How IT Can Support Student Recruitment (and Why It Should)

Key Takeaways

  • Student recruitment is a key element in the sustainability and success of a higher education institution, and the IT department plays a vital role in supporting recruitment efforts.
  • Also, student recruitment is arguably essential to boosting excellence and enhancing diversity in an institution's student body, while tactically it boosts the funding base.
  • Recruitment initiatives must align with trends in technology and leverage technology in order to become part of the virtual community that prospective students engage in on a daily basis.

Wayne J. Brown is associate professor in the Electrical Engineering Technology department of the School of Engineering Technology and Environmental Studies at Georgian College and part of the management team with a Chicago-based higher education consulting firm.

Student recruitment is changing rapidly. The next generation of potential students has grown up immersed in technology, and they have come to expect interactions and information exchanges similar to Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and other social media outlets. As a result, the IT department needs to ensure that core technologies and applications have the flexibility to support new social media and effective interactions with prospective students. Higher education institutions must ask themselves, Are our current student information systems capable of adapting to changing forms of technology?

Why is student recruitment so important? Consider this scenario: If student recruitment activities were eliminated from an institution's strategic portfolio (using a narrow definition of student recruitment as those activities designed to secure new student applications), over time the student population would shrink to the point where the institution would find it challenging to keep its doors open. Student quality and institutional reputation would also suffer.

Student recruitment should be recognized as a key element in the sustainability and success of an institution and must be a priority in an institution's strategic plan. Equipping the admissions office to recruit the right students and the right number of students is critical to the long-term sustainability of an institution, and IT plays a vital role.

Understanding Student Recruitment

Student recruitment has been an integral part of higher education since Harvard University was chartered by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636. The means by which students are recruited may have changed since that time, but the goal remains the same: increase the quality of the student population while meeting recruitment goals. In 2008, 2.1 million high school graduates throughout the United States (68 percent of all high school graduates) enrolled in postsecondary education immediately following their graduation.1 The cost of recruiting those graduates has also increased greatly. Data from the National Association for College Admission Counseling 2005 survey shows the average cost-to-recruit of $1,753 per enrolled (domestic) student. The average cost per enrolled student at a public institution was $667, while private institutions reported an average of $2,167.2

In the early days, recruitment strategies relied almost exclusively on human effort supported by rudimentary marketing support. But marketing and technology began to play a greater role over time and now are integral to the student recruitment process. Moreover, the recruitment of students has diversified to include international students. Indeed, an Open Doors report found that 89,853 international students attended U.S. community colleges in the 2010–11 academic year, an increase of approximately 10 percent over the prior decade.3 The competition to recruit both domestic and international students also has increased, making recruitment strategies a vital dimension of higher education.

Student recruitment is essential to boosting excellence and enhancing diversity in an institution's student body. Arguably, an institution's student recruitment strategies should emphasize, and thus serve to promote, the quality of the educational offerings as well as the academic profile of the university.4 However, on a tactical admissions office level, most would probably agree that the primary purpose of student recruitment is to increase the quality of the student population while meeting recruitment goals, thus building the institution's overall funding base. Both views are important, but in essence, the primary purpose of student recruitment is to grow or maintain the student population by attracting a cohort of students with a high probability of completion.

What Role Does IT Play in Student Recruitment?

Typical recruitment initiatives still include in-person campus tours, mass e-mail communication, print and electronic advertising, high school visits, and summer camps, to name a few. To support these initiatives, IT departments may be responsible for equipment purchase and maintenance, software updates, website development and maintenance, database management, software customizations, and software integration. IT's role is critical to today's student recruitment initiatives because virtually all student recruitment activities have an IT element. For example, the success of a campus open house may hinge on the ability of the IT system to send out the appropriate e-mail to the appropriate target audience, while at the same time ensuring that the underlying data used to build the e-mail list is accurate.

Websites in particular have become a major source of academic information, with the majority of potential students visiting an institution's website before they visit a campus.5 This puts significant responsibility on the IT department to ensure the school website is available, current in its look and feel, and capable of meeting the students' and other site visitors' needs to find information quickly and easily. Other research suggests that prospective students rely heavily on information presented on an institution's website, influencing their overall decision when selecting an institution to attend.6 Apart from maintaining It equipment, IT departments may spend a significant amount of time maintaining or updating current software and troubleshooting bugs in existing systems as well as maintaining the integrity of existing and potential student data. This ongoing work serves as the foundation for the majority of (if not all) student recruitment initiatives.

