Optimize These Five Tools to Improve Enrollment and Revenue

A simple Google search generated three headlines during December 2017 and January 2018  that questioned whether higher ed will survive. The climate is tough. Moody’s downgraded its financial outlook for higher education to negative from stable in December 2017. The enrollment pool seems to be ever shrinking and institutions struggle to keep up with tech advances and oceans of confusing data that supposedly hold all the answers.

But if there’s anything I have learned from my experience as a college board trustee, and as a leader of successful higher-ed-tech companies, it’s that the only way through challenges is to focus more on what CAN be done rather than what cannot.

It was not only admissions or online ed or digital marketing that gave UNA momentum. Rather, it was a combination of all of those...

Our partner, University of North Alabama (UNA), has seen its MBA program grow to be named the largest in Alabama for the second year in a row according to a list released by Birmingham Business Journal. Through truly collaborative efforts, it has been our honor to engage with UNA to harness a variety of tools in its toolbox.

The success came about through a number of adjustments at the university. It was not only admissions or online ed or digital marketing that gave UNA momentum. Rather, it was a combination of all of those, augmented with an attitude of curiosity and passion among both UNA’s teams and our own.

While no two colleges are exactly the same, and there is no simple solution that will work for all schools, what I would like to suggest is that there are five main tools worth looking at that are likely to help a college meet its goals.

These tools are:

  1. Admissions Process
  2. Marketing Channels
  3. Competitive Landscape
  4. Academic Programming
  5. Support Systems: Tech and Data

We’ve found that enrollment and revenue solutions usually involve all five of these tools. And even when not all five are examined, each impacts a college’s success rates. For instance, many higher ed teams see a natural connection between admissions processes and marketing, but since oversight of these five tools is often siloed throughout campus, it can be easy for one department to overlook the tools they don’t oversee.

When any one tool is overlooked, the others cannot work to their full potential.

Perhaps a school is not aligned with the realities of its competitive landscape. Or perhaps there are hidden gems to be found in the college’s academic program offerings. Are they being promoted enough? Regarding technology, students expect to have the same flow and ease with digital tools at college that they experience throughout banking, travel and other services. If technology falls short, a prospective student may cut and run before your college has had a chance to win them over.

On the data side, we are finding that automated data-capturing, analysis and reporting has freed up time for many of our partners so that they can focus on what they do best: engage with students and teach! Analytics can improve admissions processes, and are also beginning to help with student retention.

The main thing that we recommend is that colleges focus effort and investment across all five tools in order to optimize for enrollment and revenue growth.

Following are insights into three combinations of these tools.

Admissions Process + Marketing Channels + Technology

We encourage admissions teams to shift from awareness campaigns to focusing instead on the the potential among prospective students who are in the consideration phase.

For instance, a fast response to student inquiries communicates to students that they matter. Nurturing prospective students through their college selection process now requires more than visiting high schools or campus tours (although those are still important). Considering that prospective students now rely on smartphones and online services, the more a college can do to meet them in this space, the better.

Whenever prospective students find it easy and painless to interact with the colleges they’re considering, they are more likely to keep the college on their short list.

The High Value Asset that Goes Overlooked

A college’s website, often overlooked by enrollment growth teams, is one of its most valuable marketing assets. Yes, professors, programs, athletic teams and alumni are all valuable, but where do prospective students go to find information on these? Your website is where all the info comes together. It pulls in inquiries from prospects researching career paths. It becomes a landing page when students want to find out more about the fun events they see posted on social media. It’s where students go to get cost, housing and financial aid information.

With a strong, well optimized website, combined with data-driven online advertising, the smallest college budget can compete with the largest. The David and Goliath battle is in play in among all industries now, and the Davids are winning through smart, well selected digital campaigns that maximize search engine optimization.

Digital marketing allows colleges to reach out to micro-niches in ways that were not possible just a few years ago. And prospective students appreciate being able to connect with colleges through the digital platforms they are most comfortable with.

