A New Way to See Enrollment

Ross Sylvester

I’m currently rewatching “The Wire” on HBO. The story chronicles the fight against Baltimore’s drug problem. (And being born in Baltimore means this story hits close to home for me.) What I type next is not a spoiler, and I plan to live in abstraction to ensure you watch this show if you’re not already a fan.  

For those who aren’t fans yet, the show’s storyline follows the drug problem from the streets of Baltimore to local newspapers following the tragedy, to the police and investigators working to address a troubling situation. Every effort goes into mitigating risk head-on. Intuitively, this makes sense. If someone is selling drugs on the street, then stop them from selling drugs on the street.  

Right? Well, not exactly. When we put this same rationale of cause and effect under the lens of enrollment, we may think “If high school juniors and seniors are applying to college, then we should get them to apply to our school."

What if I told you that how we think about enrollment is wrong? That our data, our processes and our strategies miss the bigger picture? 

High schoolers begin shopping for college during their junior year. At the same time, institutions buy names, send communications and try to stand out in the shopping process. Intuitively, this makes sense, too. 

Now, back to “The Wire,” The season intertwines the lives of Baltimore’s youth and the perplexed investigators and police, and we watch as a time-tested strategy does not yield effective results. Jumping ahead a few seasons, we find the police beginning to see the problem on a new continuum. The drug problem begins much earlier than investigators originally thought. It starts in schools, as early as middle school, where young, impressionable kids mirror their older peers.

So, when does the journey to consider college really begin? It starts in 9th grade. This is especially true for low-income, first-gen students as this is when many decide that college isn’t in their future, and their choices over the next four years mirror that belief.

First impressions have a disproportionate ability to shape our worldview. If I hear from a school first, or earlier than when the typical pouring-in of communications begins, they are now renting space in my mind, and that space is limited. So, when you, or other schools, come later, there is a good chance you won’t have an opportunity to participate.  

 Here are three creative, effective, low-effort and low-cost measures that will help you succeed in engaging students earlier in their college journey. 

  • Get moving with TikTok. What’s amazing about TikTok is its organic reach. Why not have a few incredible student workers engage with this medium. The benefit: It's free and low effort, and it doesn’t take too much time (allocate an hour each week to shoot a few fun videos about your school and why enrolling is important.) One of our customers, Penn State, has partnered with one of their own students, TikTok influencer Katie Feeney, to expand their reach and content excellence.  
  • Strategically Engage Counselors. In his garden in Italy, Vilfredo Pareto found that 20 percent of the pea pods in his garden produced 80 percent of the total crop. This concept, “The Pareto Principle,” has popularized the 80/20 idea. Applied to higher education, it suggests that a few high schools produce a disproportionate number of applications. Is that true? Can you segment this further? Could you focus even more on those top schools and provide more value to educators? Could you better cultivate a relationship? Could you offer a talk about the value of college to prospective students? Consider effective strategies like educator-style competitions that strategically engage and reward high-participation rates.  
  • Offering creative incentives to attract students. At one event I attended, a banking executive discussed his company's success with creative incentives:  "Our best approach was offering once-in-a-lifetime incentives. We offered golfing trips with pro golfers, we offered dinner with famous chefs. People could only get access to these great opportunities through us." Now, let's reframe this for higher education: Consider students interested in studying sports science, nutrition or physical therapy. Could you give one lucky student the opportunity to meet with the head football coach over Zoom? And what about your scholarship dollars? Consider a "one-time-only" scholarship for students studying computer science in high school: You'd promote this offer specifically to students who have been accepted (but aren't responsive to post-acceptance communications) to potentially tip the scale in your favor. 

Leveraging incentives only you can provide will help you move students toward your institution and showcase the value of the student experience at your school.

There are exciting, low-lift opportunities to engage students earlier and give them incentives to move through your funnel and onto your campus. Students want to engage with you—and engaging with them on the right platforms will support your enrollment efforts and your students’ college-going ambitions. 

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