Higher education is experiencing its most significant shift in several decades. In our conversations with colleges and universities, there is a universal awareness of new challenges. Whether it is declining high school graduates, evolving student expectations or increased competition from nontraditional institutions, college presidents and provosts are focused on ways to be more competitive as the landscape shifts.

We continue to see schools attempt to fix their enrollment shortfalls with the same approach that has been employed for decades. The thought process is that in order to increase enrollment, we need to drive more prospective student inquiries or leads. At face value, this approach makes a lot of sense. In practice, however, solving an enrollment issue by focusing solely on inquiry volume is expensive, inefficient and does not cut to the core of the real opportunity for most institutions.

Only a decade ago, the old-school enrollment playbook would have called for solutions like increasing direct-mail drops, visiting more high schools, or looking at ways to drive up the number of applications. The higher education landscape is fundamentally different today and these strategies are no longer effective. As Generation Z emerges, the school-selection process occurs primarily online, and students expect to communicate and engage with institutions through digital methods.

Today, the most significant opportunity for institutions to impact enrollment is to deliver a high level of customer service to prospective students and meet them in the digital space. Schools that expect to make meaningful impacts on enrollment growth must be focused on these two areas. Specifically, successful institutions need to implement ways to connect quickly and more effectively with prospective students and expand digital marketing efforts to engage with prospects across all phases of their consideration process. The opportunity does not end there – schools must also focus on improving student experiences and outcomes in online learning environments.

Exclusively focusing on driving more prospective student inquiries is yesterday’s solution. By viewing your enrollment management efforts as a system, your institution can more cost-effectively maintain and grow its student population for years to come. As an example, we partnered with a mid-sized public institution in the southeast to achieve enrollment growth of more than 25 percent for two years in a row, predominantly by reaching students in the digital space early in their decision process and developing a student-centric, process-driven recruitment operation. We helped another partner increase enrollments by 10 percent in just one year by adjusting their website to be more student-centric and responsive. In both instances, the key factor was not driving new inquiries, but rather maximizing the pool of prospective students who had already engaged with the school.

Exclusively focusing on driving more prospective student inquiries is yesterday’s solution.

Competition is fierce in the higher education landscape and shows no signs of receding. In order to thrive in this hyper-competitive market, colleges and universities must take an innovative approach to enrollment growth strategies. Viewing enrollment growth as a system that combines marketing, admissions and retention is a proactive approach that will orient higher education institutions toward success for years to come.

Any one of these single areas will experience ebbs and flows between high performance and inefficiency. A systematic approach, however, ensures all tactics are working toward the goals of increasing new student enrollments and strong outcomes for students.