Competitive Landscape + Academic Programming

Whether urban or rural, location can be used to your advantage. Google searches for local information are growing by 200 percent year-over-year. What about the demographics of your community? Do you have more adult learners? Could you partner with a local employer that is looking for collaborators with its education assistance program? All of these variables contain areas of opportunity, but they often go unnoticed.

Even when colleges are invested in academic programs for mission-driven reasons, it is always a good idea to know whether your college is best positioned to draw students to higher demand programs. It’s a good idea to make the rounds through your academic offerings and ask these three questions:

  1. How saturated is the market for this program?
  2. Which colleges do you most compete with on a program by program basis?
  3. What differentiation opportunities are there?

We recommend that you map out your programs so that you understand which are your top performers. Which are attracting the most students? Which have generated graduates who seem to be an inspiration to younger students? If you were to score your programs on that, as well as market and employer demand, regulatory considerations and internal constraints, which would emerge as being your college’s top performers?

Understanding which programs are top performers is key to understanding how to invest your college’s resources. For instance, if there are courses that are so popular that there’s a wait list, perhaps offering the course via an online modality would allow you to grow enrollment in the program.

Another trend we’re seeing is that colleges are rethinking the names of their courses so that graduates will be better able to signal to employers that they are a match for certain jobs. This is especially important for skills that are easily hidden by umbrella terms. A business degree may now sound too general to employers, but a business degree with an emphasis on digital marketing stands out as meeting essential needs.

Consider also whether your academic programs could be enhanced or refocused in order to differentiate from the other colleges in your area.

Tech, Data + Admissions

All organizations, whether in higher ed or not, struggle to keep up with technological advances. Reliable digital systems make the non-academic responsibilities of being a student as easy and streamlined as possible. From registration to the bursar’s office, to transcript requests, a worry-free experience helps strengthen relationships with students.

Regarding data, there is now more data collected than ever before. This requires guarding and managing, but with care, data can become valuable. Data dashboards that point to strengths and weakness in admissions processes can help a school ensure that it spends its marketing dollars efficiently. Registration and student performance data can signal whether a student is at risk for dropping out. Colleges that reach out to students on the “at-risk” list have seen improvements in retention rates.

The main thing with data is to take a crawl, walk, run approach. Do what you can, with what you have, and opportunities for efficiencies will naturally occur over time.


But data requires a team effort. First, campus leaders must identify what questions and answers are most helpful to them. So often, people get stuck behind the barriers of unfamiliar software systems, or settings, that seem like a foreign language. It is normal to need the help of an IT or data expert to connect the data user’s needs with the data that is available. But once a few simple dashboards are in place, most people find they are quite easy to use.

Another problem with data management is that data is captured by such an array of tools and software programs that it can seem as if each department’s tools are incompatible with others. This is a challenge that Collegis is tackling. All data should be accessible regardless of what type of program it arrived in. We are working to create a system that will make data universally available whether it came in through admissions or the alumni relations team.

The main thing with data is to take a crawl, walk, run approach. Do what you can, with what you have, and opportunities for efficiencies will naturally occur over time.

A Five-Pole Tent

A tent requires a pole in four corners, and usually one in the center, to keep the roof from collapsing. Think of each of the above areas as a foundational pole that will shelter your college from the storms of change all around you.

Shore up your website’s analytics, and then use the insights you gain to strengthen the site pages that offer answers to most frequently sought information. In the admissions process, shift focus from awareness to those prospective students who are in the consideration phase. Consider the schools you compete with for students. Amplify your academic program offerings so that you can widen your enrollment pool for your highest demand programs. Then, weave an interlocking network of technology throughout campus so that both your staff and students can count on seamless, reliable digital tools. Finally, consider what data might be most useful to your key departments. Consider setting aside a day for IT staff to help admissions, marketing and other departments create data reporting dashboards with the tools currently in play. 

About the Author

James Cowie

President and Chief Executive Officer, Collegis Education, as well as Trustee Emeritus of Colby College and Life Trustee of the Illinois Institute of Technology. Education: Colby College and Stanford University

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