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Recruiting Intelligence

Student Recruitment Mistakes of the Desperate: Part 1


Many enrollment leaders are reporting terrific application rates for fall 2021, which is certainly welcome news. Campus enrollment numbers look promising for a number of reasons, primary among them:

  • Campuses are planning to open this fall with in-person learning as an option — highly desirable after this past year’s Zoom school.
  • Prospective students look like they will find summer jobs (unlike last year), suggesting they can afford to return to university.

However, there is plenty we do not know as we write this post in early May 2021.

Where India looked like they had successfully kept COVID-19 at bay, more recently, the country has become inundated. As of this writing, many areas of Canada are taking significant precautions to stem the spread. Here in the US, there is a common expectation that the country is on a positive trajectory with regard to the pandemic, and yet, India and Canada thought they were in the clear not too long ago. Our point: the future is murky.

With ambiguity, comes fear and inaction for some; for others, opportunity.

Let’s assume that as summer 2021 hits, your enrollment numbers are not where they should be. Budget dollars are extremely tight. And yet, growth is demanded. What to do?

Often (more often than we all care to admit and especially in times of crisis like we’ve experienced in the past year), we are approached by academic leaders from institutions around the world who are desperate and seeking student recruiting advice.

More often than not, institutions are hung up on the common challenges of people, tools, and budget. This is true of most service industries (and, in fact, product driven industries as well). There is no lack of ideas and opportunities. The only thing holding them back is the difficulty of aligning the team (people) and willingness to risk the funds (because there are no guarantees of success).

Note, an A-level team with B- or C-level tools will still crush it. B-level team with A-level tools? Not so much.

Back in 2018, we published a two-part “Mistakes of the Desperate” series, discussing the all-too-common mistakes we witness academic leaders making as they navigate enrollment challenges. Those who have been in the industry for a number of years have seen this state of affairs at different times: the pressure to produce without the time and resources to do it right. And looking back at those times, we all know what the result was: ineffective and disappointing.

In this particularly dynamic time for student enrollment and with so much ambiguity around what will happen next, we think this series deserves a second look as your team gears up for the next recruiting cycle. 

And for additional resources for your team navigating this challenging year, we hope you will tune it for our two sessions at the upcoming annual NAFSA (virtual) conference in June:

  • Achieving Global Agility: The Flexibility of Global Campus Options on the value of global campuses and how to implement them in a nimble, flexible way (presenters: Intead with Seamus Harreys from CIEE and Ita Duron from Massachusetts College of Health and Pharmacy Sciences University); and
  • Going from 0-60: Internationalization about the challenges and successes of taking your university’s internationalization efforts to the next level (presenters: Intead with David DiMaria from University of Maryland, Baltimore County).

Read on for three common mistakes academic leaders make when desperately trying to improve student enrollment numbers and how your institution can avoid them.

1. Throw up Your Hands

It is not uncommon for institutional leadership to cut and run when enrollment numbers dip in any given area (non-traditional students, international students, particular geographic regions, demographic segments). A hard look at the numbers tells a story that no longer appears to have potential. And so, the funding for a particular marketing initiative or program area is reduced or cut entirely. 

The question: Does that “hard look at the numbers” represent a clear-eyed review of what truly caused the decline, what the market potential in that area is now, and what it is likely to be in the future?

The mistake: A knee-jerk reaction to limited data with a lack of perspective on the people, processes, and market conditions that are the true cause of the challenging situation. Typically, the unfortunate move is to save staff by cutting the recruitment budget.

The result: Enrollment continues its decline as staff try to “do more with less.” It really doesn’t work.

Best practice: Your long-term strategy must anticipate lean years and budget accordingly. Forward looking academic leaders consider the people, processes, and market conditions using data to inform decision making. There’s data already at your fingertips to help you identify new strategic opportunities. Last week’s post about optimizing your list purchase data is a good place to start.

2. Reconfigure the Department

The numbers are down so let’s try an injection of funds to change the office environment and raise awareness of the enrollment and admissions functions on campus. Sounds like a good idea, right? Kind of like a fresh coat of paint to brighten up the place.

The question: How will this focus on the internal environment (a “fresh coat of paint”) alter the external results? Again, with the processes and people, is this reconfiguration focused on changing the internal dynamic in such a way that the people will actually be able to perform better and deliver stronger results?

The mistake: Investing in internal changes that do not have a direct impact on improving results.

The result: A flurry of activity around internal funds that were available from a “different budget” (office improvement funds) and enrollment numbers that continue to decline.

Best practice: Get the authority to re-allocate those alternative budget dollars to fund actions that have a direct impact on recruiting results. Put the money where it will do the most good. This post can help you determine which ideas you should be investing in right now (and how to say ‘”no” to the not-so-great ones).

3. Invest in a Pathway Program as a Quick Fix

Pathway programs are increasingly turned to as the quick fix to international student recruiting problems. These tie ups often fail within two to three years as both parties cannot agree on why the numbers are not improving as expected (and promised).

The question: Are you lured by increased marketing exposure without the upfront costs and not looking more closely at the long-term ramifications? Are you giving up too much control to a third party that is not truly aligned with your mission and goals?

The mistake: Diving down this path without seriously considering the long-term impact (10 to 30 year contracts!) will tie the hands of your future colleagues in ways that will likely hamper your, and their, ability to succeed.

The result: Enrollment growth that is always just beyond your reach and not quite as good as everyone projected on that terrific excel chart that was passed around before the pathway contract was signed.

Best practice: Your decision to contract with a pathway provider will affect your institution’s ability to succeed and maneuver for many years to come. Be sure your pathway contract offers your institution the flexibility it needs to adapt to inevitable market changes and opportunities that will emerge. Evaluate the pathway program’s current client base and their anticipated new clients and examine how you will fit into the mix over time.

When it comes to pathway programs, your institution has a particular culture and you’ll want to be sure that your pathway partner is adopting that culture rather than you adopting theirs. If a pathway provider can give you that level of flexibility, they are the kind of partner you want.

Our recommendation? CIEE and their global campus programs. Fully customizable to your institution and with a robust infrastructure for student services, academics, and extracurriculars already in place in student hubs such as Shanghai and Seoul, these are “pathway” programs done right. Your peers, including Tulane, Babson, Clark, and Syracuse have already put these programs in place in the past year.

With CIEE’s vast global resources and strategic solutions, this quick fix pathway program “mistake” can be transformed into a valuable core pillar of your long-term enrollment pipeline.

Next Week

Stay tuned! Next week we will be revisiting more of the most common mistakes and providing fresh perspective on how to avoid them. 

Witnessing the mistakes mentioned in today’s post already in motion in your recruitment office? Get in touch to accelerate in a new direction.

*This post was first published in August 2018. It has been updated and republished for 2021. 

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