As of October 2020, admission rates for the fall term showed a considerable decline. 

  • Undergraduate admissions fell 4.4% from last year.
  • Postsecondary enrollment showed a 3.3% decline.
  • Freshman enrollment fell a massive 13% as compared to last year.

With such discouraging numbers, colleges and universities are up for a tough competition to meet their admission targets. It has become necessary to employ effective student recruitment strategies that attract prospects to your college and compel them to secure admission.

Let’s look at various college recruitment strategies that can: 

  1. Attract interested students to the top of your prospect funnel,
  2. Guide them to the middle and,
  3. Compel them to move on to the bottom and enroll. 

Top of the Funnel: How do I attract students to my college?

The Top of The Funnel (TOFU) is the stage where you market your university and get the attention of as many real prospects as possible. Your prospects are recent graduates, individuals looking for courses in your area, and those looking to enroll in your type of institution (private college/public university, community college, etc.) 


1. Optimize content for online attention

It’s a no-brainer that Gen-Z is hooked to the net and conducts most of its business online. Researching for colleges and universities that best match their expectations are no different. 

This is why your marketing plan for student recruitment must focus on optimizing your online content to ensure you appear on their search results and compel them to open your pages.

Remember that every university and college out there is fighting for their attention (the span of which is just 8 seconds!). 

Here’s how you stand first in line to earn their attention.

Best practices to optimize online content:

  • Optimize SEO: They say the best place to hide a dead body is on the 2nd page of Google. And why not– 95% of all search traffic never goes beyond page 1 of Google. The first ten queries get 208% CTR– these two statistics show how important it is to appear on the first page and compete for the top 10. 
  • Mobile optimized website and landing pages: According to a 2019 study by eMarketer, teens (aged 13-17) spend 62% of their screen time on phones. So if your website doesn’t fit well on their small screens or isn’t otherwise mobile optimized, you lose the young prospects’ attention.  
  • Use accurate targeting for the audience: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter ads should appear on feeds of people looking for courses, in your country and in locations that are allowed to travel in your country (due to COVID-19 restrictions). 
  • Videos are no longer just an option: Gen-Z watches 2-4 hours of YouTube videos daily. Since videos are aesthetic, concise in providing information, and can maintain attention, they are critical for your student recruitment strategies.  

Read More: Mobile Marketing Strategies and Tips

2. Use creative online marketing strategies

The University of Salford made finding a college course fun, exciting and as personalized as finding a date online. In 2016, they ran a campaign in partnership with Tinder. The campaign, called ‘Match Made in Salford’, made it possible for students to find last-minute courses with their app. Like the dating app, this initiative used details such as students’ grades, course choices, career options, and more to find the perfect course for them.

Given how popular dating apps and personalized content is for the young generations, this campaign was a huge success, and Salford’s marketing director said they helped 10,000 candidates find a match.

Source: Twitter.

This is a classic example of getting a huge gathering of prospects into the TOFU list. Similarly an innovative marketing strategy can be a valuable addition to your student recruitment strategies. 

Best practices for online marketing strategies for student recruitment:

  • Use a unique, memorable hashtag, so your campaign is easily searchable. Add relevant trending/popular hashtags so those unaware may also get your campaign in their results.
  • Always add a link to your website/landing page in your posts: This helps you direct prospects to the desired page directly and makes it convenient for them as well.
  • Make your campaign fun and attractive – because what campaign goes viral if you can’t find joy or meaning in it?
  • Put up banner ads on relevant pages (e.g., educational blogs.)
  • Create different content for different social media sites: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter work on different algorithms and hence, push engagement on various content forms. Study the latest trends on each of the social media platforms you use and tailor content accordingly.

Related Reading: Social Media For Nonprofits: How To Succeed On Social Media

3. Lead with usability, simplicity, and transparency

Marketing your college or university is not just about grabbing eyeballs but also showing why their attention is worthwhile right where prospects find you. To do this, you must address three questions in the marketing phase of your student recruitment process:

  • Why should one choose your university? (Usability)
  • How do you convey this to TOFU prospects? (Simplicity)
  • What are the realistic prospects for a student before and after graduation? (Transparency)

Best practices:

  • Get alumni and faculty to talk about your university.
  • Cut through the chaos by using minimalistic designs (for your images, logos, and messaging)
  • Offer online tours and seminars for students who can’t travel to the campus.
  • Use your social media posts and email and SMS broadcasts to mention what they can expect from your institution, what challenges they may face, and to resolve doubts.
  • To show transparency, you could maintain blogs about overcoming challenges (financial, emotional, academic, etc.). Similarly, you could advertise your career guidance departments and (if relevant), campus placement opportunities as part of your marketing plan.

4. Partner with highschools and communities where you’ll meet prospects

While online communities and social media campaigns are a great way to connect with people across geographies, you also need to have a more local connection to populate your TOFU list. 

Recruiting students for college and university means partnering with schools, churches, local businesses, and other communities to form bonds with prospective students there.

