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Late last month, The Hechinger Report published a Jon Marcus article titled, “Universities and colleges struggle to stem big drops in enrollment.” Absolutely worth a read if you haven’t already seen it.

In the article, Marcus invokes the word “crisis” to describe what those of us in higher education face every day: a recruitment and enrollment challenge of unprecedented proportion. Marcus writes, “There were just over 18 million students enrolled in higher education nationally in the semester just ended — 2.4 million fewer than there were in the fall of 2011, the most recent peak, the National Student Clearinghouse reports.”

Depending on where you work, these could feel like utterly drastic times. But drastic-measure solutions don’t often play well in higher ed circles once they circulate beyond the brainstorming sessions that birthed them. However, there’s no denying this is a very good time to entertain out-of-the-box thinking about recruitment marketing and enrollment management issues.

A good client recently shared with me a thought-provoking presentation she had prepared to help her campus community think thoughtfully about her college’s future students. She cited data from the U.S. Department of Education’s “The Condition of Education 2016” report indicating that in 2014 only 52% of low-income students immediately enrolled in college upon graduating from high school, compared to 64% of middle-income students and 81% of high-income students.

Her presentation also included data from the DOE’s 2016 “Upward Bound and Upward Bound Math-Science Programs Postsecondary Outcomes Report” that indicated only 27% of low-income college freshmen who were also first-generation college freshmen completed 4-year degrees within six years of their first college enrollment, compared to 38% for first-generation students only, 45% for low-income students only, and 52% for higher-income students.

Let those numbers soak in. As marketers, often away from the fray of in-the-trenches recruiting, data like this helps us understand the brutal truths colleges and universities are up against: declining enrollments, challenging demographic realities, and a quickly shifting playing field.

The presentation goes on to identify educational practices that have proven to improve student outcomes, including:

  • Coaching students in a proactive way
  • Frequent contacts with faculty and staff members
  • Instruction to make students aware of career options
  • Field trips and cultural enrichment
  • Services to improve students’ financial and economic literacy

My first job in higher ed was as an alumni director, and to this day I remain convinced that almost without exception, every school’s alumni population represents its most under-equipped, under-inspired, under-mobilized and under-utilized marketing force. As I looked at this list through the eyes of a recovering alumni director and gave myself permission to think way out of the box, it became obvious that there’s never been a more opportune moment for higher ed to expand our definition of “alumni relations” and “alumni engagement” to help address the crisis we’re all facing.

Imagine how your alumni, especially the younger ones who might not have the means to write big checks to the annual fund, could be enlisted and organized to help coach your new students, to stay in touch and provide soft support through the academic year, to help them explore career options, to facilitate or even accompany them on field trips and cultural enrichment activities, and to help them bolster their financial and economic literacy by serving as guest lecturers on your campus.

Paradigm shift? Yes. Logistical challenge? Huge. But consider the positive impact this kind of programming could have on your school’s recruitment and retention efforts, and on demonstrating in very real terms the heart and soul of your institutional brand story.

If your school is on this track, I’d love to hear about your attempts, successes and even failures in this arena. What keeps more colleges and universities from redefining and expanding “alumni relations” and “alumni engagement” to include a more organized recruitment dimension?

Eric Sickler has helped the nation's college and universities clarify and more fully engage their brands for more than three decades. You can reach him at The Thorburn Group, a Stamats company.