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4 min read

The Cost of Traditional Student Recruitment

The Cost of Traditional Student Recruitment

When my great aunt was 18 years old, living on the family farm, and attending a small schoolhouse in rural western Pennsylvania, a representative from a local college visited.

She was top of her class, and he suggested that she apply to attend. By 1942, my great aunt had a degree in Chemistry from Bethany College and a job in a lab in the big city of Wheeling, WV. In explaining my job to her 80 years later, I realized it was pretty simple: I was essentially doing the same thing as that Bethany representative almost a century ago, traveling and connecting with students hoping they would apply to the institution I worked for.

The transformative power of education cannot be denied. But, we cannot also ignore how limited the transformation of the college recruitment space has been. Let's investigate.

 

The Traditions of College Recruitment

Historically, student recruitment travel has taken up the largest percentage of Admission budgets. On average, schools spend $359 per student traveling across the country and world, racing from high school to high school and college fair to college fair. (View and download our infographic for the full breakdown of traditional recruitment costs.)

 

The Cost of Traditional Student Recruitment - pie chart graphic with image demonstrating student recruitment methods

 

On-the-ground recruitment can be incredibly positive. Walking into school after school, driving through communities, connecting with counselors, and eating at local spots can give representatives a strong sense of what differentiates communities and the concerns those environments hold.

On a more personal note, there is nothing more gratifying than having a long conversation with a prospective student, and seeing them walk away from your discussion feeling more confident in and excited about the college process. 

 

The Challenges of Traditional Recruiting 

However, there are challenges to this traditional model as well. There are over 30,000 high schools in the country. Even if representatives were to spend 24 hours each day visiting high schools, there is no way that every high school student could be reached.

So, schools need to make choices. They concentrate time and energy on known entities (feeder schools), and pepper in other schools that would help with enrollment goals. Often, rural and low-income communities are at a disadvantage.

And, what happens next year? You need to do it all over again because the students you spoke with are now attending a college (which might not be yours).

Beyond the impossible numbers game of trying to reach students high school by high school or fair by fair, once you get to an event, there is no guarantee that a student who might be a good fit for your school will come by and say hello. Names and reputations reign supreme and rare is the 17-year-old who is okay with skipping out on class to check out a college they have never heard of. This is, of course, not the case for every college and university; some places are so inundated with interested students that it can be hard for the admission representative to make it to their car at the end of a long night. 

 

Opportunities to Change the College Student Recruitment Tradition 

Higher education is experiencing a moment of thoughtful reflection and necessary change to a system that was not built for everyone. Think of the recent SCOTUS decision, for instance.

Many places are pulling back the curtain on the fraught concept of tradition and going back to the drawing board. They are asking themselves what their goals are in terms of enrollment and mission. They are questioning what they would do if they weren't tethered to a long-established recruitment system focused on travel, events, and print publications. They are determining how to foster diversity without affirmative action. Based on these answers, they will consider how they might spend their time and money differently. 

Here are some opportunities to change the college student recruitment tradition.

 

1. Meet students where they are

While in-person connection is an important part of the work that admission representatives do, higher education now has the incredible ability to reach more students where they are. Instead of forcing students into our recommended mode of interaction (come talk with a stranger IRL about a school you might or might not like), let's meet them where they are. 

We know that this generation of students likes to passively consume information, aggregating data points under the radar. They see through marketing and technical terminology and slice through nonsense like mini Jedi masters. They are, in a word, savvy. So, how do you respect their reality while also fighting for yours?

 

2. Be present and authentic

Start by understanding the environments where they engage with content, both related to colleges and not. Where are they searching for schools? What is their source of truth? Once you understand that, think about how you can be present and authentic in those environments. 

Read More: Recruiting Gen Z: Best Practices for Prospective Student Communications

We know that this process is overwhelming and intimidating. There are many students out there who have support and personalized coaching from friends, family, hired counselors, and guidance counselors. While the process for these students is not without stressors, they know to talk with a rep at a college fair, fill out a card, and ask questions about letters of recommendation. And, they have likely had the support to understand what college would be a good fit for them. Hopefully, that support network introduces them to a wide range of institutions that might be a good fit. 

But for many, many more students, this is not their experience. So, how can you find and support them? Again, how can we meet them where they are? Most students are much more likely to click on a picture of a school they have never heard about than walk up to a table in a crowded gym staffed by a smiling stranger. So, be in spaces where they are, invite them to get to know you, show them the best of you, and then trust that they will engage if your school matches their preferences for school. 

 

Building on Old Student Recruitment Traditions

Connecting in person is an element of the college search process that I wouldn't want to see end: there are far too many positives. But let's continue building on the growing tradition of understanding students, respecting their realities, gaining a sense of how they want this process to go, and meeting them where they are.

This article was originally published on August 31, 2021. It was updated on May 1, 2024 for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

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