Why Less is More in College Admissions

Less is more. The idea that an admissions office shouldn’t try to appeal to ALL prospective students but rather focus on the RIGHT students - the ones that are the best fit for the institution - seems like a simple idea. Unfortunately, too many admissions offices out there still play the numbers game.

The biggest marketer of them has even hit on this topic directly. In Seth Godin’s post “The coming melt-down in higher education (as seen by a marketer)“, he states the following:

Why do colleges send millions (!) of undifferentiated pieces of junk mail to high school students now? We will waive the admission fee! We have a one page application! Apply! This is some of the most amateur and bland direct mail I’ve ever seen. Why do it?

Biggest reason: So the schools can reject more applicants. The more applicants they reject, the higher they rank in US News and other rankings. And thus the rush to game the rankings continues, which is a sign that the marketers in question (the colleges) are getting desperate for more than their fair share.

Seth is only partially right. Yes, colleges want to be able to reject more applicants to rank higher in US News. But beyond that, many schools are in this mentality that if they can get as many students as possible at the top of the funnel, that will result in more enrolls…and more tuition money.

But it’s just not true.

Don’t take my word for it. Let’s look at some numbers. Here are examples of two similar niche schools who’s marketing practices I am familiar with (you’ll have to take my word for it - I’m not naming names here). I’m not revealing any secrets - this data was taken directly off of US News and World Report’s website and is publicly available. Yes, this is what I do in my spare time. No, seriously.

School A has a very strategic marketing program designed to (a) break into new markets and (b) target the right students, a long-term strategy that took several years to build. School B uses the tactics that Seth describes in his post. What do these numbers tell you?

Picture 37 Why Less is More in College Admissions

Yes, School A brought in less applications and had a higher acceptance rate. If you just looked at that, you’d think that School B was obviously more successful…but it just doesn’t pan out that way after May 1 does it? School A has significantly higher conversion rates, resulting 30% more students in their freshman class!

You read that right. Less numbers equaled a 30% larger freshman class. Why? Because they marketed to the right students in the right way with the right message. That’s how you get conversions.

So we’ve established that targeting is good. Still not convinced that less is more? I’ll give you two more reasons why you want less numbers: Money and resources. How much do you spent on printing and mailing costs each year? On data processing for inquiries and applications? On counselor time on the phone making calls to inquiries, or reading and processing applications? When you have less inquiries and less applications, all of your costs go down. You will be able to operate more efficiently as an office, and dedicate your money and resources to the things that really make an impact.

If money is no object to you, then the more is more strategy is for you. No question. But I don’t know a lot of admissions offices that have extra money lying around this year. Do you?  Isn’t it time to start being strategic so you can operate more efficiently?

OK, so hopefully by now I’ve convinced you. But how do you start?

Minimally, let’s commit to getting rid of these insane applications. Waiving the application fee is one thing - that’s a fairly standard practice - but these no essay, quick decision, free gift applications only serve to devalue the colleges they come from. You WANT applying to your school to be hard - it’s those friendly obstacles (like filling out more than 20 questions on an application or writing an essay) that helps you weed out the students who are really interested from those who aren’t.

But if you go this route, take this small piece of advise - don’t panic. This plan sounds great in September, but come January here’s what’s going to happen: You WILL see less applications. Guaranteed. At some point, you’re going to see your numbers are lower than the previous year (or your boss will) and completely freak out. When this happens, take a step back and remind yourself that this is a longer term strategy that will pay off…but you have to sacrifice your short term, instant gratification fix.

It might take a year or two (or several, in the case of School A) for this strategy to pan out, particularly if you’ve been in the mode of just generating numbers for years. You need to clean your database of all the non-interested students that are in there for the sake of appearance. It’s not a quick fix, magic bullet strategy. But look past your next enrolling class and see the big picture. In the long run, it’s the more strategic, marketing savvy thing to do.


Epilogue: I actually wrote this post back at the beginning of May 2010, one week after Seth Godin originally posted his thoughts on the subject, but didn’t publish it for a lot of reasons. But I looked at it again last week and just didn’t see a reason to bottle it up any longer.

I’ve always been skeptical of student search campaigns, which is basically the type of marketing described in this post. It’s not that it doesn’t work…it’s that so few schools do them really really well. They can be extremely expensive (we’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars) and make up such a small slice of the overall admissions pie. And unfortunately, many colleges make the mistake of casting nets that are too broad or bringing creative to the table that does nothing to emphasize why the school is unique.

But last week I had a conversation with John Lawlor, Lynsey Struthers, and Kristen Kokkinen of The Lawlor Group and they revived my faith that there are higher education vendors out there that “get it” when it comes to student search. They didn’t ask me to write this (and honestly don’t know that I am!) but if you’re looking to do really customized student search campaigns that highlight the unique qualities that make up your institution, give them a look. Their approach is one that is sorely underrepresented in the higher education student search landscape and is such a breathe of fresh air. They won’t help you recruit every student out there…but they’ll help you recruit the right ones.

