Wondering what the next looming crisis in higher ed might be? Industry analysts predict an “Enrollment Cliff” arriving in 2025 as the college-age population shrinks. Perhaps you’ve seen signs of this. Enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities have dropped for eight consecutive years, reports The CPA Journal, and that decline may be about to worsen.
Of course, college enrollment and admissions teams are no strangers to uncertainty. Any way you slice it, higher ed leaders will likely need to rethink recruitment efforts to navigate an unstable market. How so? We’ve invited Rob Munstis, Regional Manager, and Lisa Honaker, Managing Director of Sales — both with FedEx Office — to share insights they’ve gleaned from working with colleges and universities across the country.
Digital fatigue and the resurgence of print
Without a doubt, the acceleration of digital solutions has solved a myriad of problems for higher ed communities. Though remote access remains a necessity or desired convenience for many, emerging studies warn of growing technology burnout as students juggle numerous online platforms and always-on-screen routines.
“Students are burnt out on digital and virtual everything! They want print materials and in-person events, tangible items” — wrote one university leader to a recent Higher Ed Dive studioID and FedEx Office survey.
“As a faculty member, I see significant student digital burnout,” wrote another: “We’ve done all we can but can’t keep students engaged.”
How does that translate into recruitment? As helpful as digital communications have been, the growing digital fatigue has sparked the resurgence of print as a powerful antidote and opportunity for organizations to stand out amidst the deluge of digital messages.
“Some of the best-selling items in a bookstore are highlighters, Post-its and notepads,” says Honaker. “There’s a kinetic function in writing things down that helps cement assimilation. That’s never going away because we’re humans. The physicality and tactile experience of printed pieces help counter technology overload,” she explains. Put another way, “we’re all tired of staring at screens, and print becomes a tangible way to connect in the absence of a human being,” she adds.
With that in mind, many universities have increased their reliance on print tools and physical mailings, but with a twist: “Our universities leverage data to customize welcome boxes to each prospective student,” says Honaker. Personalization options run the gamut from academic interests to extracurricular activities or where students are in their college decision-making process.
“We’ve also seen an explosion of creativity, from conventional school-branded items to cafeteria cookies and even the inclusion of video inside custom boxes,” shares Munstis. “There are so many ways to be creative with print. If you bring us an idea, we’ll help you figure out how to execute and deliver it.”
Following a year of isolation and a string of missed school traditions, high school graduates crave a sense of community as they decide next steps. Whether in person or remotely, McKinsey researchers advise enlisting current students and alumni to engage with prospective students.
Texting campaigns, buddy programs, virtual office hours, live video hangouts, social media or in-person events are all ways to build connections between prospective students and alumni or student ambassadors. “Virtual community building is particularly relevant for first-generation and international students, students from minority groups, and those at greater risk for attrition,” McKinsey reports. Those practices add up to an advantage in attracting a diverse class.
In her interactions with university leaders, Honaker’s found custom boxes and mailings — similar to those sent to prospective students — are also used to nurture and move alumni to action. “One silver lining in the past year is that people feel compelled to serve and give back to organizations that played a role in where they are today,” she says.
It’s rare that students choose a school without input from loved ones. Reasonably, recruitment efforts should include prospective families. For parents, safety protocols are a big deal. They’re also watching how universities invest their resources.
“As a parent, I want to know what my child is getting for our tuition dollars. I want to invest in a university that makes good decisions, operates as a business, and serves my child well,” shares Honaker. Researchers at McKinsey agree, stressing the value in helping guardians understand financial options as well as the school’s unique value proposition.
To that end, reinforce value messaging in mailers, student-facing brochures, website and social media channels, highlighting factors like affordability, career preparedness, class size, proximity to home, or the quality of distance learning options.
“It’s also important to be inclusive and respectful of different students’ decisions,” says Honaker. “Some kids are afraid to return to campus, others opt out of vaccination, and so on. Institutions should display a great deal of respect, finding ways to involve everyone.”
Joining forces with a reputable vendor
One way to earn trust from parents and prospective students is to work with reputable brands, whose presence on campus engenders instant “street cred.”
“When you visit a campus and see nationally recognized brands on-site, you realize it’s a well-thought-out operation,” says Munstis. “If your university touts state-of-the-art facilities or industry-leading resources, brands like FedEx Office can add credibility to that narrative.”
By leveraging the reputation of select vendors, universities convey a sense that tuition dollars will return to students as top-notch experiences, conveniences, and efficiencies.
Making innovation a habit
After months of short-term solutions, it’s time to refocus on ongoing, lasting transformation advises McKinsey.
“Higher education leaders have done everything humanly possible to pivot in the last year. The challenge ahead is to think differently,” says Honaker. “What you’ve done in the past was great, but if you’re doing the same things in 1999, 2009 and 2019 to attract students, it’s going to be tough to survive.” Rather, she advises you to take learnings from the past year and cultivate a culture of agile innovation, iterating recruitment strategies every few months.
“Covid-19 taught us we can make anything happen,” Honaker concludes. “Just be open to things happening in a different way.”
To learn more about driving enrollment, engagement and experiences with inventive print or parcel management strategies, contact FedEx Office for a complementary assessment and consultation.