What about the Future?

The future of student recruitment will be social media/mobile technology–transparent information - two-way communication rich. Compared to previous generations, current high school students are more technologically savvy and have come to expect interactions with their potential college or university to resemble their interactions with platforms such as Twitter and Facebook: simple, relevant, fast, and personal. Indeed, the key to successful student recruitment via the web hinges on an institution's ability to personalize students' interactions by using current technology as a means of developing a relationship.7

Customers thrive on feedback — it promotes a sense of connectedness to a particular brand, in this case the institution. IT departments should strive to build a student recruitment infrastructure capable of providing this personal interaction and relevant feedback. Ensuring that any existing or new technologies within the school's student information system (SIS) or customer relationship management (CRM) system have the ability to interact with potential and current students in a way that meets their expectations should be a priority for an institution's CIO. Because two-way communication is a vital part of the student experience, IT departments should ensure that their institution's website has the ability to conduct such a dialogue and create a sense of community in the virtual world, where prospective students already experience their different communities.

Websites are an important element of any recruitment campaign, but how these websites deliver information and the type of information delivered will change over time. In 2002, 50 percent of students surveyed went online to explore department websites, while in 2007 nearly 88 percent of students surveyed reported that they had used the department website to gather information about programs.8 Future higher education websites will provide virtual tours, social media outlets, interactivity, and unedited student comments on the quality of the school and other aspects of its offerings. While touring the school virtually, prospective students will potentially be able to interact with existing students in real time as they "bump" into them during the tour. The expectation will be that IT will help develop the feature-rich functionality that provides such experiences to prospective students.

An example of a more interactive website approach can be found at Furman University, which was one of the first universities to feature student weblogs on its admissions link. The weblogs increased the number of visitors returning to the site and contact with prospective students. Lewis and Clark College also tapped into the interactive benefits of its website by offering a link titled "real life at Lewis and Clark College." The link showcased non-censored blogs of selected students as a means of communicating the varying interests of prospective and enrolled students.9

To keep up with technology, it is important that IT staff receive training on new technologies as they emerge. Trying to play catch-up with a new technology could spell defeat in the student recruitment game. Being ahead of the curve ensures that an institution remains current and relevant.

Another critical element of success in student recruitment is cooperation between the IT department and the admissions office. As the importance of student recruitment grows, greater pressure will be put on IT departments to deliver the tools to successfully execute strategic recruitment plans. An uncooperative relationship between these two critical groups will slow an institution's growth and health.

Advice for IT

It is impossible to know exactly what the future will look like. Yet it is vital that schools build their core student applications on platforms that have the flexibility to adapt to changes within an ever-changing technology landscape. Technology is an integral part of student recruitment, and keeping current is the key to success. IT departments must ensure that their infrastructure is flexible enough to keep up with technological changes so that current and future students feel a sense of interaction, engagement, and community. Recruitment initiatives must align with trends in technology and leverage technology in order to become part of the virtual community that prospective students engage in on a daily basis. IT departments must continue to provide their staff with the training necessary to keep up with these new technologies. The successful execution of a student recruitment strategy will arise from successful collaboration between the IT department and the admissions office staff in support of institutional goals.

Notes
  1. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics (2009).
  2. Cheryl Darrup-Boychuck, "Measuring return on investment in international student recruitment," International Educator, Vol. 16, No. 3 (2007), pp. 64–68.
  3. Marian Kisch, "Recruiting international students — community college style," International Educator, (July/August 2012), pp. 52–55.
  4. Nicoline Frolich and Bjorn Stensaker, "Student recruitment strategies in higher education: promoting excellence and diversity?" International Journal of Educational Management, Vol. 24, No. 4 (2010), pp. 359–370; doi: 10.1108/09513541011045281.
  5. Y. Lakshmi Malroutu and Paula J. Tripp, "Proactive recruitment strategies at CSUS increase FCS majors," Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences, Vol. 100, No. 1 (2008), pp. 18–23.
  6. K. M. Tucciarone, "Speaking the same language," College and University, Vol. 84, No. 4 (2009), pp. 23–31.
  7. Ruth M. Burgess, Michael K. Ponton, and M. D. Weber, "Student recruitment strategies in professional physical therapist education programs," Journal of Physical Therapy Education, Vol. 18, No. 2 (2004), pp. 22–30.
  8. Malroutu and Paula, "Proactive recruitment strategies."
  9. Tucciarone, "Speaking the same language."