8 fundamentals of successful student recruitment

by AACRAO

Student recruitment is just one component of best practice in Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM) but it is one of the most critical. It is a complex, fast-paced, high-stakes, year-round endeavor without much of a safety net.  It has a lot of moving parts that must be managed. Ironically, one of the factors that has made student recruitment increasingly complex is the exponential growth of research findings, AI, behavioral economics, technology, and a myriad of new products all designed to help us do our work better.  

During my career as an enrollment professional, I learned that it was vital to periodically cut through the complexity and clutter of leading an admissions/recruitment program and make certain that I had not let the fundamentals of sustained successful student recruitment become neglected. This article is not an exhaustive list of all of the important fundamentals, but a vehicle for highlighting a few that I think are especially important.

Powerful fundamentals are "simple but not simplistic" (SNS).  I have used this phrase for years but I do not know where it came from.  There are many viewpoints on what SNS means so take your pick.  

The following are excerpts from Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity, an excellent book about simplicity:

“For us, simplicity has no synonym. When you reach a point where you have achieved transparency (laying bare the underlying truth whatever it reveals), clarity (expressing meaning clearly and simply), and usability (making something fit for its purpose), you have likely achieved simplicity…there is a world of difference between simple and simplistic.  The distinction lies in understanding what is essential and meaningful as opposed to what is not, then ruthlessly eliminating the latter, while putting emphasis and focus on the former.” (Siegel & Etzkorn, 2013)

This fundamental concept is included first in this article because while the often highly complex tools listed above can enhance a student recruitment program, their application must meet the SNS principle to be operational and scalable.

Build effective and efficient communication and relationships. These two components represent the backbone of a best practice recruitment plan.  Their implementation requires the application of the best practice science and art of the profession to plan and apply the well-known recruitment “R’s”: communicate, in as personalized fashion as feasible, with the right messages to the right target markets at the right time through the right communication channels and actions.

Set “Posteriorities.”  Peter F. Drucker, often called the “Father of Modern Mangement Studies,” pointed out that there are always more things to do than there are time and people to do them.  Therefore, he maintains that managers must set both priorities and “posteriorities.”  

Drucker defined setting “posteriorities” as “deciding what tasks not to tackle and…sticking to the decision.” This is often difficult and unpleasant to do, in part, because, as Drucker noted,  “every posteriority is somebody else’s top priority.” 

Two of Drucker's guidelines for making priority vs. posteriority decisions are:

  • Pick the future against the past.
  • Aim high, aim for something that will make a difference, rather than for something that is ‘safe’ and easy to do. (Burkeman, 2012) 

In essence, Drucker was advocating transformational steps rather than adopting what an institution’s competitors are currently doing.

For example, deciding to discontinue a major recruiting event that has long been highly successful and popular with prospective students, their families, and the campus community -- but has lost much of its effectiveness and ROI -- is an example of a difficult posteriority decision. Another example is deciding to no longer devote priority recruitment efforts to a once very productive geographic recruitment territory.

Give appropriate attention to the development of data-informed, effective recruitment strategies.  Admissions/recruitment programs are busy on a year-round basis so it is often tempting to concentrate on tactics (i.e., getting on with the work) and not pay enough attention to strategies (planning and analysis).  It is a mistake not to give adequate attention to strategy.  If the correct strategies are not identified, the right tactics will not emerge.  Tactics are relatively easy to select if the strategies are correct.  The challenge with tactics is their effective execution.

Play offense; do not just keep score.  All institutions keep score of the number of registered new and returning students and revenue.  However, when the final score is in, it’s too late to do anything about it for that term.  Each stage of the enrollment cycle is like a farmer’s season that must be successfully addressed or the next stage/season is likely to not be fully successful.  Early in the enrollment cycle you can, with appropriate effort, probably remedy being below the target number of inquirers. However, in the later stages of the enrollment cycle, it is difficult to make up for a lost season.

Successful recruitment professionals understand what recruitment actions are required to make each stage of the enrollment cycle successful.  They carefully monitor the success of each stage via metrics.  If necessary, they take timely, corrective action to prevent any shortfall in meeting the target for that stage. Example: Set a target to have a minimum of X inquirers (from the institution’s productive feeder territories with a viable academic record) in the prospect file by the end of the current high school freshman class’ school year.  Interim benchmark metrics should be developed to alert the recruitment staff if corrective action is needed to get the project back on track.

Do not have activities; have outcomes. This fundamental is a close corollary to play offense; don’t just keep score. All recruitment activities must be assigned a specific target for success and outcomes-oriented metrics must be used to quantitatively define success. All of the programs and their personnel need to clearly understand what they need to do to help ensure success for that activity.  An example:  For an open house for prospective students interested in engineering:  Do not play defense and just hope for a “good” turnout.  Identify the number of prospective student attendees that are needed to justify the time and expense the event costs. Then play offense by carefully monitoring invitation responses and, if necessary, take appropriate proactive action to make certain the target number of attendees is met.

A talented and engaged staff is a recruitment program’s most precious resource.  Staff must be held accountable for measurable results.  The “command and control” leadership approach is not extinct but fortunately many leaders understand that it often demoralizes staff and it definitely does not work on a sustained basis with today’s workforce.  Today’s leaders should do everything feasible and appropriate to help their staff be successful.  This includes a genuinely supportive, respectful and collaborative work environment that trains and coaches for engagement and success. Accomplishments are recognized and celebrated.

Be realistic. Effective student recruitment programs are essential but there is a limit to what recruitment can do, even with heroic efforts. Institutions sometimes count on their recruitment program to accomplish more than they can realistically do. Many factors affect a student’s choice of a college or university.  Promotion (recruitment and marketing) is just one of the set of tools called the marketing mix.  Other factors are programs, price, place (delivery systems), processes, physical facilities and people. (Kotler & Fox, 1195, 1985)

All of these factors are critical to enrollment success and require the participation of the entire institution in developing and promoting the institution’s “product.”  That is why a best practice SEM program is an institution’s best friend.  SEM is a holistic, institution-wide program that, properly implemented, enables the college or university to take better control of its enrollment destiny.

A closing word: The author is hopeful the reader found these observations to be helpful. For many this is a refresher rather than new material.  The article was written to share some of the lessons learned from a professional journey and to express appreciation to my excellent teachers, mentors, and colleagues who helped me along the way.

by AACRAO Senior Consultant Dr. Wayne Sigler

Works Cited

Burkeman, O. (2012, December 14). "This column will change your life: posteriorities." The Guardian.

Kotler, P., & Fox, K. F. (1195, 1985). Strategic Marketing For Educational Institutions. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Siegel, A., & Etzkorn, I. (2013). Simple: conquering the crisis of complexity. New York, Boston: Twelve 12.

Some of the material was taken from the author’s AACRAO publications.

News by category