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Understanding the Admissions Funnel [and Why You Need One]

Understanding the Admissions Funnel

Modern higher education marketing is a tough business. The market is more competitive than ever, budget is limited, and COVID-19 has brought uncertainties that make student behaviors impossible to predict.

The core rules of recruitment messaging and strategy still apply even in uncertain times, and building a more personalized strategy can go a long way towards attracting prospective students and families to your school.

That's where the admissions recruitment funnel enters the equation. A higher education-focused version of the industry-agnostic and well-known buyer's journey - it describes how your audience moves from first hearing about you to becoming a student. This is your guide to leveraging the same concept for your recruitment marketing, as well.

Just the Basics: What is the College Admissions Funnel?

In its simplest form, the admissions funnel is a metaphor. It describes how prospective college and university students move towards enrollment, with each stage becoming progressively smaller. Most schools naturally receive more inquiries than applications and won't admit all of these applications. Not all admitted students pay their tuition deposit, and not all deposited students enroll.

Successfully navigating the funnel means guiding as many prospects as possible from initial awareness to becoming students at your institution. Maximizing the percentage of students moving from one stage to the next is key to modern enrollment marketing. 

The 6 Stages of the Modern Admissions Enrollment Funnel

While exact definitions may vary depending on the source, most admissions funnel templates consist of 6 basic stages:

1) Prospects are students in your database, but not because they raised their hands. These typically include name buys from a popular source like the SAT at the undergraduate level or GRE at the graduate level.

2) Inquiries are active hand-raisers. Through your website, college fairs, or other sources, they have let you know that they want to hear more information about your school.

3) Applicants have applied for admission at your school. Some advanced funnel templates distinguish between incomplete applicants, which require messages about supplemental materials still missing, and complete applicants, who are just waiting for an admission decision.

4) Accepted students have been admitted by your admissions teams. They have met the application requirements but crucially have not yet committed to studying at your school.

5) Committed or deposited students have paid their tuition deposit or communicated in some other way that they will attend your institution. They could still change their mind, of course.

6) Enrolled students are in the final stage. They have registered for classes at your institution and officially count towards your enrollment conversion rates.

The traditional admissions funnel shows each of these stages as relatively linear. However, it's important to note that the first three stages don't necessarily happen in succession.

You probably have at least some stealth applicants, who never inquire about your college before their application. Still, this is a great template to get started structuring your communications, especially given how important the recruitment funnel is to modern higher ed marketing.


Why the Admissions Funnel Matters in Higher Education Marketing

Experienced higher education marketers and recruitment professionals know: the needs of prospective students are very different at the various stages of the admissions process. That's what makes segmenting your audiences into these categories an important part of building your marketing strategies.

Prospects, for instance, need introductory information about your university. They might have never heard about you, so they're looking for the basics. Inquiries are likely more interested in the nuances that separate you from other schools, as are applicants - but applicants also must know what materials they still need to submit and how long they have to wait until an admission decision.

Accepted students, meanwhile, still require engagement. The average high school student, for example, now applies to more than 5 schools in their college search and gets accepted to most of them. That's why average "yield" rates (from admit to enrolled) tend to hover around 30% to 40%. Continued, personalized conversation at this stage is the key.

Even committed students are not safe yet, especially since NACAC changed its Ethics Guidelines in 2020 to remove a "non-compete" clause among colleges fighting for admitted students. Communication about move-in weekend, orientation, and the first week of classes take center stage.

Finally, communications to enrolled students can make all the difference in helping them succeed. The first six weeks of college are crucial for a student's long-term retention. Communication about finding student organizations, academic support, and other resource-related communication can be vital to helping students in their success.

These marketing and communication needs are immensely different. It's why segmenting your audience into the stages of the admissions funnel makes such a big difference in your higher ed marketing success. 

How to Leverage the Funnel in Your Higher Education Marketing Strategies

The first key to long-term success is segmentation. Knowing where in the funnel your audience is can help you build more personalized, relevant traditional and digital marketing efforts.

In fact, segmenting your audience groups into the six core stages of the funnel allows you to build unique strategies for each of the segments. A plan to build awareness among prospects should have different goals, use different channels, and focus on different messages than one designed to yield more of your admitted students.

One way to know how to build these marketing plans is to ask current students about their preferences. Tour guides, already employed by admissions, are especially great resources for focus groups and can likely still recall just what worked to convince them to move from one funnel stage to the next.

Market research is another vital resource. Third-party research, like GrayAssociates reports, dives into what channels students prefer at what stages and what messaging they respond to.

Summing It Up

Finally, and perhaps most notably, it's important to dive in. Try out various tactics for the different channels, and see how they perform. The fact that these audiences are segmented the right way should already provide a significant boost to your efforts, increasing your messaging and channel relevance.

And of course, keep in mind that you're not in this alone. We'd love to help

If you need help understanding your enrollment funnel, let's chat. Our experience in higher education marketing will come in handy when building a strategy designed to enroll more students at your school.

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