Student enrollment is down, and you’re worried about not having enough students to fill the courses starting this Fall. You’re getting pressure put on them by senior staff to meet enrollment goals, but no matter what you do, students aren’t applying.

Why aren’t they applying to attend your college when over 19.9 million students will attend colleges and universities this year?

It’s because traditional student recruitment no longer works.

Direct mail to their parents’ address isn’t effective because 76% of high school students prefer to receive communication from colleges in the form of email, compared to just 53% for mail:

student recruitment statistics

Printed advertisements in the local paper aren’t effective, either.

Some 97% of media companies surveyed believe that the digital transformation has disrupted their sector, which is why huge magazines like Seventeen, Redbook, and CookingLight have all ditched paper for digital this year.

…Not to mention that Americans are exposed to approximately 4,000-10,000 ads every day. The students you’re attempting to recruit are digital natives with built-in ad blockers; a printed advertisement no longer grabs their attention.

So, how do you grab your prospective students’ attention with a college recruitment strategy?

In this guide, we’ll share the answer.

A proven student recruitment strategy

22 Immutable Laws of Marketing argues that marketing is a battle of perceptions, not products or services. Even if you’ve got the best-rated classes in the country, potential students are likely to pick the one with the best reputation.

That can make recruitment tricky. How can you build a reputation for your higher education facility while also actively bringing new students onto your books?

Look at your previous enrollment data

Chances are, you’re sitting on a goldmine of data that can already form the foundations of your recruitment strategy. Take a look at the data you’ve already collected throughout previous admission processes, such as:

  • Where did the majority of existing students come from? Did they move to attend school?
  • If you ran an enrollment survey, why did previous students pick your college?
  • Which marketing channel tends to generate the most enquiries from potential students?

You might find common denominators between your existing and prospective students that will help you piece together an engaging campaign.

Let’s use this data collected by Ruffalo Noel Levitz, as an example:

4 year institution student recruitment statistics

We can see that a large chunk of students of public institutions came from a campus visit, which only accounts for 15% of their recruitment budget. However, traditional advertising takes almost a quarter of their budget—despite only bringing in 1% of all the students they’ve enrolled.

It makes sense to refocus your strategy towards campus visits when recruiting new students, right? It’s the channel that’s resulted in more students in the past, giving you more ROI for your recruitment strategy.

Provide experiences at local high schools

Earlier, we mentioned how student recruitment is changing due to the preferences of the demographic.

They spend more time watching online content than traditional TV or radio. Why? Because these new formats allow them to consume content that’s tailored to them, and choose the content they’re most interested in. This demographic crave new experiences.

You could apply that concept to local events. Instead of relying on online marketing to attract new students, give them the experiences they’re craving with:

  • Visits to local high school job fairs
  • Holding an open day on your campus
  • Hosting a virtual campus tour—something 64% of high school students use when researching higher education facilities

Research by Hanover backs this up:

“Despite increased digital activity, a recent survey found that the most effective marketing strategies for universities are nevertheless events‐based and involve direct interaction with potential students.”

Glendale Community College has a “Recruitment on the Road” calendar, where they list details of the high school job fairs they’ll be attending:

student recruitment on the road calendar

While attending these events, collect the names and contact details for each prospective student who has shown an interest in your college. You can then run retargeting campaigns to engage with them pre-event through Facebook—a tactic rated the most effective advertising strategy to attract new students:

chart of the most effective student recruitment marketing techniques

Involve lecturers and faculty staff

So, who should attend those local events you’re exhibiting your college at?

It’s not just enrollment advisors, admissions officers, or recruiters; it’s a good idea to invite your lecturers and faculty staff along. They’re the experts in their subject, and may be able to answer questions about particular courses or subjects that each potential student has an interest in.

…But that all starts with recruiting top lecturers and faculty staff—something that the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology use to actively recruit students, as Professor Kar-Yan Tam explains:

“Over 80% of our professors obtained degrees from world top universities – Cambridge, Oxford, Stanford – we are glad of ripple effect from word-of-mouth recommendations.”

Diversity and equality are key

What are your students looking for in a college or university? The answer to that question should underpin your entire recruitment strategy.

You could run a survey to ask your current students, and look for underlying themes or trends. Or, you could scan industry reports on your target audience, who are likely falling within the Gen Z demographic, to better understand their preferences.

For example: A research paper conducted by the International Journal of Educational Management concluded that:

“Student recruitment strategies are often grounded in inherent institutional identities, while at the same time responding to external ideas about excellence and diversity.”

Data backs this statement up, too. A survey of Gen Z found they value employers that provide equal opportunities for pay and promotion the most—which is why diversity is being credited as the key to winning this demographic.

You can use this within your student recruitment strategy. Simply prove you’re a diverse college, and aim to attract prospective students of various ethnicities, backgrounds, and religions.

It’s a great way to differentiate your higher education facility—especially when 70% of colleges and universities do not have specific strategies for recruiting Hispanic students, for example.

The University of Texas prove their commitment to diversity and equality with their GeoFORCE program—an event hosted by the university which invites 300 high school students to attend geological field trips across the country.

geoforce program stats

They say the program runs throughout Houston because “these target areas have a high percentage of minority students, thus providing an opportunity for GeoFORCE to increase minority participation in science and math.”

Hence why the program is “designed to increase the number and diversity of students pursuing STEM degrees and careers, especially geology.”

3 Examples of Student Recruitment Plans

There is no generic framework for building an effective student recruitment plan. Everything from your university’s website to the events you attend have an impact on your reputation—something you’ll need to work on to boost admission figures.

You can make a start on your own recruitment plan by drawing inspiration from other colleges and universities.

The University of Toronto, for example, have identified their potential students as being creative, fun, and enjoy music—so they created this video to show what life is like as a student at their college:

Bentley University, on the other hand, publish content written by existing students on their blog, which covers important topics their potential students are likely interested in—like this example on inclusion in the fashion industry:

inclusion in the fashion industry article

Harvard College also allows potential students to learn more about attending before enrolling with their virtual tour. Everything from dorm rooms to lecture halls are included, which gives students a real sense of life at Harvard—potentially convincing them to apply.


Are you ready to create a steady stream of potential students applying to study at your college this year? Remember that recruitment is just a small branch of running a successful higher education facility—and marketing shouldn’t stop when you’ve met your recruitment quota.

We’ve put together a guide to higher education marketing you can use year-round to raise awareness of your university or college. That way, when recruitment season falls around next year, you’ll already have a list of prospective students to tap into.