Today’s higher ed marketing and admissions leaders face one of the most difficult recruitment environments in decades. Previous concerns, such as declining high school graduates, price sensitivity and new forms of competition were compounded by the pandemic’s monumental disruption to enrollment efforts.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center looked at enrollment data from October 2021 and found that “Roughly two months into the second fall semester of the pandemic, postsecondary enrollment is now running 2.6 percent below last year’s level, for a total 5.8 percent drop since 2019.”

The Center further found that “Undergraduate enrollment continued to trend downward across all sectors, with the steepest drops in the private for-profit four-year and public two-year institutions.”

The 2021 Survey of College and University Admissions Officers by Inside Higher Ed and Hanover Research highlighted the depth of these challenges and how institutions are evolving. According to the survey results, 60% of admissions leaders have identified out-of-state students as targets for undergraduate recruitment in the next year.

That is one option, but rather than expanding your marketing and recruitment efforts further and further away from their campus, we believe the most significant opportunity to increase enrollment lies right in your backyard.

Applying a local focus to your enrollment strategy

You’re likely more inclined to find enrollment growth success by stepping up your game locally. Consider the following factors:

1. Your brand is strongest in your home market

Students who live within 25 to 50 miles of your campus are inevitably more familiar with your institution than those located far away. Because of this recognition, you may already be part of their list of schools under consideration.

Think about it this way: If you are a small liberal arts college in Nebraska, more likely than not a high school student in California is unaware of your institution. Unless the student is interested in a niche program you offer or has a personal connection to your school, you are facing long odds to successfully recruit this prospect.

2. The majority of students choose campuses close to home

A study by the Higher Education Research Institute revealed that more than 56 percent of students surveyed attended an institution located within an hour’s drive of their hometown. That number increased to nearly 70 percent when counting those within two hours.

Research from Niche suggests that when students do venture more than 500 miles from home to attend college, it is often to attend an academically elite institution (e.g., Ivy League, Seven Sisters or a service academy.) So unless your school falls into a similar category, your best option is to focus your efforts on local students who are inherently more likely to enroll.

3. Even online students have an affinity for local institutions

If you are a school that has introduced online program offerings, you may be tempted to expand marketing and recruitment efforts to capitalize on this.

The reality is that online students still value geographic proximity – perhaps even more than you’d expect. Data gathered from the “Online College Students 2019” report from Wiley University Services reveals that in choosing an online program, 22 percent of respondents based their decision on ‘proximity to where I live or work’ and 27 percent wanted a program where ‘I can take both online and on-campus courses during my program.’

This can likely be tied back to a few factors. First, the sheer number of schools adopting online education opportunities provides students with more options closer to home. Also, local schools are not only more familiar to the students themselves, but also to nearby employers and others in the community, which is an advantage for graduates.

4. National marketing and recruitment is expensive

In the past decade, a handful of institutions have successfully developed a national recruitment footprint. Aside from the prestigious institutions mentioned above, think of the big names in online education: Grand Canyon University, Southern New Hampshire University, Western Governors University, and the like.

The widespread familiarity of these types of schools comes with a hefty price tag. These institutions tend to have massive marketing budgets, extensive recruitment operations and extremely compelling value propositions. In our experience, the farther away from your campus a student lives, the more expensive and inefficient it is to successfully recruit and enroll them.

Keep your focus close to home

In a challenging recruitment market, it’s easy to conclude that your traditional recruiting methods will no longer suffice. But in the process of reevaluating your approach, consider whether it’s an issue of where you are marketing and recruiting or how you are marketing and recruiting.

A data-driven, locally-focused strategy may be the answer to meeting your 2022 enrollment objectives.

Author: Matt Lachey

Matt Lachey is a senior director of partner solutions at Collegis Education. He holds an M.A. in Communications from Marquette University.