Student Recruitment Funnel: Focus On Prospects You Have For Better Results

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The number of students pursuing international study for higher education are at an all-time for popular study countries like US, UK and Australia. Much of this growth has been attributed to the increase in overall demand, led primarily by students from emerging countries like China, India, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Another factor contributing to this trend is the Internet, by making it easier for students to file queries – through forms, social media or email – to multiple schools at once. Moreover, centralized application systems and online applications gives additional convenience and ease for prospects to file a wide field of applications.

The web is home a tremendous amount of information about pursuing education; in turn, this has resulted in a new prospect category known as the “stealth applicant.” These are applicants who remain anonymous until the point of application and hence remain out of the tracking and communications processes of schools. Some even go as far as not to opt in to formal enquiries hence preventing schools from contacting them. Others are more comfortable to find the information they need online prior to submitting their application.

As you can imagine, these factors are a big headache and troubling concern for educational institutions as they struggle to acquire, qualify and manage prospect students. In addition, these factors are seemingly pointing to lower yield rates as well – the number of enquiries that convert to paying students.

What does your funnel look like?

It’s important that educators or education marketers take a serious look at their student recruitment funnel as it carries significant implications for its enrolment strategy and overall admission management. It’s also about getting insights and information that can help to challenge traditional ideas to find newer, more scalable and effective ways to manage this recruitment funnel.

Traditionally, the funnel is a visual way of managing the process of acquiring a student through the different stages of recruitment – awareness, interest, enquiry, counseling, and if all goes well, finally enrolment.

A funnel model that provides for more precise conversion tracking


As you can see, the funnel shows that at every conversion point, fewer prospects will proceed through. Not all prospects will be interested to make an enquiry, fewer would consider applying, and even fewer end up enrolling. In order to boost enrolment, the standard practice looks to increase the number of prospects at each conversion point or improve the rate of conversion at each stage, or a mix of both.

This imaginary funnel help educators better manage the linked processes between recruitment and admissions; this model however has seen its share of critiques. This traditional model focuses on moving of students from one stage to another, with emphasis on leading the top of the funnel – prospects and enquiries – as opposed to adopting a more comprehensive, strategic approach. The funnel also adopts a simplistic linear path, without taking into consideration that certain prospects may stay at one stage longer than others. Not all enquiries are also created equal in depicting the same level of interest, timelines and suitability.

According to a white paper from Noel-Levitz in 2009, the critical issue with the traditional funnel stems from its approach of a “one-and-done” event, as opposed to personalized process. The paper further stated,

“The prospect response rate (from search to inquiry) became the primary mechanism for evaluating the quality of the prospect pool, and the focus on moving students from one stage of the funnel to the next led institutions to discard high-quality prospects who didn’t respond to the initial marketing contact.”


How to make it work better

As education marketers continue to navigate the student recruitment landscape with evolving prospect behaviors, these critiques serve well to offer learnings for an improved, more comprehensive practice. Some possible strategies to consider include:

1) Embrace the differences

Understand that there is no one funnel, as there is no one singular type of individual; there are many. Some begin with an inquiry, while others are just looking around, while “stealth applicants” come in only at the application stage. The preferred system needs to be inclusive to track such diverging patterns by the channel prospects come into the funnel – websites, social media, phone call, exhibitions, etc. Each has its intricacies, which over time will provide trends and insights for conversion and yield rates.

2) Prospects must be qualified

At a recent NAFSA conference, a panel made up of global educators from the US, Australia, and UK all agreed that the key aspect of managing the enrolment funnel was in measuring the interest and suitability of applicants at the earliest possible stage. The simplest steps can include having a checklist of items that would denote a poor quality candidate such as: Did the student request for a scholarship? Write to several universities from a single email? If so, drop those into the “low quality” prospect. If students instead sent personalized enquiries and showed a genuine interest, it’s likely the prospect has higher value.

Once institutions have better depth of its prospects, it can better plan its communications strategy to each category. A clearer understanding of prospects means institutions can only put its limited resources on areas that will bring the highest value via conversions and yields.

3) Engagement comes first

Institutions must remember that as prospects move through the funnel, students must feel increasingly engaged with the university. Noel-Levitz adds, “Communication strategies traditionally used for enquiries can be quite effective with prospects, such as inviting prospects to campus, sending them information on outcomes for students, or mailing them an application instead of waiting for them to request one.”

4) Let the data lead

Institutions at large have huge amounts of valuable data to make better decision, however, not all use it. In recent years, emerging new strategies for funnel management have focused on metrics that aim to accurately and effectively monitor conversions and yields.

Noel-Levitz argues that there needs to be a recalculation of enquiry conversion rates that do not factor in stealth applicants. It further highlights the importance of distinguishing incomplete and complete admissions when tracking data from “applied” to “admitted” in order to get the “real” data and not overstated numbers that includes stealth applicants and incomplete admissions.

Another white paper by Noel-Levitz in 2013 compiled a wide range of funnel metrics and monitored present-day conversion rates versus three to five years of comparative data. The table below shows how such trends are used to track current progress against annual goals for a current year.


Using historical funnel trend data in enrolment management. Source: Noel-Levitz

Using historical funnel trend data in enrolment management. Source: Noel-Levitz

The white paper notes,

“With the above data set in hand, one can project fall enrolment and yield by monitoring and comparing each target group’s rates of movement toward enrolment each week of the recruitment cycle. This also highlights the need for targeted interventions. For example, groups of students who are moving slowly from admit to matriculant (yield rate) require different interventions than those who are converting slowly from inquiry to applications.”


Next steps

In summary, the most valuable takeaway such models suggests is for institutions to take a harder and more serious look at their data and focus their efforts and resources only on areas that have potentially the greatest impact. While traditional practices skew very much to the top of the funnel to drive awareness through mass advertising efforts. The conclusion from such a study purports that “the real key is converting initial interest (and the following phases of engagement) into actual enrolment.” Institutions should start looking at a more holistic view of student enrolment versus the traditional linear model, combined with hard analytics and data to drive top management decisions.

Managing partner of enrolment marketing firm DemandEngine, Tim Copeland believes that institutions today are placing too much emphasis on advertising and promotions. He is of the opinion that universities should instead focus more of its efforts to increase student engagement as prospects move through the recruitment funnel. He concluded by saying, “What will make or break enrolment goals is how well those hard-earned enquirers are converted into applicants, registrants, or contracts signed. Consider this, in order to have the same impact on enrolment as a 1% increase in conversion rate of enquirers to applicants; it would likely take a 5-7% increase in response rate (prospects to enquirers). That is how the funnel works.”

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