Your Next Student Is a Customer — Here’s How To Communicate With Them

11/7/2022 Jeff Fanter

Your Next Student Is a Customer — Here’s How To Communicate With Them

It used to be that higher education was a widely acknowledged step on the path of life. People were expected to graduate from high school, get a four-year degree, begin a career, and buy a house — all in that order. But recent research shows that between rising tuition costs, changes to the way we work, and changes to the way employers hire, that path is no longer a given.

Attending college is now a choice that students opt into. The choice of which college they’ll attend is an even more important consideration, and one that higher ed institutions need to carefully speak to. 

Ultimately, a prospective student isn’t just a student anymore; they’re a customer. Here’s what to keep in mind when communicating with these prospective customers during the application and enrollment process.

1. Students expect more

College used to be a place for a student to discover who they are and figure out what they want out of life. While time to think sounds great, today’s students realize there are less expensive ways to “explore.” 

When they’re investing in an education, it’s because they’re planning for what they want after graduation. Speaking to the “discovering” aspect could put you behind other institutions that focus on end results — or even behind the rising number of companies with a skills-based hiring approach instead of a traditional education-based hiring approach.

Try this: Refocus your communications to speak to the “life after college” aspect to better grab prospective students’ attention and make it into the contenders' pile.

2. ROI matters

Speaking of life after college, what will your students’ ROI be post-graduation? Secondary education is expensive. If a student will need to take out loans to attend, what guarantee do they have that they’ll be able to pay them off? Even if they don’t have loans, they’re likely looking at colleges because they have a certain interest or envision a certain lifestyle for their future. How will attending your school help them achieve it?

Try this: Your customers want some assurance that after graduation, they’ll be able to find a job in their selected career path and be able to afford the life they want. Address those interests and concerns. During my tenure at Ivy Tech, I was fortunate to work on a Wheel of Value, which communicated program offerings and expected ROI in an interesting, engaging way.

3. Address your full audience

When communicating with prospective students, make sure that you are also communicating with their parents. Recent research from EAB shows that 75% of parents want direct communication from schools during their child’s college search process. Parental involvement is higher than ever, and making it from the mailbox into the house is often a result of getting the parents’ attention. 

Try this: Consider messaging that appeals to parents and plan your communications strategy accordingly. Communications detailing expected ROI, or referencing “your student’s first job after college,” do a great job highlighting potential end results. Learn more about communication strategies that target dual student/parental audiences in my previous article here.

4. What is your buyers’ journey?

When you start seeing each prospective student as a customer, the marketing plan changes a bit. It’s less about simply informing the recipient about the steps they need to take, and more about strategically speaking to the buying stage they’re in.

What are a student’s buying stages? Just like a traditional buyer journey, students move through the awareness, consideration, and decision stages. 

Try this: Consider what your audience wants to know at each of these stages: What questions do they have about your school and available programs? What information is most important to them? What other considerations is your customer making, and how can you stand out? Thinking through a buyer journey lens can help answer these questions and address any gaps.

5. Personalize the experience

When it comes to any marketing outreach, personalization is always better. Small things like using variable fields in email and direct mail pieces are a great, budget-friendly way to start, and help keep a prospect’s name front and center.  Also, according to our latest marketing research, direct mail feels novel for digital natives.

From a bigger perspective, if a student has expressed an interest in a certain program, focus communications on that program, testimonials from current students, and expected outcomes. If a student has looked at financing or affordability, create content to focus on paying for college, along with their expected post-graduation ROI. 

Try this: Anywhere you can personalize — either through targeted content or straightforward name inclusion — do it. It’s the perfect opportunity to communicate that your institution will treat each student like the individual they are.

6. Customer experience counts

Customer service is key in every industry, and higher education is no different. Think about your own experience. The places that become your favorites — and the ones you probably frequent the most — are the ones that treat you well. 

Education has long been approached as a necessary service and a guaranteed next step. But in the new employment marketplace, where gigs and skills are sometimes out-paying degrees, that can no longer be the case. 

Just as you need to treat your student like a customer throughout the application and enrollment process, you also need to treat them like a customer throughout their education, and even throughout their alumni experience. Standing out from other institutions not adjusting to the new education model will not only increase applicant and enrollment numbers, but will also help create loyal, lifelong customers.


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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