Generation Z, or the post-Millennial generation, is now the largest portion of the U.S. population, at nearly 26 percent. Considered "digital natives," this demographic is the first generation to grow up fully digital, interacting fluently over social media and completely dependent on the Internet. Nearly three-quarters of them use cell phones more than they watch TV, according to the advertising agency Sparks & Honey.
As with generations past, a college and post-grad education is well-revered; however, the higher education industry is lacking the digital tools to appeal to their most desirable students, and worse, lacking the tools to prepare them for tech-heavy careers.
Undergraduate enrollment is projected to increase 14 percent from 17.3 million to 19.8 million students between 2014 and 2025, but higher education institutions still have major catching up to do. Cathy O’Neil, author and former Director of the Lede Program in Data Practices at Columbia University writes, “Today’s college admissions process has gradually become dominated by a viper’s nest of competing algorithms that keep tuition rising, parents worrying and kids suffering. Fail to play the game and your child may pay the price.”
The technology challenge facing higher education is substantial, but these are three key ways college institutions can use digital tools to better appeal to their tech-savvy audience.
1. Enrollment process must go digital.
Despite widespread digital trends, the school enrollment process remains largely unchanged. Prospective students can research a college website and chat with peers or active students, but a majority of them find it difficult to navigate the institution on a deeper level.
“In order to create a funnel of likely student applicants, institutions need more digital systems, (i.e. mobile apps) in place to attract potential students while also correctly gauging their interest to attend,” says Sujoy Roy, founder and CEO of VisitDays, an app that helps universities communicate with prospective students. “Research shows that when students are empowered with tools to take personalized on-campus tours, they’re 70 percent more likely to attend.”
Furthermore, digital tools that aim to solve the predictive yield problem, such as the emerging Virtual Reality campus tour trend, help predict enrollment rates, which lessens administrative headaches and budget roadblocks while increasing evaluation abilities.
2. Creative online, digital and mobile strategies.
According to a 2016 study by Marketo, newer methods of technology, such as enhanced course delivery, “flipped classrooms,” and gamification, have seen promising student outcomes. “Flipped” and gamified instructional models, in particular, have been linked to greater student engagement.
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We use digital tools in the classroom to engage Generation Z, but higher education has been immensely slow to migrate their admissions outreach to similar channels. Data from TargetX, a CRM platform for higher education, reveals that 81 percent of students visit college websites on mobile devices and as many as 35 percent have submitted a college application from their hand-held devices.
Thus, colleges must have a compelling online and mobile presence. The Marketo study also found that 5 percent of seniors have received text messages from universities, while 73 percent would be willing to allow text messages. This is a huge missed opportunity to connect and engage real-time with future students. Implementing tools, like VisitDays, demonstrates to this all-digital cohort that the institution speaks their language.
3. Emphasize new marketing outreach.
In a society with abundant "noise," today’s colleges must do much more outbound marketing than in decades past. Universities are creating roles for marketing and branding experts to analyze the market and cultivate strategies, much like traditional companies do.
A recent survey conducted by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth found that nearly all polled institutions use some form of social media as part of their marketing. Moreover, institutions are increasingly taking advantage of social media, mobile marketing, and other digital strategies not only to recruit students, but also to research prospective students.
Multichannel marketing and communications are critical: 40 percent of seniors and 45 percent of juniors noted that they are more likely to consider institutions that use print and phone communications, along with digital. An article published in Inside Higher Ed, estimates the annual recruiting spend of American colleges to move from the current $10 billion to $100 billion a year.
Lesson: Leverage digital tools to differentiate.
Many less-selective, four-year institutions are struggling with declining enrollments. The 2015 Survey of Admissions Directors found that half of admissions directors were very concerned about meeting their enrollment goals for the 2015 to 16 academic year, and 58 percent did not meet their goals. This large swath of four-year institutions need to quickly find a solution to lackluster admissions numbers.
Several questions emerge: is technology the answer? Is it revitalized branding or lowering tuition costs? Or perhaps opening bigger doors for international students? They all beg the question: is a school’s value earned or arbitrary? There is no obvious answer, but what’s clear is that if these schools don’t differentiate themselves from the pack in 2016, they’ll increase the risk of closing their doors permanently.