The science of student recruitment

Student recruitment is becoming increasingly digital thanks to innovations like webchat and virtual student ambassadors. But is tech capable of incorporating the human element of student recruitment? Mel Lee-Smith reports

How is technology simplifying the student recruitment process?

According to a recent Google report, The Mobile-First Mindset of Gen Z, getting a smartphone is now a life-changing event for teens and prospective university students, on par with graduating and receiving a driver’s license. Consequently, hyper-personalised mobile-friendly content is the cornerstone of student recruitment strategies in 2020 and beyond. “If you’re not connecting with this audience on their phones, you just aren’t connecting with them effectively, or often at all,” Rob Feldman, CEO of College Interactive (Ci), told ET.

Ci’s mobile app customises the university search experience based on student preferences and interests. Features like CiEngage and CiCompass allow students to communicate with universities and career counsellors through the medium they’re most comfortable using: direct messaging. Analytics and detailed reporting also make it easy for universities and schools to track engagement and monitor student progress in real-time.

Such technologies simplify the application process for students while also streamlining the workload for schools. But is tech capable of incorporating the human element required for student recruitment?

The rise of the digital student ambassador

Digital student ambassadors are revolutionising the student recruitment landscape. While ambassadors still volunteer at open days and lead campus tours, software like The Access Platform (TAP) and Unibuddy can instantly connect ambassadors with prospects, allowing them to answer questions and post curated social media content in just a few clicks.

student recruitment

Searchable feeds of ambassador profiles and webchat are just two of TAP’s premier features driving engagement and enrolment in more than 170 countries. TAP found that students are 72% more likely to apply after chatting with a student ambassador. Through TAP, universities can also request image and video content from student ambassadors to post on their social media pages. And social media presence should be a critical component of universities’ recruitment strategies — according to the QS International Student Survey 2019, social media plays an essential role in the research process for 85% of prospective international students.

But it’s not just universities that have realised the significance of digital ambassadors in student recruitment. UCAS recently partnered with Unibuddy, allowing prospects to chat with ambassadors from the UCAS Hub. The partnership works for universities as well as students: “47% of students that use Unibuddy go on to apply, and then they are 34.8% more likely to enrol at an institution after having a conversation with a current student,” Unibuddy CEO Diego Fanara told ET.

When it comes to choosing a university, shared experience is the most powerful tool for decision-making, according to Fanara. Getting that experience online has to be the future. “In the past, open days have been the best way for prospective students to test university waters,” said Fanara. “But there’s many reasons why it’s getting tougher to make that happen — be it the cost or feasibility of travel (especially for overseas students), or lack of desire to travel for a host of reasons.”


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This aligns with the findings of Education.com’s International Higher Education Report, which found that prospects are 72% more likely to rely on search and social media to learn about the study abroad process. Additionally, prospects value student reviews, video content and virtual open days over rankings and campus events.

Conversely, Itineris, a digital marketing agency based in London, shows that tech can optimise, rather than replace, campus events like open days. The agency’s creative digital campaigns for the University of Westminster boosted awareness and engagement to achieve record results for both clearing day and open day attendance in 2019.

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“The awareness stage of the campaign was crucial to let potential students know about their options at UoW. We used paid digital activity and selected digital partnerships based on the core audience UoW identified,” Eduardo Carvalho, head of performance marketing at Itineris, told ET.

Other products and services powering student recruitment

Thanks to targeted digital marketing campaigns and frontend platforms like TAP, Unibuddy and Ci, universities are learning to speak their prospects’ language. As well as peer-to-peer recruitment, climate change and adaptive learning at every level of education are priorities for some of the leading student recruitment technologies.

Prospective international students face unique challenges, such as language barriers and visa requirements. By assisting prospects with everything from the application process to visa and travel requirements, Studee’s qualified personal advisors help students navigate what Laura Rettie, VP of Global Communications & Brand, calls “the often complicated maze of processes, applications and deadlines.” Studee’s Trees for Degrees initiative also offsets carbon emissions from international student air travel. After assessing its carbon footprint in 2019, Studee launched the project to reach its goal of becoming carbon neutral.

No examination of student recruitment tech would be complete without considering the full span of the student life cycle. After all, students must pass their exams and meet admissions criteria before applying to university. E-learning platforms like Tassomai prove that tech has the potential to enhance, rather than inhibit, the human element of teaching and learning. Quizzes, video content and detailed reports customise learning and help students, parents and teachers identify problem areas. Murray Morrison, Tassomai’s founder, built the programme for his own students after realising tech could “analyse, organise, and personalise learning far more effectively than [he] could.”

Student recruitment

“Good edtech is about an exchange of responsibilities: let the tech do the heavy lifting and let the teachers do the teaching,” Morrison told ET.

What lies in store for tech in student recruitment?

The aforementioned products and services have set the bar high — but there’s always room for improvement, especially when it comes to personalisation and data privacy, says Feldman. In the U.S., many colleges purchase lists of student data from standardised test administrators like ACT and College Board. As a result, students might receive dozens of promotional emails from universities before ever expressing an interest. This is one reason why protecting student data privacy is paramount to prevent email spam and misdirected marketing communications. On the Ci app, “colleges will have access to personal profile information only when the student ‘raises their hand,’ demonstrates interest and makes the connection request,” said Feldman.

Morrison likened the implementation of edtech in schools to the “Wild West”, but believes this experimental period will settle down in the near future as edtech continues to evolve and develop mechanisms to optimise learning and feedback. Carvalho highlighted the value of virtual reality (VR) technology and chatbots in student recruitment. “Tech in education is enabling the decentralisation of information – students can interact with the university on their own terms and are encouraged to specify and individualise their own experience,” Carvalho told ET.

Rettie foresees Studee leading the initiative for increasing standardisation of university application processes and simplifying the translation of documentation for international students. While tech has decreased the environmental impact of HE overall, Rettie acknowledges that “universities could be collecting more data to understand the environmental impact of student activities to make informed decisions on whether to make changes or set up initiatives like planting trees to compensate.”

Student recruitment tech is undergoing a critical transformation that will make higher education more accessible, reduce its environmental impact and give prospects more control over every part of the process. Despite fears that technology hinders the human element of student recruitment, innovations in student recruitment tech connect prospects with real people using familiar channels, helping them make more informed choices.

1 Comment
  • Malcolm Paice
    Malcolm Paice

    Most students now expect to be able to interact in a digital and more frictionless manner with all services offered by their university. From enrolment to lectures, wellbeing and extra curricular activities it can all be delivered 24/7 wherever in the world students happen to be. The pandemic lockdown will see an acceleration in moving more services to be available remotely and this is in turn will free up much needed real estate on campus.

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