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  • Writer's pictureDr. Thom

The Admissions Factory: How political marketing changed college admissions forever

Photo by Krzysztof Kowalik on Unsplash

It has been only five years since I worked in an enrollment management office on a college campus, but my distance from that world has given way to a simple understanding:

The next generation of college enrollment leaders have a rough road ahead of them.

Some background on why: The state of the modern American university, with its 21 million students, is the result of a 150 year-long creeping pivot from a colonial mission of educating ministers, to training and credentialing managers to sustain the industrial revolution. So slow are these shifts that they are nearly undetectable from year to year, but in collective, the shift of the Anglican and Franco-influenced Puritan college to the modern Germanic-inspired research and teaching university is stark. From a unified philosophical canon curated by masters and facilitated one-by-one by residential tutors to a model designed to identify and credential students, this more industrial style of education was not by accident, as it sought to identify perceived innate talent for, and to channel managers into, an increasingly specialized workforce, drawn from the needs of a burgeoning and highly stratified commercial market. Standardized curriculum, timed exams, accrediting agencies, rankings, universal accounting of credit hours, FTE, and transcripts all trace their roots to management theories of 1870-1920 and were optimization staples in factories of the era to churn out Model T’s and steel beams.

Admissions leaders have a rough road ahead because this model demanded equally standardized inputs in the admissions criteria to ensure the most efficient deployment of university resources. In his pivotal 1869 inauguration address at Harvard College, higher education reformer Charles Eliot argued, “The rigorous examination for admission has one good effect throughout the college course: it prevents a waste of instruction upon incompetent persons. A school with a low standard for admission and a high standard of graduation, like West Point, is obliged to dismiss a large proportion of its students by the way. Hence much individual distress, and a great waste of resources, both public and private.” Yes, he actually said that.

They have a rough road ahead because they will be responsible to engage with a generation that has always been able to find any answer they desired by simply talking to a supercomputer in their pocket or on their kitchen counter, and they will have to do so with admissions and marketing tools ill-equipped to do just that.

The next generation of enrollment leaders are essentially standing amidst the production lines of an admissions factory, built expressly for the efficiency of those who are doing the recruiting, rather than for the active engagement of the recruited.

After the mass of potential students have been pre-screened through a set of standardized assessments, cohort classes are communicated with in batches, on pre-determined schedules using one-size-fits-most marketing messaging. The single most important data point in university recruitment is arguably the student’s age, a kind of “date of manufacture” as Sir Ken Robinson put it. Seniors in high school receive markedly different communication messages than juniors, which is different than sophomores, and so on.

The admissions factory is as prolific, generating millions of emails, brochures, and digital display advertising annually, as it is wasteful. My former employer, Capture Higher Ed, estimated that higher education spent an estimated $1.1 Billion in 2018 recruiting uninterested students, defined as non-applying prospective students. One can only imagine what that amount of marketing flotsam looks like from the student’s point of view, and thanks to a Virginia high school senior who goes by the Reddit name Popopopper123, we don’t have to only imagine. For an entire year, Popopopper123 meticulously tracked the more than 2,300 emails he/she received from over 115 colleges and universities, which sent an average of 19 unsolicited emails each. The top 10 colleges by email volume sent an average of 48 emails each.

How we got here: The architects of the admissions factory

The roots of the admissions factory can be directly traced to two men separated by more than a century: Elias St. Elmo Louis, and William (Bill) Royall.

In 1898, economist Elias St. Elmo Louis conceptualized the buying process of a consumer as progressing through the stages of attention, interest, decision and action (i.e., the “AIDA” funnel). Applied to the masses, this funnel dictates that to realize a certain volume of action-taking consumers one must cultivate a large enough degree of attention from a population.

Louis’ notion of buying stages may have been less a novel view of consumer behavior as much as an indicator of the times in which he lived. In 1900, a time largely seen as the “dawn of advertising,” communication with a target audience was one-directional and the information highway was significantly less congested. Despite the fact that AIDA funnel is an innovation contemporary with the filing cabinet and the rotary phone (go ahead, Google it), it has remained a mainstay of university admissions marketing, routinely included in conference presentations and white papers by dozens of supposed thought leaders in enrollment management.

For decades, the advice to enrollment managers has been to focus recruitment activities to move people from suspect (someone who has not indicated an interest in the college) to a full-fledged inquiry, from applicant to enrolled-- essentially from one bucket to the next. The advice is varied: you manage the enrollment funnel, put cylinders in the enrollment funnel, invert the enrollment funnel, or emphasize “top of” or “bottom of” enrollment funnel activities, but essentially, you spend money on the many to affect the behavior of the few.