Best practices to partner with local communities:

  • Hold events in schools and encourage students to opt-in to your broadcasts via SMS and emails, so you acquire their contact details for future communication.
  • Be constantly in touch with principals, churches, HRs, and other people in authority positions and ask them if anyone has shown interest in higher education. Request the contact details of interested individuals.
  • Nurture your alumni network in such a way that they help you get prospect leads and refer you to interested friends and family.
  • Put up posters and banners in your city introducing your university, broadcasting updates, and inviting students to opt-in to your messaging lists.

5. Set strategies to target and recruit minority students

According to the 2018 US census reports, the diversity of graduate students stands at these numbers:

  • 61.2% are white non-Hispanic students
  • 13.6% are Hispanic
  • 12.3% of graduate students are Black 
  • 11.2% of the students are Asian.

While the numbers show that a majority of graduate students are typically white, millennials value equal opportunities to diverse groups as a matter of principle. That, and the fact that all qualified students, irrespective of their ethnic, sexual, cultural orientations, income levels, disabilities etc. deserve equal opportunities to study in esteemed colleges. 

This is why you need concrete strategies to enroll minority students and to ensure equal opportunities for them.

Best practices to recruit minority students:

  • Tap the ‘unmatched’ market of low-income students: Students with qualifying grades and test scores but low family income tend to opt for less-selective colleges. In fact, students from the lowest income quartile make up only 4% of admissions in selective colleges. Approach promising students (irrespective of race and ethnicity) with low-incomes and share your scholarship opportunities and financial aid prospects with them.
  • Take affirmative action to encourage students from racial or ethnic minorities to secure admission with you. (Although, check the constitutionality of your initiative beforehand).
  • Provide special financial assistance to minority students from low-income groups (since statistically, income levels are lower with racial and ethnic minorities).
  • Make necessary changes in administration, student recruitment policies, and mentoring programs to encourage admissions for minority students. For example, you could actively reach out to minority schools and communities to recruit students to your college. 

Middle of the funnel: How do I engage in promising prospects?

This is the part where many contacts from your TOFU list will drop off. Don’t worry–the aim isn’t to lead all of the prospects to the bottom of the funnel but only those who are truly engaged and show promise. 

Prospects in the Middle of the Funnel (MOFU) are not just interested in taking admission in a college but:

  1. Are keen on pursuing courses that you offer,
  2. Have shown interest in your college and 
  3. Have maintained some connection (following on social media/opted-in to your SMS/email list etc.)

Let’s look at ways to nurture this interest and lead the TOFU prospects to MOFU with effective student recruitment strategies.


1. Set up communication channels that the students are most comfortable with

According to a 2016 study conducted by Ruffalo Noel Levitz, here’s how students prefer the first contact with colleges:

Method of CommunicationFour-year private institutionsFour-year public institutions
Email (with personalized/branded link)37%33%
Self mailer brochure/postcard30%37%
Phone call20%22%

However, these numbers are mere guidelines for what students may prefer. Your prospects may or may not have the same preferences. To ensure convenient communication with them, 

  1. Provide them with communication options when signing up. 
  2. Or conduct an email or text survey to ask their preferred mode of communication. 

To know more about building a marketing list (for SMS), read this post..

Best Practices:

  • Segment lists according to preferred modes of communication and send them broadcasts (or call them) to confirm their opt-in on the respective channels.
  • Notify them of how many messages to expect in a week or month.
  • For messaging, discuss life at the uni/your city with the prospective students. Address any issues they have with in-depth conversations (rather than close-ended questions and scripts).
  • Use broadcasts to send messages like faculty qualifications or alumni achievements. Use peer-to-peer texting, phone calls, conversational emails or chatbots to talk about their desired course in more detail (than what’s on your website). 
  • Assign specific student success agents to the prospects so they always have one point of contact, and you can build a relationship with them.

2. Personalize data to show them you care

Earlier, we saw how the University of Salford used personalization to match 10,000 students with courses that suit their choices and career interests. This worked phenomenally because the young generation is used to personalized communication– they almost take it for granted.

Gen-Z has grown up in the era of social media, curated online shopping options, personalized search results, etc. So if a university takes a one-size-fits-all approach, it wouldn’t work with the prospects.

Best practices for personalization:

  • At this stage, you cannot just target prospects with ads about your university. You must target prospects in the MOFU stage with ads about specific courses, extra-curricular activities, scholarships, and events.
  • Use calling software, like CallHub, that integrates with your CRM and enables you to import and update contact data.
  • Your email and texting software must sync with your CRM to personalize broadcasts and update information based on your 1-on-1 conversations.
  • Coordinate data between different communication channels to give a comfortable, intelligent experience to prospects (e.g., If a prospect has answered an email survey and a new agent sends the same survey over text, it could result in inconvenience or minor disappointment. However, if your data is synced, an agent can see a prospect’s responses to the email survey and can take the nurturing forward from there.)

3. Set priorities– and more importantly, “Posteriorities”

When you are at the MOFU stage and proceeding to the Bottom of the Funnel (BOFU), it’s crucial to note what prospects are most promising and need nurturing and which of them have higher chances of not confirming admissions and can be filtered out– The former are your priorities and the latter, ‘posteriorities.’

