Co-written by Dr. Linda Hoopes
Dr. Linda Hoopes currently serves as director, campus relations, and formerly served as an associate vice president and consultant at Ruffalo Noel Levitz. She previously served as vice president for admission, financial aid, and marketing at Waldorf College (IA) and as director of admissions at Upper Iowa University.
Prospective students with high academic ability (or GPA equal or higher to 3.5) are desirable for many institutions, but effectively communicating with this group has become much more challenging. Even an elaborate communication plan can lose its punch if it attempts to communicate to all students in the same way with the same message. (Our colleague Sarah Coen has also written on this topic.)
For the last eight years Ruffalo Noel Levitz has surveyed more than 80,000 high school students and their parents to learn their preferences for communicating with colleges throughout the recruitment process (here’s our most recent report). Here are strategies for engaging high ability students based on the latest data.
Choose the right channels for prospective college students with high academic ability
In examining the responses of high academic ability students as compared to students with average academic ability (GPA between 2.5 and 3.4), we found interesting differences in preference. Our research continues to find that all prospective college students prefer email for first contact. However, high academic ability students prefer direct mail at a higher rate than average academic ability students, while average academic ability students prefer the telephone at higher rates than high-ability students.
Focusing on fit in a well-coordinated balance of engagements via multiple channels is key to successfully recruiting any student. Utilizing various channels of communication at each specific stage of the recruitment and enrollment process in order to encourage the student to move forward in his or her consideration of the institution (visit campus, complete the application, etc.) is also essential.
Initiate contact with prospective high-ability college students
High academic ability students are less likely to contact a college or university based on their interest before an institution contacts them. Can this be a factor in their willingness to respond and raise their hand earlier in the cycle? Consider this when creating your plan for communicating with this group. Also consider your strategy for students who are less likely to reply directly to outreach and would rather lead their own investigation. Are high-ability students being engaged throughout the cycle when they don’t respond?
When asked the reason why they would be willing to initiate contact with a college or university, high academic ability students responded that they would contact a college to plan a visit or to find out more information about a campus-sponsored activity (such as an athletic event). Average academic ability students said they were more likely to initiate contact with a college or university to find more information about their academics (e.g., majors, programs) and to learn about their athletic programs (e.g., requirements, recruiting events, try-outs, athletic scholarships).
Use the high academic ability students’ interest to attend campus events to invite them to recognition events in the spring with their families and involve their parents, as they tend to be more involved in their children’s college search plans.
Email and direct mail remain critical college student recruitment tools
Although both academic ability groups said they would choose email to initiate contact with a college or university before the school contacted them, average academic ability students are more likely to call the admissions office than high academic ability students (26 percent vs. 13 percent).
When asked what they would do when they were interested in a college or university based on an email, there was no difference between academic ability levels. The majority of the students (64 percent) would click on links within the email, followed by 30 percent who would close the email and research the school online.
Preferred responses to email
To learn more about what students do based on emails they receive from colleges and universities, check out the 2015 E-Expectations Report.
With direct mail, there were no differences between students of different academic ability levels. When asked what they would do next if they were interested in a college or university after receiving a piece of direct mail, most respondents said they would research the campus online.
Preferred responses to direct mail
Drive prospective college students to your website and other relevant online channels
What’s important is to remember that direct mail is more likely to drive prospective students to your website. According to the 2015 E-Expectations Report, eight out of 10 respondents also said that a college website affects how they perceive an institution. Therefore, make sure your direct mail is relevant, interesting, engaging, and really makes the student want to learn more.
Direct mail is shown to be an influential piece of communication channel for high-ability students. Considering their high level of parental involvement in the college search process, direct mail should become an integral piece throughout the cycle (from search to application completion) to foster engagement with both students and parents. Direct mail is a way to initiate family conversation by getting your message into the household, as well as a tactic to drive them to your website.
High-ability students are more willing to use social media in their college search than average academic ability students (58 percent vs. 33 percent), and they are much more likely to watch online videos as part of their college search process than average academic ability students are (69 percent vs. 47 percent). This emphasizes the importance of your website.
Communicate the right information
Additional focus groups with 100+ high-ability students confirmed findings from the 2015 Perceptions and Preferences survey. High-ability students are even less interested than average academic ability students in “heavy marketing”. They are looking for clear answers to simple questions regarding quality and availability of majors, financial aid, and opportunities to visit campus. They are interested in communication that opens up dialogue and allows them to ask specific questions. We need to be careful, though, as the focus groups provided clear feedback on one tactic in particular: communications that look like they will lead to finding answers to specific questions but actually are just a way “to get even more marketing” that pushes the institution’s information rather than answer questions are very much a turn off for this group.
High-ability students are more likely than their average ability peers to perceive that paying for college will be “quite difficult” (49 percent vs. 23 percent), therefore cost and financial aid information needs to be clearly stated and presented upfront.
High-ability students are also more likely to initiate contact with a school based on their interest to plan a campus visit (41 percent vs. 17 percent). This willingness to visit should be leveraged with communication pieces that are inviting, open a dialogue, and extend an invitation to visit the campus, with online visit scheduling, videos of campus online tours, and opportunities to ask questions students may have about the on-campus living experience.
Consider how you can help high academic ability students better assess fit earlier in the process through search, the art of inquiry management, and parental involvement throughout the process. Equally as important is maintaining a solid relationship with these students and their parents after they have submitted their application.
How can you reach more prospective high academic ability college students?
To find out more about how we can help you reach high academic ability students and engage them, please contact us. We use this research and more to drive our own services and consultation with colleges and universities. If you are in need of help in any of these areas, we have an experienced team of enrollment management and marketing consultants available. Contact us at 800.876.1117 or send us an email.
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