Today information regarding consumer purchases is multi-directional, ubiquitous, and always flowing. Enrollment management has struggled to adapt to this long-emerging reality, emphasizing a kind of funnel-based marketing as Mr. Louis. In that world, prospect pools must always expand and communication flows must always broaden in hopes of converting batches of suspects to inquiries, inquiries to applications and so on. Enrollment funnels swelled, with the average prospective student pool growing 36% since 2008, and the cost to recruit an undergraduate student has grown 33% since 2005.

In April of 1979, Bill Royall left his post as a top aide to then Governor of Virginia John Dalton after being largely credited with masterminding Dalton’s election. Royall took his experience in direct marketing to become president of North American Marketing Corporation, a subsidy of Richmond, VA holding company North American Corporation. Eventually though, Royall would find his life’s work in the founding of Royall & Company in 1983, a firm that provided direct mail support to enrollment and donor management efforts of colleges and universities until it was acquired by Educational Advisory Board (EAB) in 2014.

Direct mail is a marketing strategy that hinges on the targeting of an individual through the postal mail delivery of print advertising. Unlike other forms of mass marketing of the time, the appeal of direct marketing was that the communicator could profile and target various segments of individuals rather than the broadcasting styles of magazine and newspaper ads. When you go to your mailbox this afternoon and find that stack of mailers and other advertising we now call “junk mail,” it is likely because you fall into some category of potential customer of some company somewhere. Direct mail, though having historical roots to 1000 BC Egypt, saw a boom in use in the 1980s and 1990s, with mail order sales growing nearly 10% annually from 1990-1996.

Royall & Company’s approach, which has been widely replicated relies on high volume and even higher frequency targeting of the prospective student, having consistent presence of the college’s message in the mailbox and inbox of the prospective student. Royall also ushered in the use of self mailing pre-filled applications (often referred to as “fast apps”), a tactic directly borrowed from credit card marketing. These applications arrive in the prospective student’s mailbox already completed, asking the student to simply sign their name. Finally, Royall’s strategy demonstrated a commitment to standardization over customization, in many cases, utilizing the exact same design elements, marketing content and verbiage. This became so much a known element of the Royall approach, that one Vice President of Enrollment once confided to me, “You give me a stack of 100 college brochures, I can find [Royall’s] in 10 seconds.”

So why has the funnel-based approach stuck around as long as it has? The same reason people still give gift subscriptions to the TV Guide, because it was useful once and it's something they have always done.

The landscape of enrollment management has serious challenges on the horizon and a doubling down of the Louis and Royall admissions factory will only continue its decline. Demographics are shifting and the very model of in-person college is being redefined, exacerbated significantly by the COVID-19 pandemic. “If your response to what’s coming is that you are just going to recruit harder, recruit more ... “ at which a Director of Admissions at a major public university paused as he addressed a standing-room-only gathering of his colleagues at a recent enrollment conference, “Get your resume ready,” he finished.

The future is in personalization at scale

The fact that Royall’s contribution to the admissions factory emanated from within the field of political marketing actually provides a preview of how higher education marketing might evolve. In his book Victory Lab: The secret science of winning campaigns, Sasha Issenberg chronicles the shift away from mass direct marketing and other macro-segmentation tactics by the communications operatives of both the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigns. Issenberg details the use of new behavioral data and analytics and a commitment to experimentation by a new generation of maverick thinkers as the key that modernized and forever changed American politics.

Instead of colleges and universities communicating with batches of students based on a presumption of interests (e.g., the average junior in high school is likely to be thinking about campus visits so we’ll send them a tour invite), colleges are slowly beginning to use more sophisticated personalization techniques using machine learning and automation. In his new book, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, Jeffery Selingo details the evolving nature of college admissions from a factory model to a more student-directed, responsive model. Less batch and more personalization in communication.

The phrase alma mater means “nourishing mother” in Latin and reflects the intents of these amazing places of learning. It points to the fact that the goal of higher education is not just to continue existing, but to create moments of growth and support to the students of these university communities so that they can enrich the world. At its core, enrollment management is a human endeavor aimed at creating engagement that really matters to prospective students as they search for their place of growth and personal nourishment.

Not working with us yet? Feeling stressed by the college search process? Let's chat.

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