Survey: College Admissions Due for a Digital Upgrade

Colleges’ digital outreach to prospective students via social media, text messages and email has proven effective, a new report says. But many admissions professionals struggle to extract stories from imperfect data.

October 10, 2022
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“The pandemic really pushed us into an era where we realized the necessity of technology,” Cassie Cunningham, assistant director of admissions at the University of Akron, said of her institution’s efforts to adjust its communications strategy for engaging prospective students.

Today, many colleges have favorite digital channels for communicating with prospective students, including those that elevate social media (70 percent), text/SMS (67 percent) and email marketing (63 percent), according to a new survey of 150 university leaders published by Mongoose, a company focused on college and university admissions and communications. Such outreach has proven effective, these leaders say. But many struggle to extract stories from data produced by imperfect platforms and to communicate the return on investment that digital admissions tools deliver.

For example, an enhanced text messaging program helped the University of Akron cool summer melt—students who commit but do not show up—according to the study. Many of the text messages required only a thumbs-up or thumbs-down emoji in response. But that immediacy and spontaneity made a difference, Cunningham said.

“With frequent texting, we could continue to build that relationship and check in with the new class more often and in a more direct way than through email, which often slips through the cracks,” Cunningham said.

While admissions professionals understand the value of digital tools for engaging prospective students, more than one-third of the survey respondents (36 percent) struggle to communicate their return on investment to college budget officials. The same percentage also struggles to clarify that digital admissions tools are often not one-size-fits-all.

“It can be challenging when the person who will ultimately use the digital tool doesn’t have a seat at the table in prioritizing budget,” Mike Kochczynski, Mongoose client engagement manager, said. “They are the ones who can identify what methods and features are most effective.”

Nearly all (90 percent) of the survey respondents who use customer relationship management systems, student information systems or enterprise resources planning platforms are frustrated. More than half (57 percent) find relying on their marketing or IT departments for data reporting difficult. Even so, those data often tell an incomplete story—a shortcoming some attribute to the platforms.

While customer relationship management systems are “a practical and powerful broadcast tool to ably handle outgoing messages en masse, they can create roadblocks in one-to-one communication and accessing individual incoming replies—especially via text,” the report stated.

When evaluating a digital admissions communication strategy, two-fifths (40 percent) of the executives who responded to the survey prioritized the total cost of ownership. More than one-third (34 percent) were primarily concerned with gaining a competitive advantage. Approximately one-quarter prioritized enabling business goals (26 percent), saving staff time (25 percent) or easing the burden of implementation (24 percent).

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“Any large-scale [customer relationship management] or [enterprise resources planning] system requires a significant monetary investment—not just in short-term initial costs, but in onboarding fees and multiyear contracts,” Kochczynski said.

Many (42 percent) of the higher ed executives who responded to the survey continue to view email as the most effective digital admissions communications tool. Still, half expect that their institutions’ websites will be upgraded to include chat bots or webchats in the 2022–23 academic year. That approach may be more egalitarian, according to Kochczynski.

“First-gen students might not be as savvy to know to go to a specialty website like College Confidential or Reddit, and they might not have a peer group in the know,” Kochczynski said, “That means they can miss out on insider information about the college admissions process, so it’s huge to have schools investing in their website and other outreach to make it easier for students and their families to seek advice and news.”

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Susan D'Agostino

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