If you want higher enrolment and lower drop-out rates, zero in on these students. If you want higher enrolment and lower drop-out rates, zero in on these students.

This article is part of a series exploring how to leverage your brand to reach right-fit audiences. For more, read our thoughts on attracting employees who’ll become brand advocates.

When you’re in a place you belong, you thrive. As a higher education institution, you want all your students to feel that way. But if you’re casting too wide of a net in your recruiting efforts, you’re inviting students who ultimately won’t thrive at your institution. And you’re both getting burned.

Not all students are going to be the right fit for your institution — and that is a good thing. You aren’t meant to make every student fulfilled and happy, and you can’t. 

Targeting right-fit students doesn’t mean attracting fewer students, it means finding more of the right ones who will excel at your institution and go on to be catalysts for change in society. 

Doubling-down on your strategy to find the right students for your higher education institution doesn’t only help you outpace your competition (and save you money from fewer dropouts), it ultimately helps students find the right place for them — whether that’s on your campus or not. Strategic and altruistic. Here’s what’s in it for everyone involved.

Attracting the right students isn’t exclusivity, it’s humanity.

If only seeking out the right-fit students sounds snobby, stop right there. Setting out to attract students that would thrive at your institution is strategic, yes, but with a heavy dose of humanity. 

No student starts school with the intention of dropping out. But so many do. If it’s not an issue of finding the funds, it’s because they discovered they aren’t where they’re supposed to be. They’re at a crossroads and found themselves pulled in a different direction — away from your institution and what it offers (or doesn’t). 

It’s not entirely their fault. Society puts pressure and expectations on high school students to know exactly what they want to do — and pursue that path — at 18 years old. But is it fair for an 18-year-old kid to decide what a 45-year-old person should do with the rest of their life? Certainly not. 

By giving students a clear story about what your institution is all about — your approach to education, campus culture, your purpose, and what you stand for (and don’t, as it were) — they’re set up to better understand what you offer, and how they would (or wouldn’t) fit into that picture. 

You’re helping the right students answer those “what should I do with my life?” questions, positioning that 18-year-old to feel empowered to forge the right path for their future 45-year-old self. No matter what that looks like.

And if they find they wouldn’t be a good fit? You’ve saved them from heartache and sent them on another path on which they’re meant to be. 

Telling the truth to students on the outset isn’t being exclusive, it’s being compassionate. You’re setting your institution up to foster the growth of students who will be invested for the long haul and be less likely to jump ship because they belong somewhere else.

How to recruit the ideal student for your institution.

If your institution has sought to be everything to every student, you’re not helping them and you’re not helping yourself. Defining your right-fit student helps your recruitment efforts to focus on attracting the right people while showing others that their future is better nurtured somewhere else. In the end, everyone benefits from being told — and expecting — the truth.

Start strategizing on how to change the narrative. Here’s how:

  1. Start with your brand. Take a holistic view of your brand – starting with how your externally-promoted value proposition reflects the internal direction of your strategic plan. That strategic plan is almost always two things: a reflection of what you already do and offer, and a projection of where your institution is headed. If your value proposition still makes sense in context with the new direction — then your brand is aligned. If not, your brand may need to be revisited to ensure you’re effectively leveraging your brand and strategic plan together in sharing your higher ed. institution’s priorities. This helps students evaluate if their academic priorities and desired school experience align with the direction of the institution they choose.
  2. Analyze who has dropped out.  How many of your current students feel like they’re thriving at your institution and how many are on the verge of dropping out? Dig deeper into who they are to help define your ideal student. What is contributing to the thriving students’ experience? What are the reasons for students dropping out? Are there themes in either camp? Perhaps students who dropped out were sold on the idea that they’d feel supported and nurtured but found themselves in a 300-person lecture on their first day of class. Perhaps highly-driven, academically-minded students were sold on the idea of access to brilliant faculty but discovers yours rarely lecture and aren’t required to schedule office hours. Perhaps your brand promises something your institution doesn’t deliver.
  3. Be direct in your messaging. Craft a targeted recruitment message that focuses on your key differentiators and how your ideal student fits into the narrative. Is your institution gunning for high-achieving, independent learners who don’t need a lot of hand-holding and have their eyes on the Nobel? Be bold and say so. (Gently) discourage the students who aren’t on your level of academic ambition before they have a chance to daydream about skipping class to meet their roommates for happy hour.

To find the best-fit students and discourage those who aren’t, you have to be strategic and targeted in your recruitment messaging. The more money you spend trying to attract any and all prospective students the more it’s costing you to get the best-fit students. It is expensive to reach prospective students — and it’s more competitive than ever. Use your budget wisely.

Students have more choices than ever — what sets you apart?

You’ve found the right-fit students you need to target. Great! Now, you have to win them over your competition. And it’s fierce.

Compelling students to enrol at your institution may have been easier when students were on a straight path to either a liberal arts university or a polytechnic college. Lifelong learners vs. a definite spot in the workforce. But now? Not so much. Both liberal arts universities and polytechnic colleges offer enticing work placements, internships, and student cultures. The lines are starting to blur, leaving students to furrow their brow and ask, “what’s the difference?”

Knowing your institution’s purpose is a built-in differentiator. Students align themselves with brands that reflect their values. Standing strong in your values and waving the flag of your brand will tell a story that calls out to the right student. 

Then, there’s the non-traditional student who comes to higher education only after making a living without a degree. Entrepreneurs may look to your institution for supplementary knowledge to help their business, or to expand their life experience just because they can. If they look at your institution to take them on the next phase of their journey, how will they see themselves fitting in? 

Higher education institutions have a responsibility to know the truth about their right-fit students and speak directly to them. Don’t miss the opportunity to guide the next generation to discover their right-fit path, whether that’s through your institution’s halls or not. In the end, your institution’s student population will thrive.

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