Student search: bridging the gap from sophomore to senior

When I started in admissions in 1999-2000, student search was targeted toward high school seniors. Relationships with incoming freshmen started when students were concluding their junior year or beginning their senior year of high school. The industry had fewer secret shoppers and email and websites were emerging as valuable communications media for student recruitment. Online social media networks did not exist.

Student search has changed. Online communications with students and families are crucial, and the search process begins much sooner. Colleges and universities are identifying candidates for admission as early as their freshman year of high school. Some of the highest response rates on student search campaigns I have seen occur among high school sophomores. High school seniors are a good target audience for generating admission applications, but colleges may search fewer names and see lower response rates.

This creates a new challenge for college admissions, marketing, and communications professionals: how to build relationships with high school students for two or three years before they become candidates for admission. Admissions offices are ultimately responsible for cultivating the incoming class with the current year’s high school seniors. Marketing and communications offices are responsible for a myriad of programs and services that may include public relations and institutional development in addition to admissions. Given all of the internal pressures and the changes in the external environment, how does an institution adapt to this shift in student search? Here are several suggestions:

  • Designate one admissions staff member to be responsible for developing and executing communications plans for pre-senior high school students. If your territory management system allows you to pay equal attention to high school sophomores and seniors, then you may not need to do this. However, if your counselors are focused on the next incoming class, then someone needs to pay attention to students who will be in the pipeline for a few years. This person needs the tools and support for the task, such as access to robust constituent relationship management (“CRM”) software. This person will likely have a reduced recruitment territory to focus attention on his or her new assignment.
  • Allocate marketing and communications resources for developing materials specifically targeted to pre-senior high school students and families. You want these students and families to be with you for the long haul, so you will need to do better than emails and brochures promoting your top academic programs or next campus visit event. Identify marketing materials that will promote your institution’s programs and satisfy current needs of the target audience. For example, if your institution emphasizes internships and co-ops, then produce a guide to high school students about finding job shadowing or internships before starting college. You could promote academic programs by offering advice to high school students about how to prepare for careers in the field. Most families would appreciate advice on how to pay for college. The goal is for your institution to be perceived as a valuable resource to prospective students and families now, so that your relationship will lead to an application and enrollment later.
  • Identify opportunities to create summer camps or special programs to engage high school students with particular programmatic affinities. For example, many colleges host sports camps or leadership camps on their campuses during the summer. In many ways, it is better than an admissions campus visit day—students come to campus, engage with faculty and staff, and make new friends while gaining experiences in an area important to them. When they leave, they have  a feel for your campus and the confidence that you can teach them the skills they need.

As you consider these suggestions and develop your own ideas, please keep three things in mind. First, your high school student prospects and inquiries from freshman through juniors are as least as important as your senior inquiries. Second, your marketing and communications plans should be mindful of what these high school students need and want in the short term. It is probably not your application for admission, but you probably have an abundance of programs or materials that they would find valuable. Third, make sure that your communications and programs for these students are relevant and that your call to action is clear. Telling these students why your college is great will not engage them for very long. Helping these students achieve their goals will develop relationships that may last a lifetime.

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