Earlier this year, the In Trust Center received a request from a member seminary on the East Coast. The school had just gone online with a new database, giving them a powerful new tool to manage not just giving and alumni engagement, but also student recruitment and enrollment. Good news!
The only problem: This school didn’t know what kind of data they should be tracking — or, if they had the right data, they weren’t sure how to use it. They wanted to create smarter, more tailored admissions campaigns. They wanted to track current students and make sure they were retaining as many of them as possible. But how? Maybe they needed a lesson in the basics of enrollment management.
Tim Fuller, senior vice president of Credo, a higher education consulting firm that specializes in enrollment, says that not knowing the basics of enrollment management is a common problem. “What I have seen is that enrollment is often not done as well as it could be,” he says. He sees this pattern in many of his client institutions. “They know enrollment is important, but because they are not sure what to do about it, they don’t do enough of the right things.”
Dusty Di Santo, vice president of student life and enrollment management at Denver Seminary, thinks theological schools are being forced to get smarter about enrollment management. “Enrollment is changing,” he says. “The millennial generation has escalated the need for proactive recruitment strategies.” He also adds that positive enrollment numbers are a key component of financial sustainability.
Through Credo, Tim Fuller has done extensive research on enrollment management and frequently gives presentations on the topic. He suggests that theological schools keep seven fundamental principles in mind as they think about their own situations.
1. Teamwork: It takes a whole campus to enroll and retain a student
Enrollment should be a campus-wide effort, and the inspiration must start at the top. Di Santo says that when a president knows the seminary’s enrollment data and enrollment strategy, it indicates he or she is taking enrollment seriously.
But that is not enough. Once the president and members of the leadership team have become champions for the school’s enrollment strategy, they need to incorporate the support of faculty and staff. “Much of our research suggests that faculty members are the most important group to mobilize,” says Fuller. “But you need to employ them in a way that does not distract them from their primary responsibility — teaching and mentoring current students.” Fuller thinks the best way for faculty to recruit students is to be effective and compelling teachers and mentors to the students they already have. “That’s job one.”
Yet there are other ways in which faculty members can be an important part of the enrollment strategy: by meeting with prospective students who visit the school, by taking an active role in shaping the language of promotional content for their own programs, and by encouraging admitted students to commit and enroll.
Getting faculty involved in enrollment does not mean asking them to cold call a list of prospective students. But if a prospective student visits the campus and has a great conversation with a faculty member, then that faculty member should be involved when the student is at the point of decision, Fuller says.
Staff members — especially those who provide student support — can also play a pivotal role in ensuring that interactions that prospective students have with an institution are pleasant, purposeful, and positive. Also, students must be able to get answers to their questions. Is registering for classes complicated or can I do it easily? Can someone advise me on my financial aid package? What is the food like? “The answers to these kinds of questions are never the main reason students choose a seminary, but they can be the reason a potential student loses interest,” says Fuller.
2. Keep all you can: Retention is as important as admissions
Fuller says the best measure of the success of a recruitment program is not admission numbers but graduation numbers. When he works with a school, he tells them to recruit graduates, not first-year students. “Campuses are often too focused on new student enrollment,” says the enrollment consultant without a trace of irony. The logic behind his bold statement is that if a school is losing students to attrition, it must recruit more and more new students just to break even.
Fuller suggests that schools struggling with retention need to examine what motivates some students to stay and what motivates their peers to leave. Is the admissions office describing seminary life in a realistic way? Are students finding that their seminary experience meets or exceeds their expectations? The answers to these questions will be a “pretty powerful predictor of retention,” he says.
Strong retention pays dividends in two ways. First, the most powerful source of new students is word-of-mouth referrals from current students. Second, retention boosts faculty morale. “When our students succeed, our staff and faculty experience that success as well,” says Di Santo. “When we are recruiting and enrolling the right kind of students, our faculty are enriched and challenged.”
3. Staff: Investing in an experienced enrollment team is worth the money
Institutions need to be intentional about hiring an experienced enrollment team and investing in its professional development, says Fuller. But in his experience, some seminaries seem to struggle with this.
