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The Next Big Thing in Enrollment Management

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In a guest post today, John M. Baworowsky writes that social media could be a game changer for student recruitment–if enrollment managers got better at using those new tools.

I often wonder what the next big thing in enrollment management might be, and how changes in technology, communication, and information consumption will change how American colleges and universities reach prospective students. And I look to diverse sources for direction and inspiration. Recently, I ran across an article in Hemispheres magazine that featured an interview with Fareed Zakaria, the well-known Time magazine and CNN commentator. Zakaria suggested that “the ability to interact openly, without any kind of constraint,” is the key to innovation.  I also recently read a white paper on change and innovation written for Kelmscott Communications by Kathleen M. Cross, called “Six Great New Ways You Could Be Using Facebook for Student Recruitment.” Cross, a student-search expert, discusses how social media can be used in recruitment.

Social media and the Web more broadly are the most open systems of communication available. I believe they fit Zakaria’s definition of an open environment without any kind of constraint, and consequently hold great potential for innovation. The problem is that at this moment social media are primarily the turf of the traditional college-age population, and we, the enrollment managers, need to improve our skill at using those tools.

John Coach, Apple’s vice president for education, told me some years ago that a piece of technology is considered technology only by those who lived before it was created. Coach used the example of the telephone. For most of us alive today, he explained, the telephone is not technology because it has existed as a commonplace tool our whole lives.

The computer, by contrast, is technology for many of us because it was developed in our lifetimes. So it is a new tool that we must learn to use. Social media can be viewed the same way. For those of us in the business of recruiting students, social media are new technologies. Therein lies the problem: We need to learn how to embrace and use social media to change how we view student relationship-building and recruitment.

It is not a question of if but when there will be a major shift in the way we think about student recruitment. When will higher education move away from our old ideas of buying names, writing to students, adding respondents to our databases, and then sending paper letters, brochures, and e-mails to them?

To provide context, there has been a great deal of enrollment-management innovation over the last 20 years. First, computers allowed us to personalize everything we send to students. Second, the advent of the Web created a platform to provide information to readers and pull information from them. Third, variable printing allowed us to harness all of that information to produce personalized brochures for each student. Fourth, as the tools of the Web improved, we were able to innovate in our outreach, personalizing messages and tracking respondents on a micro level. And fifth, early social media allowed us to create content pages and offer a platform for students, mostly accepted students, to engage one another in a limited way.

But all of that innovation still exists within the long-held paradigm that building an inquiry pool is the first stage in the recruitment funnel. Are there signs that students are no longer as willing to participate in our existing paradigm? Sure: Consider stealth applicants. These are students who read our materials (paper or Web) but never inquire. We learn of their existence only when they apply for admission. Those students have opted out of our current paradigm. Recent research by Noel-Levitz shows that secret shoppers make up one-third or more of our applicant pools.

Should most of our outreach continue to be focused on encouraging students to inquire through traditional means? The big, scary answer is no. We need to supplement traditional communication and funnel-building approaches with a more innovative approach that uses social media.

Social media are the equivalent of the telephone for today’s students. They offer a huge, open, unstructured environment ready to be the innovative platform for the next recruitment paradigm.

That next major paradigm will require a change that takes away most of the controls from universities (or the firms hired by universities to do outreach) and moves that control to students who operate in the very open world of social media. Consider Cross’s ideas about the use of Facebook, and one can see the beginnings of the new paradigm. She writes that institutions should enhance their social media by adding an inquiry form to their Facebook pages, using Facebook pages as a source for new students.

She goes on to suggest creating a series of strategies that use Facebook as a platform for relationship-building. Her strategies include getting students to “like” your institution, embedding a mini site (including video) within Facebook, and opening a Facebook virtual campus store. All those ideas shift us away from maintaining control over an inquiry pool to an environment where we are an observer of student-to-student interaction within social media.

Richard Bailey, the principal of RHB, a higher-education marketing firm, told me of a new student-search strategy he developed for the University of Notre Dame. He sends traditional e-mails with a link to an already-completed inquiry card, but here is the big idea: He also includes, as an alternative, a link to a Notre Dame Facebook page where students can declare their interest in the institution.

Through that site, administrators are able to meet students, engage them with content like what Cross describes, and learn more about the students through their other Facebook connections. Notre Dame and others, I am sure, have taken a big leap away from controlling their inquiry pool toward an open system controlled by student users.

At Dominican University of California, our traditional travel brochure has the theme of “Dominican Dynamic.” We designed the brochure to include a die cut of our “D” logo along with instructions for students to take the cutout and photograph it against something they consider dynamic. Prospective students are encouraged to upload their photos to the institution’s Facebook site. On the site, students can see other representations of dynamism and can interact with one another.

This is an early effort to drive students not to inquire, but to engage with the institution and other students on Facebook. We are finding that a number of students have posted pictures, but that we need to do more promotion via Facebook to engage more students in the promotion.

Facebook also allows institutions to create a yearbook of sorts to house interested or enrolled students, and it offers other inexpensive tools that hold a great deal of promise. Many of the tools have been developed for business uses, but, as Cross describes, they are useful for institutional relationship-building as well.

What does this all mean for higher education? We can maximize the value of social media as a recruitment tool and better serve students if we are willing to engage students outside the bounds of traditional inquiry communications. But first we must be willing to let go of our old way of thinking. One day in the near future, we will judge the quality of our outreach by the quality of our social-media engagement and the number of interactions in our social-media environments.

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