Revolutionizing Student Recruitment for Sustainable Growth

1 in 10 public and private colleges is in acute financial distress.

1 in 5 private colleges has a cash-flow margin below 10%.

(Source: Moody’s, July 2014)

University CMOs (chief marketing officers … yes, not a traditional position in academia) know they need the right amount of prospective students and the right mix of enrollments to sustain growth or avoid financial distress. College presidents know academic outcomes depend on having this consistent (and ample) enrollment mix, along with a strategy to manage student relationships. VPs of admissions and enrollment know they need a critical mass of qualified prospects—or pure volume—in order to hit annual goals.

What all these individuals have in common is a need to reliably create enrollments that lead to successful outcomes. How do they achieve this goal? One vital component is mapping the student journey through school website content. This 3-step process and other marketing wisdom carefully selected for colleges and universities weathering a cloudy economic climate is available in Fathom’s third edition of the EDU Standard.


[The following is reproduced from “The EDU Standard, 3rd Ed.” Get the full standard for a content mapping tutorial, the latest education search benchmarks, and a bunch of other goodies.]

The U.S. Department of Education heralds 20% growth in master’s degrees along with 9% growth in associate degrees. Opportunities are emerging in both online education and new certificate programs. College degree-holders can expect rising earnings premiums. All these factors equate to good news for colleges and universities looking to grow. However, sustainable and competitive growth is not automatic.

As opportunities for institutional development arise, the student journey to enrollment is as twisted as ever. It is by turn mobile, social, virtual, in-person and multi-device. It typically entails exhaustive research that includes parents, peers, alumni, website visits, campus tours, interviews, video views and the securing of financial aid, among other considerations. Therefore, engagement with students and parents on their own terms throughout the college search is central to meeting enrollment and revenue goals.

Colleges that care about sustainable growth prize getting the right number of quality enrollments, as defined by demographic mix, retention and discount rates. Their interests in survival mandate adapting to a shifting status quo. To note, Joshua Kim, director of digital learning initiatives at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning, recently wrote in Inside Higher Ed about 3 agents of massive future change:

  • Large-enrollment course teaching and learning;
  • Competency-based credentialing;
  • The normative master’s degree.

Consider the normative master’s degree: The number of people holding a master’s degree has increased by 43% since 2002. Schools need to ascertain their ability to attract and retain graduate students as well as undergrads, more detail on which is presented in the subsequent discussion of user personas in the content marketing section.

Financial distress

In July 2014 Moody’s issued a negative 2015 outlook for higher education in terms of limited growth prospects. The publication noted 1 in 10 public and private colleges is in “acute financial distress.” Why? Falling revenues and weak operating performance. 1 in 5 private colleges has a cash-flow margin below 10%. Schools with tight cash flows (or those that fear this reality) need to hold every marketing dollar accountable. The ideal way to do this is to connect the costs of student recruitment to enrollments. With the right analytics in place, you can make accurate enrollment forecasts, predicting the actual percentage of current student prospects who are likely to enroll.

Furthermore, as college expenses grow, getting and keeping the right mix of new students is a necessity. An enrollment engagement strategy is central to achieving profitable marketing operations, whether the goal is to overcome actual financial distress or stay as far away from it as possible. Indeed, a recent Wall Street Journal article noted that state schools are recruiting higher-paying out-of-state applicants to fill their budget holes for 2015. This phenomenon should serve as a helpful example for college presidents and marketing VPs of the need to be resourceful with budget dollars in the wake of decreased funding.

Despite Moody’s dark 2015 forecast, some positives to embrace are strong long-term demand and reduced household debt. Bearing in mind the enduring value of a college education, the institutions that do best at laying out a clear path for students to enroll are the ones that will convert the highest number of them via their primary research tool: the Web.


Download the entire “EDU Standard, 3rd Ed.” to revolutionize your approach to student recruitment.

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