Today’s higher ed marketing and admissions leaders face one of the most difficult recruitment environments in decades. Many enrollment challenges the past few years have been driven by external factors, such as declining high school graduates, price sensitivity and new forms of competition.
Further compounding these pressures, COVID-19 has caused a monumental disruption to enrollment efforts. When considering these new and existing challenges, institutions even more so should ensure their enrollment strategies focus on a “local-first” approach to maximize enrollment potential.
The “2019 Survey of College and University Admissions Officers” by Inside Higher Ed and Gallup highlighted the depth of these challenges and how institutions are evolving. The survey polled 336 admissions leaders across all sectors of higher education, including public, private, community college and for-profit institutions.
According to the survey results, admissions leaders have been shifting their focus to new student segments to achieve growth. But is this the right move for your institution or could enrollment growth be closer than you think?
Enrollments are still falling short
The dismal truth about college enrollment isn’t breaking news. We’ve seen a steady decline in recent years, with 2018 marking the eighth consecutive year of U.S. college enrollment decrease, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Admissions leaders have felt the pressure mounting for several years now. This is reflected in their responses to the Inside Higher Ed survey, with 54 percent stating they were “very concerned” about meeting their institution’s new-student goals for the coming year. An additional 32 percent said they were “moderately concerned” about meeting said goals. It is safe bet these percentages have increased as a result of COVID-19 implications.
So were their original concerns well-founded? It seems so, considering 63 percent of the institutions polled fell short of their Fall enrollment goals by May 1. There’s no denying the fierce competition colleges face to find students to fill classes today.
In a desperate attempt to meet enrollment goals, many institutions are expanding their marketing and recruitment efforts further and further away from their campus. In fact, the survey reports 65 percent of admissions directors said their college has sought more out-of-state students in recent years.
But is this the right strategy for your institution? It’s true that some schools are located in non-populous areas and have little choice but to focus on a broader geographic territory. But for most, we believe the most significant opportunity to increase enrollment lies right in your backyard.
Applying a local focus to your enrollment strategy
When faced with aggressive enrollment goals, it’s easy to think the solution is to simply expand the geographic areas in which you’re targeting prospective students. You’ll catch more fish if you cast a wider net, right? But when it comes to higher education, it’s not quite that simple.
In fact, you’re likely more inclined to find 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.
This research doesn’t account for emerging trends that suggest high school seniors are reconsidering their decisions to travel far away from home to attend college. COVID-19 has introduced new concerns and a stronger desire to remain close to family and friends.
3. Even online students have an affinity for local institutions
If you are a school who has embraced distance-learning trends and introduced online program offerings, you may be thinking the statistics described above don’t apply to your institution. Your programs are accessible to students regardless of their location, so you may be tempted to expand marketing and recruitment efforts to capitalize on this.
Even if your institution has not traditionally offered online programs, the global pandemic has likely led to moving some of your residential programs online in some fashion. Perhaps, these events have even spurred further conversations on your campus about adopting a more permanent, online-focused approach. While many institutions view online as a means to capture a broader, national student pool, it is important to understand that may not be a fruitful avenue to pursue.
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 Learning House reveals that 67 percent of respondents lived within 50 miles of a campus of the college where they are studying online.
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. And now, the COVID-19 learning environment has students feeling a stronger sense of security with options close to home.
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 2020 enrollment objectives.