Why They ain’t buying what you’re sellin’
Feb 27, 2017
Actual enrollments are falling short of projections, and everyone is trying to figure out why.
Typically, the first place everyone looks is marketing/enrollment management.
Did they generate enough “leads”? Did enough of those “leads” start, complete and submit an application? Were enough of those applications accepted?
But to be honest, marketing/enrollment tends to be the first and last place most will look – and that’s not fair.
To understand why they aren’t buying (applying and enrolling) you need to look at the following factors and understand their role in the recruiting process.
Your target audience.
You really need to talk to these folks. Find out what they want and need. And what they think about you.
And while you’re there…learn more about them so you can start to identify segments because if you think they are all the same, you’re missing opportunities to attract, enroll and graduate!
We recently did some work for a public, 4-year college and found out that the audience wanted online courses and programs…but the college refused to offer them so hitting enrollment goals when failing to offer what your audience wants is a problem!
Another client of ours went out on their own and asked potential students why they weren’t submitting an application for one of the institution’s most prized programs – and what they heard was that the messaging failed to address their interests, criteria, wants and needs. (More on that one later.)
The bottom line here is that too many colleges are treating all prospective student the same – and that is impacting where they promote the college, what they say in terms of features and benefits, and how they respond.
Your faculty and staff.
This really needs to be a formal process with specific goals and objectives – not some “Hey, since we’re both grabbing a fresh cup of coffee, let’s chat” kind of thing. And it needs to include front line as well as management and above.
What are your greatest challenges? What do you feel your most important duty is and why? What are your goals and objectives? What do you see as roadblocks to success? What do you see as opportunities for improvement?
Ask. Listen. Collect. Analyze. Develop an action plan – and then share it with everyone. And make sure you tell them what you learned, why you are making the changes and why you passed on other ideas and insights shared with you by everyone.
Then, make this a regular, on-going part of your operations process because things change and the input of faculty and staff is best when it is on-going.
In the past, faculty and staff have identified a myriad of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and process gaps that have had a tremendously positive impact on enrollments. The trouble is that too many colleges get so wrapped up in their other daily activities – and there is no formal process for gathering and analyzing input from this group – that faculty and staff remain quiet because they see no reason to speak up and out.
During our process audits and assessments, it’s extremely common for us to have a member of the faculty/staff tell us how they currently handle certain situations with prospective and current students, only to have someone at a director or vice president level respond with “Why didn’t you tell us?!”
The answer is typically “…I tried but no one seemed interested so I figured I would do the best I could under the circumstances…”
Alumni. Community leaders. Media. K-12 teachers and administrators.
The alumni can speak about their complete, successful experience in hindsight which is incredibly valuable and because of their experience with your institution, they can also talk about opportunities they see in the “real world”.
Community leaders because they employ your students and will employ your graduates. We’re talking government, corporate and NGO – and what you want to learn is their awareness, perception and expectations regarding your institution. You also want to get their involvement in terms of partnerships, and sources for content/subject matter experts (curriculum development) and adjunct faculty.
Key point – when you have their involvement in curriculum and program design, you have a significant point of differentiation from the competition!! Use it!
What are they offering in terms of programs, services, pricing (scholarships, payment plans, deferred payment plans for employee tuition reimbursement participants, etc.), delivery method, campus locations and promotional activities?
Are they targeting your audience? How? With what offers and programs and services?
What are their strengths, weaknesses? What appear to be the opportunities they are pursuing and threats they are attempting to minimize or avoid?
Typically, colleges avoid competitive intelligence and wind up unable to differentiate themselves. With adult students, who typically ask “How much and how long”, this leaves you competing on price and program length – two areas that might not be where you want to compete. Competitive intelligence is key to increasing enrollments!
Government and laws. Environment. Economy. Society. Technology.
When I first started working in higher education, the focus was on technology – specifically online education. We found that there were so many different types of online education experiences that many students would drop out once they realized that “…your online courses aren’t anything like the other online courses I took at the other college or through work…”
Heck, in some instances, the same institution had undergraduate programs on one LMS and graduate programs on another LMS which caused major problems.
We all know that local, state, federal law can impact enrollments but few monitor it regularly and use that information to develop ‘What if’ scenarios for undergraduate, graduate and continuing education programs. Don’t believe me? What will you do if community college becomes tuition free next term?