“When I visit campuses, I often talk with enrollment leaders who are sincere, hardworking, and love their institutions,” Fuller says. “But sometimes they just don’t know very basic methods of recruitment. It’s not a lack of intelligence or willingness.”
Di Santo says recruiters need to focus on listening to and building a relationship with applicants. He sees the role as a form of Christian ministry as much as it is marketing. “There are elements of marketing and salesmanship in recruitment, but ultimately, it is all founded on building a relationship,” says Di Santo. “The goal is not just to bring students to the institution that you work for. It is to listen to them and their needs, and to guide and help them discern God’s plan for them.
An effective enrollment plan — which encompasses promoting, recruiting, evaluating, admitting, and retaining students — should be formal, written, specific, and detailed. A complete plan will include a budget, the size, type and goals of the enrollment team, and the methods the institution will use to measure its progress on meeting goals. It should also address methods of generating leads, organizing campus visits, mobilizing faculty, and conducting marketing efforts.
But the plan also needs to be flexible. Continual reevaluation is important, says Fuller. “If we did a new initiative using SEO to try to get more leads, did it generate new leads and new students? If it worked really well, should we invest more in SEO?” Revising the plan is not a sign of failure, but of success.
5. Spread the wealth: Organize financial aid to get as many good students as possible
“Sometimes spending a lot of money to get four or five people on full rides may not be the best way to use your resources,” Fuller says. “Those few really bright students may not be the tide that raises all boats.” Fuller suggests that for some schools, it may be better to split four or five full-ride scholarships into 20 smaller scholarships, leading to more students and potentially higher net revenue.
Fuller believes that since the recession in 2009, institutions have become more strategic. Even schools with strong brands have had to reevaluate their recruitment strategies, realizing that enrollment success requires more than a strong brand.
In the past, Fuller says, many schools offered significant merit scholarships to students who met certain academic criteria. But today institutions are starting to look at merit differently. “Merit can mean institutional fit as much as a specific academic score,” says Di Santo. “Students with a high GPA may or may not be the best fit for the mission of a specific program.” He says scholarships should be tailored to benefit the type of student body a school wants to recruit and retain, not just those with best grades.
6. Visits — actual and virtual — are valuable recruiting tools, so make them count
Campus visits allow institutions to demonstrate what makes them unique. “Visiting campuses is crucial,” says Di Santo, because doing so “will either maximize or minimize how prospective students see the academic and professional opportunities, the social setting, and the spiritual community the school offers.”
Di Santo emphasizes that it’s important to encourage students to visit as often as they want and “while students are on campus, the school should do everything it can to show them who it is as a community and why those things are valuable or distinctive. A school should show students every side of its campus. Have them meet with faculty — and not just in a classroom setting but meet for lunch or coffee so they can hear the heart of the faculty member and why they choose to do what they do.” Prospective students should also be encouraged to meet with current students.
But these days, schools no longer need to rely solely on physical visits to show off a school. The seminary website can be the most valuable recruitment tool. Fuller says that the most important purpose of a higher education website is recruitment.
While it is important for a website to include general information that’s relevant to current students and alumni, including the information that is key to prospective students — financial aid options, scholarships, program offerings, and faculty profiles—and making it easy to find goes a long way. He also suggests including video clips of faculty sharing personal statements on subjects like why they love teaching at the seminary.
7. Knowledge is power: Insist on a strong foundation of data
All institutions collect data on their current and potential students, but they don’t always know how to analyze it. Investing in someone who knows what questions to ask, how to collect the data, and how to interpret it, is critical.
It can be useful to track retention rates, campus visit trends, overall market trends, competitor enrollment numbers and financial aid structure, how the customer service in your admissions office compares to competitors, and trends in the quality of students attending your institution.
“Presidents often tell me they had no idea how complex enrollment is and how much is involved,” says Fuller. “My hope is that this increases their understanding, gives them some specific steps to take, and that they will think more about how to invest in their enrollment team.”