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Research: Traditional Outreach Still Has Impact in College Recruiting

Money talk and institutional reputation dominates student choice in deciding which colleges and universities would make a good fit for them. According to recent research done by two companies that offer marketing and recruiting services to institutions, the top three characteristics students think about are schools that have "good scholarship and financial aid packages," solid academic reputations behind the majors they're interested in, and affordable tuition and fees.

"The Super Investigator: Understanding Today's 'Always On' Prospective Student," available for download with registration, also examines the impact of online marketing channels on school-related decision-making. While mechanisms that might be referred to as "traditional"--direct marketing through email and mail, guidance counselor advice, friends, college Web sites, campus tours, and search engines--still dominate the college search process, social media is playing an evolving role as well. For example, 40 percent of students reported that they use Facebook to learn more about college choices, 21 percent use YouTube, 17 percent use Google+, and nine percent use Twitter. Just over a third of respondents (37 percent) said they have used social media to "engage" with a college.

According to one teen respondent, "We are constantly on the computer and nosing around in other people's business, so maybe we could add nosing into the college's business. I would give the quick facts about the school online with easy access. A lot of time you have to search through a college's Web site to find that information and if it is not easy to find, I give up." Another student suggested that the reverse should not be true--that schools shouldn't use social media to learn more about prospects: "We have a new tradition at our high school. When we hit senior year, we all change our Facebook names so colleges can't spy on us."

Mobile access to information is coming to the forefront too. Forty-five percent of students reported visiting a college Web site on a mobile device. One in 10 had downloaded an app from a college to their device.

The research was performed by Lipman Hearne, a marketing and communications company that focuses on higher education, and Cappex.com, which runs a Web site to introduce students to prospective colleges based on their interests and profiles. The companies collected responses from 11,244 students who had previously registered on Cappex. Those included college-bound sophomores, juniors, and seniors from the United States and other countries, as well as a small number of enrolled college students thinking about transferring and adult learners.

One interesting finding in the research was the sizable number of "stealth applicants," students who research schools and even visit campuses, but without revealing who they are until they submit an application. Nearly a quarter of respondents fall into this category. Said Lipman Hearne Chairman Tom Abrahamson, "Stealth applicants apply to colleges under the radar of admissions teams. Their behavior is important because their unexpected applications can complicate schools' admissions planning and projections."

Another group of students were classified as "super investigators," digital natives who are quite aggressive in their self-directed research. Fifty-five percent of graduating seniors belong to this camp, doing daily research using a multitude of resources, both online and print.

Noted Lipman Hearne Senior Vice President Mark Nelson, "The truly social aspect of the search--word of mouth and advice from friends, parents, and other influencers--is...incredibly effective at driving students to explore a college further. Parents represent an untapped marketing opportunity for colleges. And while social media doesn't seem to drive students to action, it can't be overlooked. More than half the students use it to learn about colleges, and it's where they are talking to their friends. Schools need to monitor comments made online and make sure the buzz is positive."

Those informational efforts need to include shifting from "providing basic information about colleges to more personalized offerings and engagement opportunities for students," added Chris Long, Cappex president.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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