Bottom line is that you need to monitor all of these external factors and use that insight to develop “What if” scenarios – and you need to know under what circumstances do you need to start implementing those scenarios so if a change occurs, you respond quickly and appropriately. No need to have the plans made and then spend months arguing over whether or not this is the time to implement!
Many times over the course of my career, I have come across organizations that are wondering “why we failed to hit our goals” and the answer was “…because they weren’t attainable to begin with…”
Yeah, stretch goals can be a motivator. But there’s a fine line between stretch goals and fiction- and there are a great many colleges out there that are going beyond fiction into the science fiction genre because their goals and objectives are definitely out of this world.
No matter what the reason – from overly optimistic to incredibly stupid – you can overcome this problem with the following process.
- Well defined recruitment and enrollment process with key milestones throughout the pipeline
- Well defined retention process with key milestones throughout the pipeline
- Historical performance in order to identify trends and learn from the past*
- Project hi/med/low goals…budget off low, motivate off hi
- Clear understanding of competition, market and your own abilities
- This helps you set the ranges for low, medium and hi
- Clearly communicate the goals and objectives down to the individual
- Marketing knows how many inquiries, apps started, apps completed, accepted, registered, enrolled…because you need to make sure everyone is contributing their ‘fair share’
* For you youngsters out there – learning from the past can be really valuable so don’t ignore the experienced person that says “We tried that before and it didn’t work”. Instead, ask them for details and determine whether or not there are valuable takeaways from the experience.
Resources. Too few. Wrong kinds.
Yes, the most common reasons cited for failing are:
- We don’t have the bandwidth/staff to handle that appropriately right now.
- We don’t have the expertise in house to handle that appropriately right now.
And most of the time, these two reasons are why no one has been talking to the prospective and current students, alumni, community leaders, faculty and staff as well as monitoring the competition and the market.
Which leads us to the importance of knowing these weaknesses upfront so you can address them with either [a] additional expertise on staff or [b] outsourced services that give you what you need, when you need it, at a more affordable cost so your ROI is maximized.
How you recruit.
And, yes, sometimes it does come down to how marketing/enrollment operate. Are they targeting the correct segments for your programs? Do they use the most effective media channels, messages and offers? Does their contact strategy maximize results? Are the processes for guiding a prospective student through their decision/selection process to application, registration, enrollment to graduation effective or are there weaknesses and gaps that need to be addressed.
Earlier, under “Target Market”, I mentioned a client that surveyed prospective students that never applied and they found out that these prospective students had certain selection criteria they needed to gather information on in order to make an informed decision. For some, it was about the cost of the program. For others, it was about the learning objectives and outcomes and if they would place them in a unique position to earn promotions or leadership positions in new organizations. And for others, it was how the college would help them balance work, family and education so they could graduate.
This ability to identify segments within the larger audience can have a dramatic impact on increasing enrollments but so many colleges continue to say the same thing to everyone. Sorry to say, that’s been proven ineffective time and time again!
”17% of colleges failed to follow up with the inquiry and 33% made only 1 attempt in 2 weeks”
Source: DWS Associates Student Recruitment Study 2016
I was recettly working with a private university in the mid-Atlantic region that has 10 colleges offering graduate programs and as I interviewed their marketing and enrollment teams I learned how some colleges would respond to a prospective student inquiry on the same day…but others would ignore inquiries until they had submitted an application.
As you can imagine, some colleges were much more effective at enrolling new graduate students than others…and this was eye-opening to the Provost!
Falling short of enrollment goals causes colleges to search for answers but what’s been laid out above are some best practices you should be using so that you don’t fall short in the future. If you have questions, please remember that we do offer a free consultation – the perfect way for us to talk about your situation and explore options for improving performance!
Patrick McGraw is VP of Higher Educaton Marketing Services and has more than 25 years experience in market research, competitive intelligence, business intelligence including database marketing and CRM, strategic planning, brand development and management as well as operations/campaign management. His work has consistently helped his clients and employers develop and implement more efficient ways to attract and retain profitable customers, enter new markets and launch new products. His areas of focus include the education, hospitality, travel and tourism, hi-tech, telecommunications, financial services, and retail industries on both the agency and customer sides.