How the For-Profits Go for Students

At national gathering, administrators worry about competition and consider strategies: Internet-phone links, ways to position against nonprofits, and hiring recruiters from the military and weight loss programs.
June 26, 2008

The University of Phoenix spent $278 million last year on advertising, most of it online -- making Phoenix the top online advertiser in the United States. While Phoenix and a few of its competitors have mammoth student recruiting budgets -- not to mention name recognition -- most for-profit colleges don't have either. At the annual meeting of the Career College Association, which started Wednesday in Las Vegas, one of the hot topics was just how to recruit students, and the discussion wasn't about Phoenix (which isn't a member) but about much smaller institutions, most of them not nationally known, institutions where school presidents and owners know their admissions reps and pay a lot of attention to who is bringing in students and who isn't.

At a discussion of recruiting issues, the general tone was one of challenge. Many college leaders said that they feel more competition than ever for students -- and that some of the new technologies they use to attract student are effective only when backed up by sometimes expensive staffing. When one speaker said that the "conversion rate" on prospective student leads was significantly lower than a decade ago, everyone in the packed room agreed. Top reasons cited were that there are more career colleges in local communities and more online offerings, competing everywhere.

The discussion of ideas for how to respond ranged from the latest in technology and off-shore call centers to decidedly low-tech issues -- such as the physical appearance of admissions reps.

The discussion was led by two long-time players in for-profit recruitment and admissions and audience members jumped in -- generally confirming what the session leaders were saying. Here are some of the top trends discussed:

Pickier prospects: Joan Ellison, who leads the online division of the Pinnacle Career Institute and was one of the session leaders, said that a decade ago, students enrolling at career colleges were from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and that today they are more likely to have the confidence and experience that comes with work experience. "We have more career changers and people who want to advance," she said. That translates into much more detailed demands for information.

Audience members said that the old model for the sector was to assume that prospective students enrolled (or didn't) based on an initial conversation. Now more conversations are needed, and potential students have already been online and learned about a range of options. One audience member said that "before we presented and they enrolled. Now they want to know everything."

Changing priorities: Michael Platt, CEO of Ad Venture Interactive, a company that works with many career colleges on recruiting and enrolling students, said that there have been significant shifts in the answers he sees on surveys of enrolled students on why they picked a particular career college -- and these point to how colleges should shape their programs. Ten years ago, he said, the top answers were the availability of financial aid and job placement records. While those things still matter, he said, career colleges without them aren't being considered by students, so these aren't decisive factors as they once were.

Starting about five years ago, he said he noticed that a top factor was increasingly personal attention for students. People are saying "pay attention to me -- I don't want to be in an auditorium with 300 students." That remains high on student lists, he said, but has more recently been joined by a value placed on accelerated programs, especially compared to offerings elsewhere. "They want to get through there fast," Platt said.

Comparisons to nonprofit colleges: Student interest in personal attention gives career colleges an opening, Platt said, because they compare favorably to many nonprofit colleges. Prospective students need to understand, he said, that at traditional colleges there will be many professors “spending as little time with students as possible” and letting the teaching assistant "do the work." This information, he said, was very important to share with “our demographic."

One career college official in the audience said that comparisons to nonprofits are important because more of the same students appear to be applying to both nonprofit and for-profit programs. Her college runs two-year and four-year programs, and she said that she has noticed a significant increase among 18- to 20-year-olds who are saying that they are enrolling because they couldn't get into their desired nonprofit program. "A greater majority of our student body is saying that we were their third choice and that’s where they ended up," she said.

The new admissions rep: Ellison said that changes in student demands have led to changes in who is hired as admissions representatives. "Your admissions reps need to be very savvy, know their competitors, because the prospective student has that information at their fingertips," she said. While sales experience is still better than admissions experience, she said, career colleges are looking for different sales backgrounds than before.

Platt described the evolution this way. Ten years ago, career colleges just hired the best sales people -- people "who could sell ice to Eskimos." That evolved to more of "the psychologist" model, where admissions reps acted as counselors, telling prospective students "let me help you feel better about yourself," but now that has stopped working, too. He said the current ideal admissions rep is "the influencer and the mentor."

Given the difficulty military recruiters have in filling their quotas, Platt said that those who are successful would make ideal college admissions reps. He also cited research that says the reasons people don't join health clubs are a combination of fear and laziness -- and that a particular type of sales person is effective at reaching those people. That person is an ideal hire for a career college, he said. Audience members said that, for the same reason, those who sell weight loss programs are also effective at career colleges.

With the growth of online offerings, several in the audience said that they had gone to separate admissions teams for their campus-based and online programs. Several noted that they still believed longstanding conventional wisdom that on-campus representatives need to be gregarious and good looking. But several also said that they were having success hiring as online admissions reps people who are somewhat socially dysfunctional because, on the phone, "they can be who they want to be."

The new technology: While there was a wide consensus that the Web has opened up new paths to recruit students, there was also frustration that the Internet alone doesn't do the trick. Several new businesses are selling career colleges a service that provides instant notification to an admissions representative the minute someone expresses interest online in a program. Platt said that astute career colleges are staffing their admissions offices so that someone can respond to such inquiries instantly. There is no more opportune time to call a prospect, Platt said, than while they are still online having sent in an inquiry. He said he was shocked by career colleges that tolerate lags of several days in such responses.

One woman in the audience said that competition is so intense that even though her institution tries to call students within five minutes of notification, her institution is sometimes finding the prospects on the phone with another college that has responded first.


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