Plenty of Fish in the Sea

Arielle Ahladianakis
Jan 9, 2020

Where have all the applicants gone?

That’s exactly what a growing number of college admissions staffers across the country have been wondering in recent years, with applicant pools dwindling and enrollment pressures rising at the same time.

Only 38% of college admissions officers are meeting their enrollment goals by the traditional target date of May 1, according to one recent study. In the survey of 499 senior staffers in admissions or enrollment management, more than 50% of respondents working for community colleges, private/doctoral master’s programs and private bachelor’s programs — as well as over 60% of those working for public master’s/bachelor’s programs — reported feeling “very concerned” about filling their institutions’ classes.1

It isn’t just a matter of perception. Overall, applications to U.S. MBA programs have been on the downswing for four consecutive years, including a 7% decline from 2017 to 2018, according to a Graduate Management Admission Council study. The latest year-to-year drop in applications for international students was even sharper at 11%, amid an uncertain policy landscape on immigration. Even for some of the country’s leading MBA programs, such as those at Harvard Business School, University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and Stanford Graduate School of Business, applicant pools declined by at least 4.5% from 2017 to 2018.2

The timing could not be worse. The drop in international applications to U.S. MBA programs is occurring in tandem with another broad trend threatening key admissions priorities across academic disciplines — low rates of diversity in the classroom. In 2016-17, international interest in American higher education declined for the first time in 14 years.3 And despite wide-scale efforts to improve ethnic diversity in higher education, African Americans and Hispanics are more underrepresented at top colleges today than they were 35 years ago.4

All of this has admissions offices asking: What new tools and strategies can we utilize to stem the tide of declining applications and enrollment, and ultimately, to increase those numbers? The truth is, there are plenty of fish in the sea. Schools just need to start thinking more creatively about finding them — and reeling them in. The following five strategies have all proven effective at helping schools achieve that goal.

Leverage alumni as recruiting tools

When it comes to promoting the growth of current and future enrollment, schools can benefit from enlisting their past students to help create alumni recruiting networks.5 After all, the individuals whose lives and careers have been positively influenced by their experiences on campus can be some of the strongest spokespeople for an academic institution.

For example, the U.K.-based University of York runs a Student Ambassador program with paid part-time representatives who reach out to prospective international students “to explain what life as a student is like and to encourage them to apply to university.”6

Longwood University’s Assistant Vice President of Alumni and Career Services Ryan Catherwood has suggested that if institutions wish to recruit alumni to volunteer their time for enrollment efforts, the schools should engage the alums in a different way. Catherwood says that includes not requiring them to show up at a specific place and time and providing an engagement avenue that could be more appealing than a traditional volunteer. Such engagement could include digital volunteerism such as sharing Facebook posts or retweeting messages that are meant to drive interest in the school.

“If it’s simple, meaningful, and doesn’t require place and time, it’s probably tough [for an alumni volunteer] to say no to, right?” Catherwood writes.7

Engage in discipline-wide recruitment campaigns

Schools and programs don’t need to operate in isolation. In virtually all well-established academic disciplines, professional associations support the efforts of their member institutions to boost enrollment by driving interest in their fields. 

One example is the “Pharmacy Is Right for Me” recruitment campaign — a collaboration between the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy, the American Pharmacists Association and the Pharmacy Career Information Council. It provides students, parents and educators with interactive tools, resources and first-person testimonials that offer insights into career opportunities within the pharmacy field.

The campaign’s activities and resources include the distribution of the Pharm4Me monthly email newsletter, which showcases potential career paths by spotlighting news, events, internship opportunities and exclusive content produced by current pharmacy students. Also, an “Innovation Challenge places middle and high school students with student pharmacists on teams in which they collaboratively identify innovative solutions to medication- or health-related problems in their communities. Other features of the program include an online glossary of pharmacy terms and information on pharmacy school admissions.

Deploy an omnichannel marketing strategy

When it comes to designing a marketing strategy that drives enrollment, it’s incumbent upon schools to use the full range of possible tools and media at their disposal — from the new-age to the traditional. An omnichannel marketing strategy ensures that colleges and universities can reach a more diverse audience of potential applicants with wide-ranging habits and preferences regarding their modes of communication.

As early as 2014, nearly two-thirds of high school students were using social media to research colleges, and three-quarters found social media to be an influential tool in their enrollment decisions, according to a Uversity survey.8 With that in mind, building a steady following of prospective students on social media, creating shareable content that sparks interest and formulating an effective social media advertising strategy are crucial components of enrollment marketing in the 21st century.

