In our industry, concepts and frameworks guide us through the thickets of uncertainty. That’s partly because, well, every industry has its own maps and ideas about how work gets done. And, it’s also partly because of our proximity to new knowledge generators, right? Faculty and students use models and frameworks to predict outcomes and solve problems all the time. Of course, some of that style of thinking would make its way into our own ways of thinking and planning.
Our work - digital strategy, marketing, enrollment management - requires human action, which positions us squarely in the social sciences nest (though I’d make the argument that marketing might do well with a humanities lens rather than a science lens, but that’s for another hot take).
And, the thing about the social sciences is that human behavior changes over time. Human beings learn. Collectively, we change our common opinions, our social conversations, our morality, and our network of ideas. We accommodate new trends and forget about old ones. And, all this is to say that it means our scientific models and frameworks need to be revisited, retested, and tended to often.
Let’s talk about the student recruitment funnel. You’ve probably seen illustrations like this:
This model makes a few assumptions:
- You have the most number of people in your leads/prospects category, and you slowly lose people as you take them through the journey from being interested to being students.
- It’s a straight course through a user journey from prospect to enrolled.
- The funnel ends at the enrollment stage.
But, I think intuitively, we know that these assumptions tell a very simple version of a more complex story.
For one, depending on the college, we know that somewhere between 30 and 50% of applicants are stealth applicants, i.e., applicants who don’t contact admissions or request information. This really challenges the shape of the funnel in two significant ways:
- We might have a bigger pool of people in our applicant pool than we do in our inquiry pool.
- It also begs the question - Is the prospect/lead level of the funnel even important? Are we estimating the size of it and measuring the percentages of people who make it to the next phase? And, however it is estimated, how are our estimates validated from year to year?
Second, our admissions cycles are a year-long process. Our prospects and our inquiries, even our applicants, could fall in and out of interest in us throughout. Do the levels of the funnel symbolize a deepening of engagement or a qualification process?
The recruitment funnel is based on a sales funnel, where leads become more and more qualified through a vetting process via sales and marketing. Qualified leads are considered leads that match a profile of an ideal customer with the intent to buy. In some ways, college applicants are like that. We want to know if their grades and their extracurriculars match our ideal student.
But this sales funnel model was built for specific industries like financial advising, real estate, and b2b contracts. If we’re not qualifying our leads at each stage (and how could we be when the transition point from one category to another is the prospective student taking an action, at least until the admit phase?), then it seems likely these categories rest on the level of engagement. But then, why does the shape have to narrow?
Third, we know that the “sale” doesn’t end at the beginning of the first semester. For example, we know that there is a period of “product adoption” or “product enablement,” or in other words, a time when students learn how to student. They learn how to manage the demands of their courses and program, they learn how to be administrators of their own financial and registration processes, and they manage the changes in their social and environmental worlds. Throughout that process, we could maintain, lose, and regain students at any time. Not to mention, students could go on to become grad students, active alumni, and donors. Some of them even become employees of the institutions they went to school at.
So, the model is overly simplistic and doesn’t contain these complexities. This made me wonder - can we develop a model that more closely maps to the complexities of our admissions and matriculation management? And, if we could, what shape does it take?
Here’s my best crack at it. Rather than think of a funnel, imagine a 5-pointed star. Each point is a stage a prospect is in:
In the exploratory stage, a student might be looking for a degree or program that suits them and their needs. This might involve:
- Internet searches
- Visits to program pages
- Visits to college fairs
- Discussions with friends, family, and mentors
- Social searches
The exploratory phase is a time of discovery. This is when users will prefer content that is discoverable over findable. They are looking for you to show them what you have and what will support their interests.
In the evaluative stage, a student is evaluating your offering in three ways - is it right for them, will they feel good about their choice in selecting you on a social level, and does it stack up against similar offerings from your competitors? This stage might involve:
- Reputation and ranking checks (reviews on sites like US News)
- Social searches (Reddit, TikTok, etc.)
- Discussions with friends, family, and mentors
- Visits to your competitors’ sites
The evaluative stage is a time of searching for details. This is when users will be interested in your programs’ stats and reputation. This is also when they will be looking for information on cost.
In the engaged stage, a student will reach out more actively. This is when they are preparing to make a decision about you. They might:
- sign up for an online tour or info session,
- speak to college ambassadors,
- ask for help,
- or reach out to an admissions counselor with questions
In the engaged stage, students are looking to initiate contact. This is when they are most open to information from you.
In the experiencing stage, a student will take you out for a test drive in some way that is meaningful to them. They might
- Buy something from your campus store
- Visit your campus
- Go to an athletics event
- Post about you on social channels
This is when they are seeking to know what it will be like to be a student with you.
In the enabled stage, a student is committing. The important part of this stage is that the student is completing an action that they are able to do. This might mean:
- enrolling or registering
- paying a deposit
- filling out the FAFSA and adding your school code
The student is taking this action because there are no barriers in their mind or in your process to overcome. When students feel enabled, they feel confident and competent. These processes ought to be as easy as the school can make them.
Here’s where the star method is different from a funnel. Students will do each of these in any order that makes sense to them.
They might visit a friend at your campus and hit the experience stage before they’ve discovered what programs you offer. They might apply before reviewing your competitors’ websites. They might ask a bunch of questions of your admissions counselors to decide whether or not to come to see you in person.
Not only that, but this goes beyond that first admissions cycle. They will go through these processes when they are:
- Resolving to stay despite difficult courses
- Reaching out for financial assistance
- Considering a minor or a double major
- Considering you for graduate school
The point of this exploration is that the admissions journey is dynamic. It was never linear, despite the fact that our tools tended to offer a linear process. But, a few years ago, we were better equipped to gatekeep and insist on a linear process. For the people that were willing to go on a prescribed journey with us, the experience was fine. But now, our prospects have a lot of other options and resources to find the information they need on our institutions without our aid and support. That means the most successful institutions will be the ones that adapt to the change in the environment and start understanding student recruitment in a more dynamic way.
The other important point I want to make is that just because a process is dynamic, it doesn’t mean it’s not trackable. We need to stop tracking this journey like a sequential process and start tracking evidence of the stages our prospects have unlocked.
This is a hot take. Please take it with a grain of salt. If I noodle on my proposed model for a while, I’ll probably see gaps in the logic. But, what I am trying to get across to you is that the funnel is just a map. But the map is not the territory. It might be too abstract to be useful. Or it could be an outdated map with landmarks and roads that no longer exist.
In order to ensure our maps are relevant, we need to be cartographers, i.e., researchers exploring the terrain and searching for truth. And, we need to be willing to redraw the lines occasionally.
- Kristin Van Dorn