How to Recruit Undergraduate Students: A Playbook for Growing Enrollment

How to recruit, grow, and increase undergraduate students: a playbook for growing enrollment

With strained budgets, weakened endowments and the anticipated demographic cliff the college bound undergraduates are beginning to shrink. Colleges are developing strategies for winning an outsized share of a shrinking undergraduate market.

Our higher education marketing and enrollment clients have started asking us to prepare a playbook for successfully recruiting and growing undergraduate student enrollment. In increasing enrollment for undergraduate  programs for the past 25 years for numerous colleges and universities, we have learned two things: First, students can’t buy your programs or buy-into your university unless they can find you; Second, you can’t bore students into enrolling in your university. To succeed, universities must invest in first impressions, and deploy a unique balance of the marketing air-game, boots-on-the-ground game and follow-up contact strategies.


Appraise the college’s situation by immersing yourself in the college data and touch points:

  • Asses your brand. Are you a local brand, regional brand, state brand, super-regional brand or a national brand. Your brand elasticity will determine how far from your campus locations you can realistically recruit from. A strong brand platform will minimize your melt and transfer rates.
  • Evaluate your undergraduate enrollment data to understand the demographics and geographic reach. Study admissions funnel data. Which part of the funnel is facing the biggest loss and melt? Study your alumni data to understand the pockets of goodwill that could be potential harvesting grounds.
  • Know your signature programs, portfolio programs, and remaining programs. Know programs that are oversubscribed, undersubscribed and at-risk. Why? Because you won’t be able to spread your budgets evenly across all programs. You must play favorites and you’ll have to create smart portfolio groupings.
  • Assess your website and perform an SEO audit. Leads from your website will out-convert the paid leads by 3-folds. Google page 1 is destiny.
  • Benchmark cross-app competitors. Know who is ahead of you and who is behind you.
  • Define right-fit students. These are the kind of students you want more of.
  • Know your referral rate. Referrals produce some of the best quality leads. The best colleges graduate happy students who become the largest source of future students. Satisfied graduates bring trust and credibility which helps prospects cut through the clutter of choices and marketing.
  • Understand what your prospects value the most about the institution (brand, outcomes, peers, alumni,, faculty thought leadership, etc.). Don’t operate blindly.
  • Allocate competitive marketing budgets. Most non-profit colleges and universities are investing between 2% and 5% of their total revenue on marketing, when they ought to be investing at least 10%. Small and medium sized colleges are increasingly competing against a growing club of for-profit colleges and public universities that are investing more than 20% of their revenue or greater than $100M in marketing.
  • Perform SWOT. Face reality head-on.



Your website is one of the most important touch points for undergraduate prospects because it is the #1 lead and application generation tool for undergraduate programs. You’ll be judged and evaluated by its quality and beauty.

  • Inform it by market research insights.  Let website strategy guide the development of information architecture, content, design and development. 
  • Invest in high-fidelity academic program pages.  Program pages, what we call “money pages” on a college website, are where many college decisions are made and college preferences are created. Even though the colleges are asking families to pony up fees that are close to the price of expensive cars, it’s rare to find the level of romance and presentation that even economy car companies put into their entry-level model pages. Instead of settling with bland program pages packed with facts, the VPs of Enrollment Marketing must create program pages that romance prospects and their families. They must feature stories of enrolled students, faculty and labs, facilities, studios, and centers of excellence where the students’ minds will be shaped and skills will be developed. They must paint pictures of exciting opportunities that await them after graduation and offer stories of alumni as demonstrable proof of their program’s distinction.
  • Make it beautiful. Romance prospects. Merchandise hope.
  • Make it search engine friendly. Inform it with a Keyword Lexicon. Bake best practices in search engine optimization (SEO) into all aspects of it. Ensure that your academic program pages, faculty and the university magazine stories are all ranked on Google page one.
  • Spotlight enrolled students, alumni and alumni chapters in the institutional website, viewbook, and social media. If students can’t see others like themselves there, they simply won’t show up. They also rely heavily on word-of-mouth from friends. Craft brand messaging and content that is inclusive of people of different races, faiths and countries.
  • Prominently feature institutional reputation points because students use them as short-cuts and international students value them even more than the US students.
  • Feature proof points of your commitment to various student profiles. For instance, international recruitment need to see other international students, international alumni and international faculty, the office of international students, interfaith chapels, host family programs, international ambassadors, etc. Similarly African American and Hispanic students don’t wish to stand out like sore thumbs and want to know if the college has the support infrastructure for them.
  • Create customized admissions, financial aid and scholarships sections for US, veterans, international students and transfer students that address their unique needs.
  • Be prepared to create an admissions microsite. If your design template and CMS constraints don’t let you elevate the website user experience, be prepared to create a new admissions microsite.
  • Track website performance.  Carefully track prospect journey and conversion performance. Adjust it until it starts performing optimally.


