Secret Shopping Undergraduate Admissions in 2022

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Guest post by Tom Voller-Berdan.

And just like that, our tender toddler became a testy tween and then a tenacious teen. She just graduated from high school and is off to college in the fall. Together, she, my spouse (a director of college guidance), and I ventured into the college selection process: completing inquiry forms, digging through websites, touring a couple of dozen colleges, and filling out forms for admission, financial aid and scholarships – her large bin of college mail overflowing with mostly unopened and unread outreach.

Coinciding with my daughter’s college search, I undertook the third year of secret shopping (alongside Clara Noack and Bob Hesse) – targeting 35 mostly Midwestern colleges and universities, with the purpose of benchmarking our communication flow against others.

METHODOLOGY

  • We visited the college websites on March 8, 2021, looking to complete an online inquiry form for four, mock, traditional-aged, undergraduate students looking to enroll for Fall 2022.
  • Each of the four students had distinct academic and extracurricular interests, high school GPAs, and standardized test scores. 
  • All four students were from Minnesota.
  • If the fields were available in the college’s inquiry form, we submitted name, mobile number (Google Voice), mailing address, email address, birth date, sex, race/ethnicity, GPA academic, athletic and extracurricular interests. 

From the perspective of the included colleges, this is a student who intentionally came to a college’s website and completed an inquiry form, which should indicate a fairly high level of interest. However, our student is not real. Our student rarely opened emails, never visited campus, and never submitted an application.  It’s not likely that a basketball coach will prioritize a potential athlete who has no real statistics. For colleges utilizing additional criteria to prioritize inquiries, this student’s rating was likely to fall.

EMAIL AND PRINT

For both print and email, we sorted the email and print communication into four categories. Because I couldn’t get myself to muddle through the hundreds of emails and a large stack of print publications for each of the four students, we focused most of our attention on one student. I didn’t readily see any differences in the outreach the students were receiving from colleges. For instance, the student reporting a low GPA (when available) still received the same outreach as our students with moderate and high academic achievement.

CATEGORIZATION OF COMMUNICATION

We assigned the following categories to email and mail communication:

  • Process: Outreach focused on an action (e.g. applying, financial aid, campus visit opportunities, upcoming webinars) with very little or no promotional messaging.
  • Promotional: Outreach that emphasized features and brand distinctions of the college.
  • Personalized: Outreach specific to a student’s academic and extracurricular interests as provided by the student. (We included invites to programs specific to the student’s interests.)
  • Personal: Outreach that is obviously personal and individualized to the student.

Focusing on one student, we sorted through a couple hundred publications and nearly 1,800 emails. For some of the emails we debated over the proper categorization (e.g. Was the promotional content enough to move a primarily process communication into the promotional category?), thus minimal subjectivity came into play.

Our student received a single seemingly personal email and no personal mail. That’s not surprising given her lack of action after the first outreach. However, the lack of personalized attention is surprising given the abilities of CRM platforms.

Note that three colleges sent no print pieces to any of the students. One of those colleges will have a full class for Fall 2022. The other two will not.

HOW MUCH OUTREACH?

The recent Survey of Juniors Searching for College, a joint project between Niche and Tudor Collegiate Strategies (TCS) found that 79 percent of students were ok with weekly emails. 

MY THOUGHTS: With that information in hand, 45-55 emails in a year appears to be the sweet spot, while seven emails (see V) are strikingly sparse and 193 (that was only up until March 8, 2022, and our student is still receiving emails from that college) is way over the top. As for College J in the chart below, it got to the point where I was rooting for it to send nothing but process emails. Hurray! They did it!

THE IMPORTANCE OF PERSONALIZATION

The Survey of Juniors found that 79 percent of students report that “personalized and relevant outreach” influences their interest in a college, but only 16 percent of students reported that they had received such communication.

MY THOUGHTS: Our terms might differ a bit, but the results from the Survey of Juniors Shopping for College underscore the importance of a personalized communication flow. Even with contemporary CRMs providing the tools to provide this personalization, few of the colleges in our pool did much of it.

Note: The personalized outreach EE is likely not representative of most inquiries to that college. The inquiry form includes check boxes for students to indicate an interest in receiving information about 27 specific topics (e.g. study abroad, LGBTQ+, ROTC, surrounding community). We checked them all, and EE automatically sent a series of emails based on those topics.

TEXTS AND PHONE CALLS

Our primary student received 64 texts from 16 colleges, with half of those coming from two colleges. Four voice messages were left.

TIMING OF FIRST OUTREACH

As expected the initial email for most colleges was automatically and immediately sent; although one college took 30 days and another 49 days. System error?

