The recruitment of higher education students had expanded beyond the traditional pathway from high school through to a degree. Today's students come from any number of avenues. Luckily, website personalization can help you reach them all.

Recruiting students in the higher education sphere has become increasingly complex and competitive, incentivizing institutions to leverage their key recruiting asset, the school website, to capitalize on the rapidly evolving pathways that students are taking to graduate. 

Central to this challenge, schools are recruiting not only from prospective students who’ve just completed high school, but also from non-traditional areas such as those who are already enrolled in an institution or are looking for a career change. In this post of the nonlinear higher education and tech blog series, we’ll look at how to improve student recruitment efforts through personalization.

A new kind of prospective student

Colleges and universities have long recruited the majority of their new students from traditional sources like high school graduates looking to start their careers or adults contemplating a career change, but changes in the economy and government policy are creating a much broader spectrum of potential recruits from all walks of life. These new prospects are all looking to upgrade their qualifications quickly and tend to choose whichever school gives them the shortest path to their goal. 

Time for an education upgrade

So prevalent has the concept of going back to school become that dedicated programs now exist to support a number of common subgroups. From former students who dropped out after completing some post-secondary coursework, but not enough to earn any credentials, to returning military veterans transitioning into the workforce. Between these new types of prospective students and the proliferation of new credentials, course articulation agreements, dual credit courses, double dipping and reverse transfers, recruitment is becoming increasingly complicated. 

Swirl, swirl, swirl

As for this new group of prospective students, their nonlinear path to education has earned them a verb: “swirling,” the idea that students today will attend more than one institution before earning a degree. As many as 33% of students will transfer at least once to earn a degree – and that number is on the rise. For two-year institutions the number is even higher, exceeding 60% in some regions. 

Whether regarded as a grave threat or exciting opportunity, increased student mobility, or “swirling” creates a strong incentive for colleges and universities to re-evaluate the effectiveness of their recruiting programs. 

One website to recruit them all

Let’s take a look at how you can target all three of these very different groups, while maintaining a consistent web presence for all your website visitors. The key is personalization: you want to make prospective students feel as though your school’s website was designed just for them (Wondering about how to do this for your higher ed mobile site? We’ve got you covered!) 


These three basic steps can get you started:

  1. Determine which type or types of prospective students you want to target
  2. Create targeted content for the selected group or groups 
  3. Engage prospective students with a personalized website experience

The first two steps are straight forward – at least conceptually. Each institution must evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses, the local economy, funding opportunities, regional demographics, and any other necessary factors to identify suitable targets for their recruiting efforts. Personas and market segmentation can help with this process and will help once you get further into the process. 

Once the target groups are identified, the institution must create content that is relevant to each audience and easy to find. This is an opportunity to assess both your site’s information architecture and SEO capabilities. After all, if your great content can’t be found, it will be of little benefit to your prospective students. 

4 tips for recruitment personalization

1. Recognizing recruits

The first step is to recognize when a prospective student –a member of a targeted group in particular– is on your site. You can do this in a number of ways, with varying degrees of complexity. The approaches presented below will either outright identify or strongly indicate the group to which the visitor belongs:

  • Content Pattern Matching: Determines the most likely identity of the visitor by correlating the content viewed as they navigate the site with a weighting of the relevance of each page to the various target groups. For example: a visitor who checks out the MBA page of your school’s site could be identified as a professional looking to improve their skills since this content is more relevant to that group than, say, information about transfer opportunities for students with an associate’s degree. This method of visitor recognition is known as an implicit association as it relies on gathered information to infer the identity of the visitor.
  • Goals & Campaigns: Assigns an identity to the visitor on the basis of a specific action taken by the visitor on the website like completing a form or visiting via a specific landing page. Goals are explicit in that you know they have completed an action specific to the target group. 

2. Make it personal

Once the identity of the visitor is known, the visitor’s experience can be personalized by adding new content or displaying alternate content. For example, if the end goal is to get the prospective student to submit their academic history to a transfer coordinator, create a personalized call to action that displays in predefined areas of the site that draws the prospective student's attention to the appropriate form.

3. Refine your approach

Use A/B or multivariate testing on your call to action to determine if alternative designs are more or less likely to engage the student, further improving your conversion results. Perhaps an alternate layout or different terminology will resonate more with different groups. Leverage your analytics tool to determine baseline traffic and conversions rates, and to track progress. Find out what is working and what isn’t. Look at the data to identify new recruiting groups.

4. Plan to engage

If supported by their content management system, institutions may consider setting up an engagement plan to interact with visitors who have been identified. Engagement plans are a simple way to execute automatic actions to be performed under specific conditions that allow you to script an ongoing conversation. 

For example, you could send a series of timed emails or present personalized content on the site based on a visitor’s stage in the engagement plan. These could include things like repeat visitors who view certain kinds of content or visitors who you've determined are coming from a particular region of the world. 

Finding your own silver bullet

These are only a few of the ways that higher education institutions can use technology, specifically their website and content management system, to improve student recruitment. As students and their graduation pathways continue to evolve, so too will the efforts required by institutions to stand out in the crowd. 

Looking for some help in get your own personalization efforts underway? Get in touch!


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