How to Communicate Smarter — Not Harder — to Increase Enrollment

8/16/2023 Jeff Fanter

How to Communicate Smarter — Not Harder — to Increase Enrollment

Higher education has long been part of the American dream and a pivotal step on the pathway to success. Over the past few years, however, the enrollment journey has changed, creating a need for colleges and universities to reconsider how they are reaching prospective students.

Throughout my 30 years working in higher education — the last 18 years focused on student acquisition and marketing — I’ve witnessed a great deal of evolution in the student-school communication journey. These changes have uncovered what I believe to be emerging opportunities and potential efficiency considerations for higher education institutions. 

As you evaluate your current enrollment strategy, here are four questions I often encounter that can help you assess existing processes.

What would you describe as a recent challenge or opportunity that higher education institutions currently face when it comes to enrollment?

It isn’t just about enrollment as a number anymore — it’s about the journey that leads students to enroll. Applicants today are typically further along in their research than they were in the past. The additional scrutiny creates challenges, but also provides opportunities for institutions to fine tune their communications strategies and the ways in which they connect with students and key influencers.

One of the biggest things I see is a missed opportunity to address all audiences that influence student decision making. More than ever before, colleges and universities need to reach out to prospective students and their parents, which are two very different audiences with distinct evaluation criteria. 

This seems like an obvious thing to do, but as I look at higher education communication journeys across the board, there often seems to be a disconnect between crafting the right message and finding the best way to deliver it to students and parents.

Looking at those two audiences, how would you describe the communications approach for each?

Your communications strategy ultimately needs to target both groups with relevant information delivered through the appropriate channels. When talking to parents, you need to answer key questions that influence decisions, including: 

  • How can you make this affordable for me? Or how can you make this investment more attractive to me?
  • Is the tuition number I see online and other places what I will pay? What aid do you provide based on my student’s academic performance in high school?
  • What will the ROI be? What type of career opportunities will my student be positioned for after leaving your college/university?

When communicating with students, the questions shift to include: 

  • What will the outcome be? What type of career will I be prepared for after I graduate, and how successful will I be in that industry?
  • Why are you the best college/university for the program I am interested in studying?

How can higher ed answer these questions effectively and efficiently?

Schools are often heavily reliant on email campaigns. But it’s important to keep in mind that you often don’t have parents’ email addresses, so in my opinion, direct mail should be a key part of any communications strategy.  Mail gets you physically into the home and oftentimes the first person to see the mail piece is the parent. 

It’s also critical to address those questions about outcomes and cost. A recent study from EAB showed that 36% of recent Gen Z students picked their institution because of its affordable tuition. This likely means that some students didn’t attend other schools because of affordability concerns. However, beyond loans or traditional financial aid, which not everyone will qualify for, most schools do also have merit-based awards and other programs that can help lower the cost. 

Be forthcoming regarding aid opportunities as early as possible in the process — don’t assume applicants and their parents will find this information on your website. It’s also important to address ROI — think typical starting salaries, internship programs, relationship-building opportunities, etc. These are the elements that will set you apart from other schools. 

On the student side, prospective applicants typically provide valuable information regarding the programs they are interested in, but I often see schools not utilizing this information. When communicating with students, highlight your strengths in their specific program of interest, educate them upfront about why you’re the best fit, and communicate what they can expect from a career after graduation.

In the current landscape, it isn’t so much about communicating what happens in those two to four years a student is at your school; it’s about painting a picture of what life could look like afterward. Sometimes this is difficult to do because it requires a well thought out, segmented communications journey. However, the investment to build such a journey can be the differentiating factor, increasing enrollment.

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How would you describe the role of both email and direct mail within the greater outreach and resource landscape, including the school website?

Each of these channels is an integral part of any school’s communications journey. Email is a great low-cost method to get in touch, but email alone is not enough. That same EAB study I referenced earlier revealed a recent 21% lift in response rate for students who received paper mail and email compared to email alone. 

Digital marketing is also a critical component of any campaign. Using digital ads to drive people to your website, gathering their contact information, and then doing additional outreach is an effective effort. Direct mail acts in much the same way, with the ad being delivered directly to your target audience. However, the tangible aspect of mail can provide a better chance of being seen and resulting in desired action.

There’s also a big opportunity to tailor the optichannel communications journey to a specific student interest. That opens up a whole other discussion about variability and targeted information, and there’s a lot you can do there. But ultimately, the key is to mix your channels. Time and time again, the numbers have proven that the best results come from a blend of channels across all industries. Education is no exception.


Jeff Fanter is RRD’s Vice President - Education Focus. Prior to joining RRD, Jeff served as Vice President of Marketing and Communications and Senior Vice President for Student Experience at Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana. He also has an extensive background in college athletics, serving as an assistant athletic director and a conference commissioner. 

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