Peter F. Drucker, the “Father of Modern Management Studies,” gives an apt definition of ‘posteriorities’ as “deciding what tasks not to tackle and…sticking to the decision.”

The decision is difficult, no doubt. But it will save your time and resources by enabling you to focus only on those individuals who are likely to stay connected with you.

Take this situation for example:

ProspectsProspect AProspect B
Pros✓ Belongs to an area that has traditionally brought you many admissions  
✓ Interests match a course you offer
✓ Finances are in place.
✓ Opted-in to your SMS list
✓ Replied to your emails
✓ Has lengthy phone conversations with your agents.
Cons╳ Hasn’t actively interacted with you╳ Belongs to an area that hasn’t traditionally seen much traffic in your college.

Although a tough decision to make, you must categorize A as posteriority while prioritizing communication with B. Nurturing with B needs to take precedence over follow ups with A.  

Best practices to set priorities and posteriorities:

  • Set definite guidelines to categorize students as priorities and posteriorities– What aspects do you value most (when it comes to calculating the chance of confirmation)? How risky would it be to reduce conversations with posteriorities?
  • Dedicate communication, financial, and human resources proportionately to each category. More resources go to the first priority and least to the last posteriority.
  • Craft a plan that can scoop up folks from ‘posteriority’ top priority if something crucial changes (e.g., they suddenly start conversing, or you realize you might not fill seats for a course).

Bottom of the funnel: Student recruitment strategies to inspire prospects to secure admission

Individuals in the BOFU are your most engaged prospects— they have shortlisted your university, and now is the time to make the last efforts to show you are the perfect match. These prospects have actively engaged in conversations, requested admission requirements, and attended an event(s).

Once both you and them are sure that you could be good fits for each other, you start the final stage of nurturing, where you guide them from the ‘most promising’ stage to ‘confirmed admission.’


1. Discuss finances

Source: US News/US News

Higher education is perhaps the first significant financial investment a person takes. It is thus essential to be transparent about finances here.

At this stage, when students are probably counting the pros and cons of the shortlisted universities, you need to ensure you don’t enter the field of ‘too expensive’. Here’s how you can simplify 

Best practices to discuss finances:

  • Give a breakdown of expenses– including fees and tuition, accommodation, cost of living, and miscellaneous expenses. The whole looks greater than the sum of its parts. 
  • Discuss scholarships, financial aid prospects, and eligibility.
  • Conduct seminars about money management that current or old students have found useful.

2. Leverage your alumni network and faculty to help prospects where they need it

Your student recruitment strategies must also include taking lessons and help from the past— in this case, from your alumni.

Engaging alumni while recruiting students helps in the following ways:

  1. Allows peer-to-peer sharing of information– Alumni can discuss what’s in the brochure, what not, and how to tackle the latter.
  2. Adds authenticity to the student recruitment process.
  3. Establishes trust.

Best Practices for leveraging alumni as a student recruitment strategy:

  • Leverage star alumni with exceptional careers to give motivational talks/discuss career prospects.
  • Form alumni-student buddy programs to prepare candidates in the final stages of nurturing.
  • Get faculty and alumni from particular departments to conduct online introductory sessions.

3. Retouch base with prospects who have trickled out.

Why MOFU prospects: They may have dropped off due to lack of connection with you. Starting all the way from the marketing stage for fresh candidates will require more resources. If your target numbers aren’t matching, retouch base with MOFU contacts first.

Why TOFU prospects: Students may not have gotten admission in the college of their choice/ New restrictions may have held them behind/Other issues such as financial constraints may have prevented admission to other colleges.

Best practices for these student recruitment strategies:

  • Call students whose reason for dropping off is apparent– Segment them into lists (e.g., financial constraints/unmatched opportunities/visa issues) and contact them with relevant information. Since calls are extremely personal, connecting with dropped students this way will show you value them.

In California, a film school contacted 223 prospects with a message concerning their financial aid status using CallHub. They had previously sent an email but couldn’t get the attention they desired, hence the phone call. After the calling campaign, they got 15 transfers! Here’s the script they used: 

  • Send texts and emails with surveys if you’re not sure why they dropped off.
  • Send text or email blasts to bring to their attention the opportunities they may have missed, or developments that may get them interested in you again.
  • Nurture them using the same recruitment strategies you used for other successful prospects in the TOFU and MOFU lists.

For colleges and universities, retaining current students is just as important as securing new admissions. Low graduation rates show that a considerable number of students drop out of higher education midway. Studies show that:

  • For private colleges, four-year graduation rate is 52.8%, and six-year graduation rate is 65.4%.
  • For public universities, the rate is 33.3% and 57.6% respectively.

While some of these numbers reflect academic failures, they also indicate drop out rates. In addition to effective student recruitment strategies, ensure that students in your institution leave with a completed degree. Read: Student Retention Strategies: How To Decrease Dropout Rates.

Feature Image Source: Mikael Kristenson/Unsplash.

Tags: , ,