Traditional Student Demand

Three Tips We Learned From Top College Communicators

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Amid declining enrollments, growing applications, and increasing competition, standing out in inboxes, mailboxes, and on screens is not easy. Despite this, 70% of college-bound high school students in our annual Student Sentiment Research™ recall an institution whose recruitment communication was so great, it made them want to learn more about the school. 

Therefore, when students tell us who and what it was that made the outreach so memorable, we take note. Here are four institutions that are among the top communicators of 2023 and what we can learn from them. 

Our Methodology

Our Student Sentiment Research, which focuses on college search behaviors and institutional outreach perceptions of college-bound high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors, provides detailed insights into exemplary college communicators through a series of questions:  

  • Can you think of an institution whose outreach grabbed your attention and made you want to learn more?  
  • Which school was that? How did they communicate with you?  
  • And lastly, what did you love about this communication?  

In 2023, 70% of the 2,400 respondents remembered such a school. 

This is the basis of our list of the top communicators according to students. To level the playing field between large, name-brand schools and smaller-but-successful schools, we considered not only the total frequency of mentions by students but also how this compared to the schools’ typical applicant pool sizes. Additionally, schools were selected based on consistent student feedback about what aspects of the outreach impressed them. This means some institutions who scored high on the mention-to-applicant ratio, such as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, were excluded from consideration because comments referred to the program quality or name brand rather than their communications. 

And The Winners Are…

University of Wyoming – a public research university in Laramie, WY 

The University of Wyoming stands out to students by knowing its audience and providing relevant information. It clearly articulates why students should be interested in the institution and establishes a strong connection between student interests and what it offers. Over half of the students who appreciated the university's outreach specifically remembered email communications. 

Student comments include: 

“They understand their demographics and make sure everyone knows what it is like.” 

“It actually talked about the academics and the school, unlike a lot of other college emails that don't really specify why they're "great" and yet still talk about how they're good.” 

“Very informative, professional, and it is very true to what the campus really is.” 

Mississippi State University – a public research university in Mississippi State, MS 

Mississippi State University captures students' attention by motivating them to pursue their dreams and encouraging them to apply. With eye-catching visuals and a vibrant campus community, the institution emphasizes the transformative impact on students' lives during their time there, allowing even sophomore prospective students to envision their bright futures on campus. Email and the website were frequently cited as standout features by students. 

Comments include: 

“I love that they appeal to your dreams! Their emails encourage you to apply and go for it!” 

“I love how they change people’s lives.” 

“Asking me to already apply for admission with me being only a sophomore in high school.” 

East Tennessee State University – a public research university in Johnson City, TN 

East Tennessee State University stood out to students through its early outreach and persistence. Balancing engagement and avoiding annoyance, the university effectively reached younger students and maintained regular contact. By consistently providing relevant information with a friendly and caring tone, they managed to avoid alienating these students. Students were particularly impressed with the school's email communication. 

Comments include: 

“They were kind and actually made me feel like they care about my college career.” 

“They were persistent. They seemed to have some great programs and popped up early that I could really consider that school.” 

“It was very attention getting. They sent a lot of (emails) with things I’m interested in.” 

University of Chicago – a private doctoral university in Chicago, IL 

In 2023, the University of Chicago once again emerged as one of the top communicators. This marketing powerhouse consistently impresses students with its unique and interactive print mailings, featuring quirky content and bold graphics. Instead of playing it safe, the university embraces unusual messaging, garnering admiration from its prospects. 

Comments include: 

“Very creative, engaging prints with interesting fun facts and messages rather than sterile statistics about academics.” 

“It was creative. The prints were often stickers or goofy things that pushed for creativity, and then used the creativeness to talk about how it is used in their college.” 

“How different the print was from other colleges. They had very interesting information and cool interactive parts.” 

Notably, except for the University of Chicago, three of the winners are large public research institutions. This marks a departure from previous years when the list included a mix of larger, well-known institutions and smaller regional schools. This shift in the pecking order might indicate the rise of the public juggernaut – institutions that emerged stronger from the pandemic and are well-prepared to face the impending demographic challenges alongside their private counterparts. 

The Bottom Line

Marketing sophistication and resources likely play a role in setting these institutions apart from smaller schools struggling to maintain enrollments and gain visibility – a Catch-22 in a perilous environment. But there is hope for smaller institutions. Here are three takeaways for your institution to initiate, regardless of its enrollment size, to stand out throughout the funnel: 

  • Personalize your outreach by using what you know about students: Like the University of Chicago, our partners who use personalized messaging in their digital marketing outreach have found it led to 25% more engagement. Personalization means more than using a student’s name in emails; use Prospective Student Mindsets™ for deeper conversations on college outcomes and experiences. 
  • Confidently connect the dots on college outcomes: Learn from the University of Wyoming and Mississippi State, emphasizing student interests and clear outcomes with attention-grabbing numbers. Use current students, alumni, and professors to showcase the gains of attending your institution. 
  • Be relevant and interesting, but don’t try too hard: Follow East Tennessee State's example by maintaining relevance and student interest throughout the funnel with clear messages and calls to action. Avoid trying too hard with trendy elements like emojis; focus on targeted messages on their preferred platforms.  

Successful outreach prioritizes empathy, personalization, and relevance. Traditionally, smaller institutions excel at personalized connections but may face challenges with scale and growing inquiries in key markets. To move forward, understand key student segments and their aspirations, initiating relevant communication early in the funnel.  

Our Digital Solutions team can help you find and engage students and their families in an impactful and action-driven way. We act as an extension of your team to maximize the data you already have to meet students in their decision journey on the platforms and channels that they’re using the most.

Never Miss Your Wake-Up Call

Learn more about our team of expert research analysts here.

Eduventures Senior Analyst at Encoura

For a teenager, the college decision looms as a complex make-or-break moment, a pivotal turn on an imagined path to adulthood. Understanding the decision-making factors, along with perceptions around your institution, college, and more, will help you make data-driven decisions to stand out from your competition.

Your team has big goals—like increasing applications and preventing melt. Encoura is ready to partner with you to reach students, their families, and alumni with timely messaging that matters most. Maximize data you already have to meet students in their decision journeys. Connect and engage with them on the apps and devices they use the most.

Never Miss Your Wake-Up Call

Learn more about our team of expert research analysts here.

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