner downtown where everybody gets their late night snacks. All of those things are part of college life that students want to feel and will experience if they attend.

By giving them a sneak peek of campus and sharing unique experiences during an admitted students day, you're amplifying the emotional connection that we have to the school, which is really important in the enrollment decision. This means both students and parents when possible.

The primary goal is to facilitate connections with campus life that make prospects and their families feel like they belong. The other piece to in-person is ensuring that families feel really secure and know exactly what they need to do. Do they have all their necessary paperwork in? Do they know what to expect for move in day? Make sure you're setting those expectations early. If they've submitted forms, make sure you've confirmed that they submitted and give them a sense of peace about that process. That will make them feel comfortable, make them feel like they belong there and proactively remove any potential barriers or points of confusion. Effective yield management encompasses building the emotional hook to the campus and supporting the operational excellence of the admissions process.

Conclusion

In summary, by building trust, a sense of belonging, and reinforcing unique institutional strengths, small colleges can positively impact yield. Building this rapport not only between the student and admissions, but also across the campus community and with parents is where the emotional connection deepens. This leads to students who are more likely to both enroll and persist. Implementing effective enrollment marketing yield strategies for small colleges is critical to long term viability and the 6 strategies above can help when creating your next yield campaign for improving enrollment this spring.

Looking for more enrollment insights?

All Rize program subscriptions include dedicated enrollment marketing support. Teams that engage with the Rize enrollment team generate nearly 2x the number of new students compared to their peers who do not. Schedule a call to learn more.

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