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In 10 years of coaching college students -- those who are already enrolled as well as prospective students who are deciding where and whether to attend college -- I've observed a lot about the traditional student's behavior and mindset. The key to turning prospective students into an enrolled students is to form early and meaningful connections with students that let them know you have their best outcomes in mind, and are working to help them get off to a strong start in college that will lead to long-term success and satisfaction. Here are some of the best practices and bits of conventional wisdom that are easily overlooked or forgotten:

Leverage the student’s own momentum

Everyone knows that an object in motion stays in motion; the same is true for 17- and 18-year-old students in high school.  When students engage with you, make sure that next steps (e.g., applying for scholarships, submitting health forms, or registering for summer orientation) are available so they can “strike while the iron is hot.”   This will not only deepen their commitment and motivation to attend but it will positively reinforce proactive student behavior.   

Engage early applicants before the winter holidays

Early applicants (defined here loosely as anything before December) are often high-achieving students, even those with mediocre academic credentials – the very fact that they applied early suggests they are proactive, organized and motivated.  Early application may mean a school is high on a prospective student’s list.  Too often such students hear crickets until February; meanwhile, their once-warm feelings may cool and motivation may wane.  Colleges that instead initiate meaningful interactions with early applicants are more likely to attract highly engaged and effective students and encourage their positive, proactive behavior to continue post-enrollment.  Early applicants are special; make them feel it.

Understand that students really are busy

If you treat them like busy adults, they’ll act like it.  Even the most responsible, top-performing student will occasionally ignore a phone call, neglect to respond to e-mail, or procrastinate filing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). They’re genuinely busy and distracted, not to mention the fact that they are still only 17 or 18 years old.  They also have enough people nagging and judging them, so the best kind of outreach is proactive, positive, and nonjudgmental. I often call this approach “decidedly non-parental.”

Be “decidedly non-parental” but respect the parental units

This is a unique time in the parent-child relationship.  Students may be experimenting with independence and may or may not be communicating regularly with a parent or guardian during the decision-making process.  Understand the objectives and perspective of each party, help bridge the communication gap where it exists while respecting boundaries, and create a safe environment for students to express a dissenting opinion without undermining anyone involved.

Realize they’re probably only going to get busier as the year progresses

The most organized students often focus on their next steps toward college when they know they have a little extra room in their schedule.  They’ll often try to get as many college-related tasks done as possible before they get busy again with finals, holidays, travel, work or other activities.  Provide resources that allow students to be as productive as possible when they can devote time and attention to preparing for college. 

Strong customer service, starting immediately, is critical

When students reach out for information and are unable to get clear answers, feel passed around, or get lost in an automated phone system, not only do their needs in that moment often go unmet, but they are dissuaded from reaching out for support again in the future.  An outstanding early customer service experience can establish an enduring positive first impression of the school, making it less likely that the normal bumps and bruises of adjusting to college life will lead them to doubt the entire value of the institution or the pursuit of a degree. 

Treat them like adults

This doesn’t mean give the “if you want to be treated like an adult, act like one” speech, nor does it mean incessantly reminding students “you’re an adult now, you should have done X, Y, and Z.”  This means respecting them the same way you would a busy, working professional, refraining from judgment, and responding to their requests and needs the way you would those of a colleague. When a university takes the lead in modeling an attitude of respect, responsive communication, and trust, students of any age are more likely to reciprocate.

Assume nothing

Something I learned early in my career is that even the children of the most educated parents may not understand the basics of higher education, and they may be unaware or too intimidated to ask, so don’t wait. This approach is anything but condescending; simply listen for clues that reveal potential “gaps” in the student’s understanding, don’t let anything surprise you, and without any judgment, provide a clear and relevant explanation. A common example is the various types of degrees available; “associate,” “bachelor’s,” “master’s,” “professional,” “technical,” “graduate,” and “doctoral,” can be confusing, most students have never had anyone break it down for them, but once they do it’s very empowering.

Uncover major obstacles early and get a plan in place to overcome them

Providing ample opportunities for meaningful engagement through the summer and new student orientation is essential if students are to arrive on campus ready to succeed.  However, the goal is not to prevent summer melt (attrition prior to matriculation); rather, it should be designed in part to drive melt, to ensure that every student who starts classes is as prepared as possible to finish. 

  • Conditionally admitted students must fully understand the expectations and potential consequences associated with their admittance and have opportunities to test their skills prior to enrollment.  A summer college experience, for example, provides a low-risk opportunity to uncover major obstacles as early as possible.
  • Low SES (socioeconomic status) students need to have an intensive, in-person conversation with a financial aid expert so they can identify a timeline for critical next steps and discuss how items like applying for loans or resubmitting FAFSA will coincide with their new academic responsibilities.
  • If an unforeseeable event changes a student’s enrollment plans , avoid pushing too hard and refrain from judgment over delaying his or her start.  If students have a positive experience in their darkest hour they will probably return, but if the process feels like salt on a wound they may sever ties and go elsewhere when the dust settles.

Understand the student’s unique objectives

Understand the student’s true intentions, align resources to support their unique goals, and define success accordingly.  An increasing number of students enroll with the intention of transferring after the first year or two, but these students seldom reveal their original intentions for fear of being judged, criticized, or encouraged to change their mind by faculty and staff.  At the institutional level, when a university supports a student in successfully transitioning to college, bringing their grades up, and gaining admission to their dream school, it should be counted in the “success” column.  Plus, having an accurate read on students’ initial intentions can help with institutional planning and reveal potential gaps in recruitment and marketing strategies.

Recognize the potential for “a là carte” education

According to one director of admissions I recently interviewed, about half of a large group of high school seniors indicated to him that they intend to graduate from a different university than where they plan to begin next fall. One student even plans to use transferring as a means to live in different parts of the country.  Students will continue to be influenced by the many options to “hack” their education – online degrees become more acceptable every day, students are increasingly mobile, and Ivy League schools are making content available for free.  In an economy where adults are faced with an average of seven career changes in a lifetime, we can expect to see students adopt the same approach to their education.  Recognize that your institution does not operate in a vacuum for the student; facilitate a candid conversation, free of any judgment, in order to unearth the student’s true intentions, design a personalized plan to help them achieve their goals and develop a strategy to communicate the unique value of your institution in the context of this changing landscape.

Understand the student’s underlying motivation

Connect with students about their decision to attend a particular college on a deeper level and demonstrate that their motives are respected and even valued by the institution.  The positive feelings and deeper commitment this cultivates between student and institution may counteract inevitable moments of doubt and ebbs in motivation.  However, if the only reason a student can cite for attending is because it “just makes sense” financially, geographically, or academically, they’re less likely to see the value and persist through difficult times. 

Articulate value in a way that makes sense to students

The residential campus experience is still relevant because it connects textbook and community and it remains one of the most effective, widely accepted means of transforming oneself into an educated adult ready to take on the world, but this is a rather lofty goal with little immediate relevance to a student’s daily concerns.  Connect them to tangible, immediately relevant value whenever possible and they will not only be more likely to remain connected to this value, but better able to articulate it to others.

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