Greeting the class of 2026 may be almost a year away, but we’re in the middle of the application and admission process, meaning you need to think about how to engage next year’s freshman now. With enrollment dropping at an alarming rate, higher education institutions need to come up with creative ways to attract, engage, convert and retain prospective students.
An obvious answer is technology. Gen Z (the bulk of today’s college students) are extremely comfortable online, so appealing to the way they interact with the world makes sense. Many higher ed institutions adapted to using technology at least partially in 2020 when COVID-19 made traditional recruiting, campus visits and orientations impossible. But leaning into online engagement can offer savvy schools a leg up when it comes to standing out to prospective students.
“Leaders looking to compete with other institutions and to capture students’ attention can use digital tools to automate and accelerate admissions processes, deploy personalized communications, and transform recruitment activities into engaging experiences that can be accessed anywhere around the world.” — Educause
The key words in that statement are “personalized” and “engaging.” Creating a generic digital experience won’t connect with today’s students. The digital world they engage in is a personalized online experience tailored exactly to them, and that’s the type of experience you need to recreate to catch their attention and interest.
Lean Into the Data
We’re in a data-driven world and higher education institutions are in a unique position to have meaningful data about their exact target consumers. As a recent Educause article noted, students literally hand institutions first party information about their interests, extracurriculars and aspirations.
Institutions can use this information to interact with and appeal to prospective students in a personalized way that they’re more likely to connect with. Embracing technology in tandem with personalized data means schools can launch initiatives and solutions that enable prospective students to meaningfully interact and engage with the school and peers before ever stepping foot onto campus. In some cases, you can use prospective student data to automatically add them to relevant groups, events, Q&A sessions or connect them with student mentors, showing them you care and creating a strong community environment from the start.
Benefits of an Online Experience
When the ability to gather in person abruptly stopped in 2020, schools had to get creative. This led to moving many traditional perspective student activities — like info sessions and orientation — entirely online. While many institutions are returning to in-person events, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. There are many ways online experiences can enhance the traditional prospective student experience and in many cases help build an even stronger affinity to the institution.
In the past, prospective students often had to sign up for information sessions, Q&A sessions and other events they were interested in. While they may have received an email invitation based on their interests or indicated major, they still had to take action.
Moving events online gives institutions the opportunity to proactively register students for events that align with their profile. Instead of sending an invite to register, a pre-registered event can appear on their prospective student calendar. These can be scheduled based on school, major, activities, interests or general student life — anything that student has indicated they’re interested in or may predictably be interested in based on their overall profile. (A student who indicates they intend to live on campus would logically be interested in a session that explains the different dorms and room types. Present that session to them so they don’t have to piece together information. )
Moving online also creates an opportunity for more one-on-one engagement through smaller Q&A sessions, direct messaging or chatbots. This gives prospective students a more intimate way to connect, form relationships and get their questions answered.
One of the major markers of success in higher education is a sense of community and belonging. Building that sense of belonging, community and excitement can mean the difference between a prospective student accepting your offer or choosing another institution. Spirits and excitement are high during in-person events, but creating an engaging online experience gives institutions the ability to maintain that excitement throughout the admissions process.
Like creating personalized experiences, self-reported student data can be used to automatically add students to relevant online groups. This gives them the ability to engage and form connections before the semester starts. Creating that sense of community can make a student more apt to select your institution and ease the transition to college.
Keeping Up with Deadlines
Applying to and selecting a college is an exciting time, but it can also be scary, stressful and overwhelming — especially if a student applies to multiple schools or doesn’t have a top choice yet. There are a lot of deadlines involved with applying to and selecting a school, then following through with all the pre-semester requirements (like applying for financial aid, selecting housing and registering for classes). Missing one deadline can put a wrench in a student’s experience — sometimes even delaying their enrollment entirely.
A robust online experience personalized to each student can help keep things on track. The right digital experience can surface important deadlines through calendar events and send deadline reminders through multiple communication channels (including push notifications if your experience has a mobile app). Centralizing tasks into a single dashboard makes keeping up with everything easier and less stressful — especially if students can complete important tasks from within that same platform. Meeting deadlines because they’re clear and well communicated can help keep students on track to attend next semester, an important step for schools trying to avoid student summer melt.
Start Making Moves Now
As we stare down the winter holidays, summer seems like a lifetime away. But we all know it will be here before we know it. As spring moves in, rising freshmen will be looking for exciting ways to interact with their prospective future universities. For students trying to decide where to attend college, a modern, tech-drive experience can often make a school stand out.