As for mail, it depended on the college and the student. Even allowing for some variables in mail service, some of our students received their first mail considerably later than others. And, there were many cases where some students would receive a general brochure but others would not, with no apparent correlation to student attributes. The chart below shows the earliest date that any of the four students received mail from a college.

MY THOUGHTS: Exact timing of print mailings is affected by a number of factors. However,  anything after two weeks strikes me as arriving late to the party and 162 and 176 days crosses the line into comical. 

REGARDING THE VIEWBOOK (BIG BROCHURE)

Without historical data, it’s safe to assume that most colleges, at one time, had a large viewbook. We found that it’s now a mixed bag. The mean size in total square inches was comparable to a 16-page brochure that is 8.5” x 11”, and the median size was considerably lower and is comparable to an eight-page brochure with the same dimensions.

MY THOUGHTS: Most of all that finely crafted prose is just texture on a page. The mean size in our sample is more than enough. I recommend focusing on the number of mailings over the size of mailings, and continue to advocate against barriers (envelopes) to students and their families readily viewing your content. I’m not nearly as convinced of the importance of “parent pieces” as I am of parents being able to see all your pieces. Every piece should be a parent piece.

ODDITIES, QUESTIONS AND OTHER THOUGHTS

  • One small (under-enrolled) college had no option on its website for a prospective student to express interest. (I asked about it. They do now.)
  • Another small (under-enrolled) college only had entry terms in its inquiry form up to Fall 2021. We called and were assured that we could fill out the form and they would just change it. It didn’t happen.
  • One college sent a student an invite to attend a national fly-in program, even though the student lives in the same small city as the college.
  • One college sent an email to correct a date error in a previous email. Unfortunately, the college had a typo in the subject line of the correction email. I didn’t see a correction to the correction email.
  • Three colleges sent no mail to any of our students. Was that intentional?
  • What and how much information should colleges look to gather via inquiry forms? Our colleges averaged just over eight questions – with some subjectivity on our part (e.g. Is “preferred name” a separate question from first and last name?). That debate rages on!
  • I’m convinced now – as I was 30 years ago –that repeatedly informing students that they can apply doesn’t actually create more applications. Students know they can apply. Give them distinct (attractive and rare) reasons that compel them to apply.
  • There were many cases of some students receiving a general, promotional or process brochure and others not. While we might have had some data collection issues, there were cases where one student received a general brochure and the other three did not. I doubt that three of our households missed the same brochures.
  • Not surprisingly, there is a high correlation between selectivity and the likelihood of the college continuing to send emails after March 1. Eleven colleges were still emailing in March and five were still emailing in May. At last count, the college that had sent 193 emails in a year was up to 224 emails and still repeatedly informing students that they can (get this) apply for admission.
  • There was no or very low correlation between selectivity and number of emails, number of mailings, or size of mailings. (Noting that acceptance rates vary widely based on subjectivity and creative counting of applications.)
  • Approximately a quarter of colleges asked about extracurricular interests and about two-thirds asked about academic interests on their online inquiry forms.
  • Admitting to the attention span of a teenager, there was little in these hundreds of communications to grab and hold my attention. Distinct (rare and attractive) is, in itself, very rare. So, colleges resort to flashy printing techniques, bland info graphics, endless reminders that students can apply, and the same uninspiring messages, taglines and campaign slogans.

CONCLUSION

Exercises such as this lead to more questions than answers. How much intentionality was there in the outreach we experienced? What factors lead to more applicants and matriculants? (One selective college sent no print pieces, yet has ample demand for its product.) Do the answers students provide in surveys match the actions they actually take? Why did College V send so few emails and print pieces to our very high-achieving student?

Our results strongly indicate that there is no consensus among college marketers regarding timing, quantity or messaging in colleges’ promotional outreach. In a purchase decision process that can drag out over many months and years, attributing a final sale to specific promotional activities is next to impossible. Attempts I’ve seen to show correlation and causation of these investments rest on unstable logical ground and research methods – oftentimes giving the results we desire and justifying our investment.

Tom Voller-Berdan

Tom Voller-Berdan

Tom Voller-Berdan has worked in higher education admission for 30 years and led the enrollment marketing efforts for the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University for 20 years. He loves combining strategic thinking with tactical implementation, relishes the opportunity to intertwine the left and right sides of the brain, is energized by pursuing big ideas that lead to big results, adores his cats, and finds solace in his gardens. He hates being bored. Find him at www.linkedin.com/in/tom-voller-berdan
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