Thinking creatively about recruitment videos can also ignite positive momentum during enrollment season. Butler University deployed its mascot, a bulldog named Butler Blue, as the star of a recent recruitment video. A video from the University of Oregon emphasized the lush forestry on the school’s campus as well as the University’s history and football program. The video’s philosophical theme — “the power of ‘if’”— aimed to make the school feel accessible for prospective students. And Boston College artistically leveraged students’ pop culture interests in a “Special Delivery” video, with a Harry Potter theme envisioning what admissions might look like for the Class of 2022.

At the same time, even though many of today’s applicants have been surrounded by technology since birth, traditional communication methods — such as direct mail — also remain relevant and effective. Marketing literature that students can touch and feel often possesses the potential for a more enduring impact than digital materials, which students can click away from in an instant online.

Consider, for example, how Liaison International’s clients repeatedly draw on the power of direct mail in their recruitment marketing campaigns:

  • Central Methodist University (CMU) uses a mailer with messages from students and alumni to describe the CMU experience to prospective students. The offer of a free iPad Pro for all students at the school’s Fayetteville campus offers an added incentive for students to apply and, ultimately, enroll.
  • Temple University’s School of Public Health sends a graduation cap topper to accepted high school seniors to build a sense of pride that they are part of the Temple community. The direct mail piece is complemented by a series of ongoing “touch point” communications over the summer to keep accepted numbers steady.
  • Washington & Jefferson College (W&J) maintains contact with its accepted students over the summer through a series of direct mail pieces designed to immerse them in the W&J experience. The first mailers, which invite accepted students to share their W&J pride, include small gifts like decals, socks and magnets. The final touch provides a journal that students can use to begin building a personalized learning plan as well as an online guide to lead them through the process.

Automate More with an Enrollment Marketing Platform

Liaison’s Enrollment Marketing Platform (EMP™) functions as a full-service extension of a school’s marketing team.

EMP creates integrated web, email, text, print and voice messaging campaigns within one convenient platform, enabling schools to scale their efforts without scaling admission resources. The platform tracks and scores all activities and interactions and provides easy access to data at all times, providing staffers with critical knowledge of prospects’ interest in a school, based on their behavior. Institutions benefit from a 360-degree view of their enrollment marketing plan and results through an easy-to-use web interface.

Through EMP, schools:

  • Identify and engage top prospects by launching personalized electronic, digital and print enrollment campaigns
  • Send immediate, personalized responses to student interactions
  • Continuously engage with prospects throughout the admissions cycle
  • Score students based on their actions and identify those most likely to enroll
  • Utilize event management tools to maximize campus visits, open houses and virtual tours
  • Create a private social network to fully engage accepted students

When Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) partnered with Liaison’s EMP, its goal was to develop a holistic campaign strategy with multiple touchpoints across each stage of the enrollment funnel. Search campaigns, event promotions and drive-to-apply campaigns leveraged data on each student to deliver personalized communication across channels.

“Internally, we worked with athletics and student life to identify high-level buckets based on whether a student says they’re interested in club sports, playing a musical instrument or things like that. Then, we worked with the Liaison team to plan ways to promote MSOE to students based on their interests,” explains MSOE’s Dean of Admissions Seandra Mitchell.

EMP allows Mitchell and her team to operate more efficiently. 

“We can immediately start getting high school seniors information on MSOE and our upcoming events, or sending freshmen and sophomores information about our summer programs,” she says. “That’s been a contributing factor in growing this year’s applications — some of these students have been in our system longer, so they’ve been hearing about us longer.”

After introducing EMP, MSOE exceeded its enrollment goal for a new computer science major by 104% in 2018, while increasing total enrollment at the school by 15% and application volume by 14.5% from 2017 to 2018.

Before joining EMP, Northeast Ohio Medical (NEOMED) University was using a customer-relationship management (CRM) platform that had limited outbound email capabilities and an out-of-date user interface. 

Now, EMP’s “robust CRM” has “allowed us to expand to a more nationwide presence,” says NEOMED’s Director of Admissions James Barrett.

“We’ve been able to segment opportunities for students using EMP as a portal,” he says. “This tool is not only a CRM, but it also provides a robust landing page experience that can be dynamic as prospective students change their areas of interest. We’re able to leverage that quite a bit.” 

NEOMED has grown its verified applications by 42% and increased deposits by 39% since implementing EMP.

At Minnesota State University, Mankato (MSU, Mankato), the priority was to increase enrollment without growing its admissions budget. To stretch limited resources, Director of Admissions Brian Jones decided to reshape the University’s communication strategy. By using data to determine which students were most likely to enroll, his team was able to refocus outreach efforts and become more efficient.

Refining engagement scores and updating the school’s communication strategy through EMP allowed the University to realize a 9.8% year-over-year increase in the number of students enrolled for the fall — that meant 200 more first-year students, resulting in over $1.1 million in additional tuition revenue.