Search, Social and Media Advertising paid platforms are all powered by algorithms that maximize their own profits with little regard for a marketer’s investments. To offset the algorithm’s greedy tendency, use sensible campaign management techniques to tune, optimize and micro-manage various aspects of the campaigns.

  •  Deploy new paid advertising methodologies based on what the right-fit students value, micro-segments, look-alikes, A/B testing, geo-targeting, machine learning, big-data algorithms and affinity groups.
  • Use the latest best practices to create high-converting digital ad creative. Run A/B tests to feed the champs and starve the chumps.
  • Direct prospects to brand-infused, high-fidelity, story landing pages. Infuse brand, ROI, cogent argument construction, differentiators, calls-to-action, ROI stats and facts into the creative. Again, run A/B tests with copy and images to feed the winners and starve the losers.
  • Choose the ad platforms wisely. Not all paid channels perform equally. Google generates solid leads for most pre-professional undergraduate degrees. Undergraduate students convert best on Instagram and YouTube, but not on Snapchat and Tik Tok. Parents can be reached best on Facebook.
  • Carefully track prospect journey and campaign performance so you can determine the right keywords, the right messaging, the right platforms, and the right landing pages. More importantly, so you can answer the pivotal question: where should you invest your precious marketing dollars in the next 12 months.
  • Use sensible campaign management techniques such as budget optimization, bid management, keyword management, audience optimization and judicious management of algorithmic recommendations.


Mobilize search engine optimization (SEO) and your content marketing engine to dominate search engines. Remember four things. First, research shows that when colleges “get found” via organic Google page one results, prospects trust them more. Google page one organic results command over 90% of click share, and generate close to two-thirds of inquiries. Organic inquiries tend to form long-term relationships with the universities and they tend to melt away at a reduced rate.  Second, leads generated from Google organic rankings tend to be like-minded and outperform paid advertising leads by three-folds. Third, the best prospects prefer to “discover” the college of their choice through “accidental finds” on Google page one and word-of-mouth on social media. Fourth, SEO marketing is a long game. It takes several months to achieve local and regional rankings, and often a year or more to achieve national and international rankings.

  • Develop smart foundational SEO. Establish a multi-year rankings plan for securing Google/Bing page one rankings.
  • Start by creating a Keyword Lexicon with keyword clusters, frequently asked questions, and natural language queries. Ensure it include keyword buckets for academic programs, thought leadership, brand, geographic, decisioning, and reputation.
  • Optimize all your undergraduate academic program pages. Ensure that the information that appears on search engine results is persuasive, aspirational and inviting.
  • Because rankings weaken over time and search engines reward fresh content, marketers must create a continuous stream of high quality, trusted and relevant content (such as articles, blog posts, videos, infographics, white papers, thought leadership articles, social posts, quizzes, games, etc.) and ignite it via promotion and conversation-starters to encourage peer-to-peer sharing. We call this the inverted admissions funnel strategy, which attracts and converts like-minded prospects.
  • Monitor your search engine rankings and traffic to identify which pieces of content are performing well and adjust your emphasis accordingly.


  • Email marketing is most effective with house lists,, and as joint marketing campaign with related niche organizations; purchased lists convert poorly. Carefully track prospect journey and campaign performance.


Instead of making a shortlist of colleges on their own, Gen-Z’s are heavily influenced by the opinions of their social network of peers, teachers, college counselors, principals, parents and friends.

  • Instead of investing most of their marketing dollars on high school seniors and juniors, the VPs of Enrollment should target a mix of students, parents, teachers, college counselors in high schools, and principals. This creates a stereophonic set of messages that surround and engage a prospect with what’s distinctive about a college.


  • Although colleges have an ambivalent relationship with college rankings, prospective students tend to gravitate towards the best ranked colleges they can afford to attend. Smart colleges routinely influence these ratings by creating committees that proactively affect ranking factors such as peer perception, student satisfaction, student placement rates, and salary data.

Each of these paid, earned and owned media strategies are good alone, but better together.