  • Tricia Petty -->

    Philosophically I can appreciate this. But I think the current economic reality (impact of tuition losses on operating budgets for Universities) will make this approach harder for schools to find the courage to implement. And, there is also a financial cost in how you find the ‘right’ students (predictive modeling, long-term studies of data points of enrolled students, knowing what students retain). I think most Admissions folks would love to feel comfortable moving in this direction….but also know that they don’t want to be the reason their school is laying off employees when the freshman class doesn’t hit target for a few years. So it’s a strategy that HAS to have buy-in from the top….and right now, I don’t see that happening at many schools until they have more confidence that the economy has settled.

    I agree that targeted admissions marketing and messaging can pay off on the back-end and in many other variables that impact image. I just worry that we’re not at a place in the current climate where many schools can make that jump with confidence and certainty. And the margin for error is slimmer than ever.

  • https://www.Head of Marketing morissette.com Head of Marketing -->

    Point taken. But there is a high financial cost either way you go. And if a school doesn’t want to do something strategic (and I’m not sure why being strategic would ever be viewed as a bad thing) in the meantime they can instead waste money on producing really impressively god awful search materials that don’t work just so they can look like they have a lot of numbers at the top of the funnel that will never actually convert to any tuition dollars. It’s all smoke and mirrors.

    I should be clear - it wasn’t that school A didn’t meet it’s enrollment goals in the ramp-up. They did.

    And where you are absolutely right is that it needs buy in from the top. That is critical.

  • https://merille.com Eduardo Merille -->

    I was actually shocked to find out how large a net we cast at my university (at least in email communications).

    I do not believe this is a one size fits all approach however. Some universities may be looking for aggressive growth or have such a wide range of programs that the cost to segment and target might be a restriction.

    In general however, not enough emphasis is placed on data clean up, especially with larger universities. So I would say that this is the right approach in most cases.

  • https://www.Head of Marketing morissette.com Head of Marketing -->

    Looking for growth is fine, but no excuse for casting a wide net. Look for areas of specific growth. Like, say, increasing enrollment from a certain geographic region or in specific programs. Then do really tailored messaging based on that goal.

    Even in just looking for general growth, it’s not a good reason to recruit every student that’s out there. It doesn’t take expensive predictive modeling to know the type of students who would fit the school best…any good director of admissions knows that information off hand. And if they don’t…well there are larger problems to deal with.

  • https://morethangrades.com Web ManagerRosich -->

    I think this should be taken a step further. What happens when the gigantic pool of students we have now evaporates? Will colleges cast an even wider and less targeted net? Many schools brag about increased applicants as if they did something magical to make it happen. Ask around, nearly every school has had an increase in applicants. Students are applying to more schools and there are more of them. I agree, less is more. We advocate the use of personalized virtual on-line college fairs that are designed to only attract students interested in a particular school, giving that school exactly what they should want, students interested in them. (To see an example, go to https://virtualonlinecollegefair.com) Buying leads is not the way to solve a long term problem. Growing your own leads by attracting and engaging students is the only real way to ensure continued growth. This includes correctly using Facebook and other social media sites not only to connect with students in general, but to connect with prospective applicants.

  • https://robinteractive.wordpress.com robinteractive -->

    Different colleges have different strategies, and a range of strategies can be effective. It all depends on the nature of the college and the college’s goals, of course. Casting a wide net can be effective and appropriate in some cases, even without a high level of content segmentation. I don’t dispute the effectiveness segmentation can have on return rates and employ some of those strategies myself, but I do think segmentation can be taken too far. That’s all a conversation for a different day, perhaps over a pint or two.

    What bothers me more than the wide net approach is the amount of communication (print and e-mail) from colleges that does little more than pushing inquiring or applying. This doesn’t even allow students within that wide net to easily self-segment toward or away from a school.

    I’ve seen college e-mails pushing applying with 8-10 links to an application, but they contain no info about the school beyond school name and no links to content besides the application. Unless the prospective student is independently familiar with the school that is a very soft app. And, sadly, I’ve seen similar print materials from colleges. You and I both know the vendors behind these approaches. Similar approaches are taken by these vendors with generating inquiries, as well.

  • https://morethangrades.com Web ManagerRosich -->

    One thing that should also be mentioned about emails that are not specific or targeted, they don’t get opened. We did a year and a half long study, following the emails of one student. The results were eye opening. Not only did most of these emails look identical, they were, for the most part, purchased leads not leads generated by this student’s specific interests. Our analysis also noted that the language used in these emails. For instance:
    Out of all the emails, 44 asked our student to fill out a survey of one kind or another. Another common request was to take a virtual tour or to sign up for a tour. That request happened 90 times. Of all the requests, the most common (191 times) was to view the school’s guidebook.

    As far as subject line, “last chance” and “apply now” were both quite popular. The phrase that appeared most frequently was “request….” To read more on our non-scientific study, see the blog post on this at https://morethangrades.com/mikes-blog/

  • https://www.debtfreecollegedegree.com April bishop -->

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