Niche Enrollment Management 101
Enrollment Insights Blog

Student Search – Enrollment Management 101

Estimated read time – 7 minutes

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Niche Enrollment Management 101

Student search involves bringing students into your communication flow for recruitment. One of the most critical roles for any aspiring leader in enrollment management is to understand where students come to you from and how to recruit them. Sourcing students is a mixture of partnerships along with strong inbound recruiting and affinity. Beyond just understanding the sourcing, having clean data in your CRM so that you can evaluate the performance of each source is crucial.

Student search is a big topic. It starts with understanding where your current applications and enrollments are coming from, what other sources exist that remain untapped, and how to optimize your sourcing. Here is what you can expect to learn in this primer:

  • The difference between prospecting and inquiry generation
  • The three types of inquiries and how they differ
  • What to think about when considering a partnership to generate inquiries

Prospecting Students

Prospecting is the process of searching for students who aren’t coming to you asking for information. This process is done by purchasing names of students to sift through and find the best fits, or to just send out mass messaging and hope that they respond. First and foremost, these students will need to hear who your institution is and why they should care. They might not be a good fit, might not be looking for your type of institution, and may have never heard of you before. 

You can make better use of prospecting by using lookalike models to find students like those who have already applied, enrolled, or graduated. One risk of using these models is that they can be self-fulfilling prophecies. If you only look for students who mirror those who enroll you won’t expand your reach and enroll different students. Niche also allows you to find students who fit your profile and are considering peer institutions, but not you (yet).

Prospects are usually the least likely to apply and enroll, which is not to say they are not valuable, but that they simply are less likely to take action because they have a higher inertia. Students who know who you are, what you offer, or have personal connections are much more likely to move through your funnel, or dance

Inbound Inquiries

Inbound is a term from industry that could be used more in education to understand outreach. Inbound marketing is content designed to attract prospective customers (students in this case) to take an action. For us, this action is an inquiry, application, or visit. This might be digital ads, social media, guides and resources, chatbots, or video content. It’s anything designed to pique interest and attract students to you. Rather than having to go out searching for students to prospect, think of these as behaving like a light that attracts moths. This differs from outbound marketing because outbound is designed can often have the goal of generating brand awareness first and actions second.

Inbound inquiries can come in a variety of forms and interest levels. Digital marketing campaigns can vary significantly based upon tactics, targeting, and budget. A campaign aimed at brand awareness will likely be less effective at directly generating inquiries, but can help prepare you for more organic interest in years to come. A visit campaign that’s poorly targeted by age or demographics won’t generate the results or ROI that you’re looking for. Search campaigns that are buying your brand name are wasting money by cannibalizing users who would already be coming to your site, —  Niche offers a whole resource about avoiding that. A successful campaign will be narrowly focused on goal and audience with clear calls to action and well-designed landing pages.

Students coming to your site to inquire directly are likely to have some connection already that led them to your site. They may have friends or family who have or are attending. There could be name recognition from athletics or general reputation. They may have come to your site from another research platform like Niche and already have built an interest. Don’t forget that your Net Price Calculator can also serve as an inquiry tool, and we know that cost is one of students’ highest concerns. In Niche’s latest survey of juniors, the availability of scholarships was the most important factor by a significant margin. Your response and follow-up to these students should be different because their method of entry is different. Speak to the source; inquiries from academic pages can get very specific communications that vary from a general admissions inquiry or inquiry from a news article.

Campus visits are a desirable type of inbound inquiry. At most colleges, a campus visit is a strong indicator of the likelihood to enroll. Sourcing students from visit programs can be very successful in efficiently recruiting and enrolling students. However, your best inbound source is an application. Applications are really nothing more than very long, high-intent signaling, inquiry forms. We know that there really isn’t such a thing as a stealth applicant, these are just students who are doing their own research or have a connection already and haven’t raised their hand to make themselves known. Some may have already decided that you’re their best choice, others may only have a passing awareness but are interested. It’s important to have messaging that catches them up on what other students have received as inquiries and prospects while also getting to know them as individuals and what their needs and pain points are. 

Partnership-Generated Inquiries

Partnerships are a valuable resource for finding more inquiries. You can only find so many students with your own travel, inquiry forms on-site, or through inbound tactics. There are a few sites that students and parents use to research schools and colleges, build their lists for consideration, and apply. Finding the right mix of partners to supplement your internal tactics are important. Talking to colleagues at other institutions or visiting the exhibition hall at conferences are great ways to learn who is out there and what they do.

There are two types of partnerships — those that are sources of students and the agencies who handle student search. When approaching, or being approached, by these potential partners it’s important to understand what they offer, how it fits with your current strategy and goals, and what to expect from the relationship. Going in expecting one result and getting another can lead to a negative experience for both parties. Those who are sources can complement each other well as they likely reach different types of students. When working with an agency, you will need to know where they source their students so that you don’t work directly with the same sources.

There are a few questions you’ll want to ask when evaluating possible partnerships:

  • Do students opt-in to be contacted by the institutions they’re adding to their list?
  • Is this a subscription for unlimited inquiries over the term, or is there a limit?
  • Are these all actually students requesting information, or are there also lookalikes or prospects added in to boost numbers?
  • What data fields are included with the inquiries?
  • Can you get an analysis of past years to see how many additional inquiries you would have received?

Recruited Inquiries

I also want to discuss a final type of inquiry, one that often is initiated through face-to-face contact. They can be met on the road during travel (remember that?), through athletics, fine and performing arts recruiting, or as a referral. These are the students that have a point person or contact at the university through this recruiting rather than coming through as an inbound inquiry. Having more contacts and more touchpoints makes them stickier and can change how you recruit them.

Students being recruited by multiple offices on campus require more collaboration in outreach. Sending messages that conflict or feel like they have significantly different tones or designs at the same time can lead to brand confusion. Work closely with your other offices to make sure that timing and message are coordinated. Take time to learn how your institution coordinates this and talk to colleagues at similar institutions to learn how to improve.

Prior to coming to Niche in 2019 Will served 9 years at Manchester University in roles as an Admissions Counselor, Associate Director for Admissions Operations, Social Media Coordinator, and ultimately as Digital Strategist. Will surfaces tactical insights from user behavior and surveys to help higher ed build recruitment strategies. In addition to the Enrollment Insights blog, webinars, and podcast; Will is a frequent conference speaker and podcast guest. He has presented at NACAC, AACRAO-SEM, AMA Higher Ed, CASE V, EduWeb, and EMA. Will's work has been featured in Forbes, Inside Higher Ed, CNBC, CNN, the LA Times, and The New York Times among other outlets.