From education to employment

What is the secret to student recruitment in 2015?

We can all sense it. For so many colleges the perfect storm is gathering, challenging growth and even survival, in an increasingly complex climate. When it comes to student recruitment, are we really taking enough action? Are we taking the right action? If we continue to do things the way we have always done them, will we get the same result? And today will simply standing still cause us to fall backwards? Here are my thoughts on trying a smarter way to recruit students and the secret to success I have concluded from my recent work across the education sector.

The perfect storm as defined by the college leaders I have been working with this is defined by three main issues, increasing competition, higher expectations and falling demographics. The rise in the education participation age has caused schools across the nation to shut the doors to college activity to retain their own. Universities are moving into the further education sector to assist with their own growth and we will continue to see the lure of international study rise, bringing greater international competition. With this level of competition, colleges need to focus on their areas of differentiation and be more assertive in getting the message out there.

Expectations are rising in our student communities and more factors than ever are contributing to the enrolment decision. Loyalty, though tricky to quantify is becoming a challenge as learners apply, enrol and attend multiple institutions to truly find the best fit for them before they commit, weeks after enrolment. This will grow as a major challenge to student recruitment causing significant issues in student planning, first 42 day retention and disruption to academic delivery. Colleges need to work smarter to connect with the prospect through the recruitment journey and develop pride in the institution with richer engagement.

The Office of National Statistics tells us that there is a further 13% fall in the prospect aged population by 2021. Though this has greater significance in some UK geographies more than others, it has to have an impact on us all in some way. The fewer prospects that are leaving school to come to college, are now more digitally savvy than ever and almost 70% of UK schools now use tablet technology in some form in the classroom. Their expectations are not just central on technology but the service it can empower in offering a seamless journey demonstrated in their experiences with retail, travel and other industries. Colleges need to work harder to identify and value every individual prospect as a one-size-fits-all message is no longer going to impact.

So how do we increase focus, work smarter and harder in student recruitment? How can we be more assertive, engaging and personalised in our out reach to prospects? For me, the secret is not so much of a secret at all, more taking best practice from other sectors in how they have weathered this storm.

Think about your favourite online retail experience, we’ve all got one. Your journey with them showed that they were listening and understanding you as an individual and reflected your best interests by lifting you up out of the noise of everything you could buy and show you just the things they know you like. Guiding your every step in a seamless way through a process you didn’t even recognise you were taking. Across their web presence, social media, phone line and even in-store experience they still identify you and provide a consistent and personalised augmentation of everything. You feel like a VIP, you feel valued and more often than not you take the product or service, develop loyalty and keep going back to get that experience.

How do they do it? Firstly by ensuring they have customer-centric processes, a recruitment focused culture and truly understand what makes them different in the eyes of their customer. Secondly, they connect all stages of that journey with a single technology hub that gains a 360 degree view across all interactions and translates data for analysis. Thirdly, they then act on that insight to amplify the few marketing resources they have with technology execution tools and automate as much of their campaigns as possible.

Now think about the competitors to that favourite retail experience. Still putting posters in bus stops with no view as to how that impacts on customers walking through the door. Sending out blanket messages to everyone with static content. Using free web analytics tools because that is the way they have always done it. It is clear today’s prospective student when faced with these options, will choose the immersive, personalised experience.

With that perfect storm growing stronger, will colleges step up to delivering a better student recruitment experience? Can we take secrets from other sectors and each other to provide not only growth but richer information, advice and guidance as we bring prospects to further education? I truly hope so and I think we are seeing some of those at the start of this voyage, primed and ready to sail through the perfect storm, stronger.

To continue this topic, Di Roberts, CEO and Principal of Outstanding OFSTED graded Brockenhurst College and Neil Marriott, Deputy Vice Chancellor of University of Winchester, one of the fastest growing UK HEIs, join me and 200 FE and HE leaders already registered for a live webinar 11.30am Wednesday 4th March – click here to register.

Cailean Hargrave is UK Education Lead at Portal, an IBM Business Partner assisting colleges to create exceptional student experiences

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