  • Recruit Student Ambassadors. Ask them to share their positive experiences and insights with prospective students. Recruit the ambassadors to take over social media accounts for the college. Ask them to welcome new students and their families.
  • Facilitate Student and Family Visits and Tours. College visits are moments of truth. Face-to-face interactions during college visits, alumni outreach, and admitted student days improve the number of high-quality leads and admissions yield.  Students remember a college that reaches out to them in a caring, personal and organized manner. Successful colleges work very hard in casting and directing volunteers, tour guides, work study and junior staff — ensuring the talking points, presentations, touch points and tour details are all curated and orchestrated perfectly. God is in the details.
  • Befriend High Schools and Community Colleges. The more the number of high schools you visit, college fairs you participate in, school principals and teachers you meet, college counselors you befriend, community colleges you build partnerships with, the higher your success rate will be.
  • Offer Pre-College Programs and Summer Camps. These are some of the most effective feeders for future enrollment.
  • Attend Special Events. Identify events where talented youth are congregating and attend them. e.g. STEM programs would benefit from attending annual events of organizations like Girls who code and First Robotics.
  • Create Joint Programs with High Schools. Enable high school students complete college level courses and offer them admissions based on their performance in those courses.
  • Create, Cultivate and Fortify Corporate Relationships for Internships, Coops and Job Placement.  Above everything else, outcomes and job placement are one of the top concerns of  students and their families. By facilitating corporate placements, colleges help students realize a return on their investment by helping them gain practical experience, develop job-specific skills and secure quality job opportunities. Become known as a gateway to corporate America.
  • Cultivate Strong Relationship with Surrounding Communities. The goodwill generated will pay off handsomely.


  • Start an International Student Ambassador Program. Hire the ambassadors to create and oversee international social media properties for the college. Ask them to welcome new international students and their families. Connect them to local host families who welcome international students into their homes and families.
  • Hold international student webinar information sessions. The basic blocking and tackling of the ground game begins with webinars. Since like attracts like, bring appropriate international faculty, staff, students and alumni to these webinars. The meetings and interactions with faculty, students and alumni provide prospective international students with the information and experiences they need to determine if a college is the right-fit for their academic and personal goals. Prospects who attend these events tend to apply and enroll at a much higher rate than those who show up by other means.
  • Ask international faculty and program directors to visit countries of strategic interest. “To increase effectiveness, Involve alumni in the cities they are visiting” recommends Ed Barr, my first business client who now teaches communications at Carnegie Mellon.  This not only increases cultural understanding but also builds relationships that become feeders.
  • Form international partnerships with schools in other countries. Nurture relationships with reliable college counselors, principals and program chairs. Wholesale student streams provide a solid foundation upon which a university can build retail one-on-one recruitment. 
  • Create and run summer ESL and cultural immersion programs. In addition to generating new revenue, they will build your reputation for global engagement, and attract more international students and faculty.
  • Promote your college via state consortia like StudyNewYork, StudyTexas.edu, etc. These consortia, designed to foster economic development at the state level, routinely travel overseas to promote the member schools in educational fairs.
  • Create, cultivate and fortify corporate relationships for internships, coops and job placement. International students invest significant time and resources in their education abroad. By facilitating corporate placements, colleges help students realize a return on their investment by helping them gain practical experience, develop job-specific skills and secure quality job opportunities. Become known as a gateway to corporate America.


All your marketing investments will be wasted unless you build a solid follow-up system for inquiries and applications.

  • Follow-up with inquiries on a timely basis. Respond quickly. Keep it human. Recruit friends and colleagues to become secret shoppers for your university — and ask them about their experience.
  • Deploy a personalized contact strategy for every stage of the admissions funnel to maximize yield. Know what prospects and influencers need at every stage of the admissions funnel, and meet their needs. Pay as much attention to admission yield communications and follow-up processes as you do to lead-generation and lead-nurturing communications. Offset reduced contact with stealth applicants by stepping up the game at each touch point. Ask faculty and program directors to personally follow up with high-value leads, not just accepted students. When faculty and program chairs follow up personally with quality prospects/applicants and probe them about their motivations, aspirations and ambitions, it becomes a force multiplier: it surprises them and builds brand affinity. Moreover, when the insights gathered from these conversations are fed back to marketing, the messaging becomes even more effective. 
  • Deploy a unique contact strategy for applications to prevent melt.  The application is the new lead. Treat admitted students with the same care as you treat leads. Deploy drip campaigns, accepted student days, early orientation, and welcome reception.

Remember two things. First, a broken inquiry and application follow-up process reflects poorly on the entire brand. Second, don’t let automation get in the way of personalized and timely follow-up because there are no short-cuts for old-fashioned, human-centered relationship building.

If you are seeking an undergraduate enrollment marketing agency for increasing and growing your undergraduate enrollment, consider partnering with us.