In addition to identifying an engagement score threshold where students were more likely to enroll, MSU, Mankato also determined that students with scores below a certain level had a significantly lower yield percentage. Using that information, MSU admissions staff can now send out direct mail pieces when students reach a certain engagement threshold. 

“EMP has helped us amend our communication strategy to ensure a greater return on investment. We’re now able to save costlier admissions tactics for those prospects most likely to enroll,” Jones says. Those tactics include variable print campaigns developed in partnership with the EMP team and managed on the marketing platform. 

Streamline Admissions with a Centralized Application Service

Another pioneering tool from Liaison is the Centralized Application Service (CAS™), a cloud-based recruiting and admissions solution for higher education institutions and associations looking to grow and shape enrollment while reducing overall effort and costs. 

Today, more than 31,000 academic programs on over 1,000 campuses use a CAS. Liaison has partnered with professional associations to create over 40 discipline-specific iterations of the CAS. As a result, associations can now better support their members by promoting best practices and the adoption of a transformative tool in the admissions process.

With a CAS, institutions receive a wide array of benefits at no cost, including program promotion, support throughout the onboarding process and applicant cycles and the scanning, processing and packaging of application materials. CAS enrollment management software includes program-specific workflows, scoring rubrics, interview resources and cutting-edge data reporting and analytics tools.

During the application process, Liaison physically receives and scans all application materials and supporting documentation, helping schools go paperless. This speeds packaging completion and decision times, allowing institutions to focus on achieving enrollment goals.

A CAS also frees up admissions professionals’ time by automatically conducting thorough reviews of every application a school receives to ensure its completeness and accuracy. This involves verification of coursework entry, transcript authentication and GPA calculations.

Liaison also notes that, on average, schools may expect to experience as much as a 10% increase in the diversity of incoming classes after joining a CAS.

Carsi Hughes, Ph.D., director of Dominican University’s postbaccalaureate premedical program, explains how implementing a CAS boosted the university’s national reach through the implementation of a streamlined admissions process.

“We more than doubled our number of spring starts over previous years, with no additional marketing,” she says. “As for applications in progress, we easily have 10 times the number we usually have by now. The CAS has enhanced visibility and interest in our program. The numbers are unbelievable.”

University of La Verne’s PsyD program, meanwhile, nearly doubled its out-of-state applicants in just one year with a CAS.

“We can easily pull all of the information that goes into the CAS application, whether it’s related to applicant gender, diversity in different factors or geographic area,” says Psychology Department Manager Natalie Brown. “We also poll our applicants to find out how they heard about us, so we have a good base of knowledge [related to] where they’re learning about our program.”

Samford University’s McWhorter School of Pharmacy grew its applicant pool 125% by using a CAS.

“It’s great to be able to look at where our applicants are coming from and which undergraduate programs are the largest feeders of the national applicant pool,” says Assistant Director of Admissions Jon Parker, noting that the information allows him to understand where to apply critical recruiting dollars.

Using the reporting tools in Liaison’s WebAdMIT™, the administrative portal for each CAS, the admissions department at The College of St. Scholastica clearly demonstrated the value of a CAS to the schools’ departments and administration: a 30% increase in the number of total applicants to graduate programs. With this data, the school applied for — and received — a significant institutional grant to fund additional technology for graduate and online programs.

“Our diversity has gone up, both in terms of culture and gender,” says St. Scholastica’s Assistant Director of Graduate, Extended and Online Admissions Chad Oppelt. “As a result of implementing NursingCAS, our minority and male acceptances to nursing programs increased by 10%. And our quality — average GPAs and average GRE scores across all CAS programs — has gone up, too.”

Your potential applicants are still out there. Thinking creatively about new marketing and recruitment strategies, and introducing resource-efficient tools like Liaison’s EMP and CAS, will make it easier for you to find them.


12018 Survey of College and University Admissions Directors, Inside Higher Ed
2Application Trends Survey Report 2018, Graduate Management Admissions Council
3International Graduate Applications and Enrollment: Fall 2017, Council of Graduate Schools
4Even With Affirmative Action, Blacks and Hispanics Are More Underrepresented at Top Colleges Than 35 Years Ago, The New York Times
54 Ways to Use Alumni to Recruit Prospective Students, You Visit
6Be a Student Ambassador, University of York website
7When Alumni Offer to Help, Higher Ed Live
8Digital, Social, Mobile: The 2014 Social Admissions Report, University
Arielle Ahladianakis

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Over the last three decades, Liaison has helped over 40,000 programs on more than 1,200 campuses more effectively manage admissions through its Centralized Application Service (CAS™) technology and complementary application processing and support services. The higher education technology leader supports its partner institutions’ total enrollment goals by pairing CAS with its Enrollment Marketing (EM) platform as well as the recently acquired TargetX (CRM) and advanced analytics software Othot.