College Recruitment Practices

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College recruitment practices are as distinctive as the scope and breath of the more than 3,200 accredited colleges and universities in the United States. With more than 2.5 million students matriculating to a college campus for the first time each year, the role and responsibility of admission and enrollment personnel in higher education has become increasingly critical to the success of the institutions and the experience of the student.

Historical and demographic influences have allowed admission and recruitment practices to evolve and develop over the past 400 years of American higher education. During the first 300 years, admission duties were performed by a variety of college personnel and were primarily an orientation function, absent of any screening or recruitment. College presidents of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries performed a dual role as recruiter and fundraiser. From the Civil War to World War II, America witnessed an increase in the number and variety of colleges. Enrollment growth ensued and denominational colleges were founded across the continent, while land-grant and state-supported universities brought a college education closer to the people. These actions translated into enrollment growth and recruitment efforts settled into an admissions role of screening and seeking a strong instructional fit for the student and college.

Origins of modern recruitment practices can be found in the mass expansion of higher education since World War II, emerging directly from the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 and the baby boom that followed. The rise in applications during the 1960s and early 1970s led many colleges to increase enrollments and concurrently expand capacity. The abundance of college enrollees reversed during the 1980s leaving colleges with increased capacity and a declining applicant pool. The prospects of declining enrollments prompted colleges and universities to adopt marketing practices used in business that centered around Phillip Kotler's emphasis on product, price, place, and promotion. College recruiting practices became reliant on market principles for success and matured into providing more information and increased attention to the prospective student.

Recruitment Theory and Practices

The recruitment funnel, where a high number of inquiries of prospective students from numerous entry points narrows to and moves toward application and ultimately a smaller number of matriculated students, is at the foundation of the college-recruiting theory. This funneling process is aided by recruitment efforts designed to move the prospect from casual interest to enrolling. The process is starting earlier and lasting longer. The inputs of a large number of inquiries result in a less but measurable number of applications, which ultimately yields a smaller number of enrollees. Database management, programmed marketing, and audience segmentation are designed to keep prospects engaged and moving through the funnel. Recruiting activities and market research allow enrollment managers to target prospective students at various stages of interest. Each contact should have a specific action-oriented, measurable task. A goal early in the funnel may be to encourage a visit, while a later goal may be to have an applicant commit to attend. Mail, telephone, electronic media, and personal contact are used to move the student from initial contact to matriculation. Publications are added at strategic times to inform and persuade. Analyzing demographic data, constructing surveys to measure attitude and preferences, use of geodemo graphic tools, and evaluating the efficacy of recruitment practices have allowed institutions to focus more personal attention on the prospective student.

Contemporary college recruiting practices are centered in the metaphoric recruiting funnel. Acknowledging that no one communication strategy will work with prospective students, college recruitment practices in the early twenty-first century seek to individualize the process. By segmenting the market, enrollment managers target prospects utilizing data that explains how students make college choice decisions. Students have become sophisticated consumers: they comb through massive quantities of direct mail, explore Internet websites, visit colleges, and even hire private counselors.

The most effective recruiting practices and strategies employed by enrollment professionals are visits to high schools in primary markets by a member of the admissions office, interaction on the Internet, hosting campus visits with prospective students, and offering merit-based scholarships. Live presentations by college personnel for prospective students at high schools and on-campus visits at colleges are practices that are considered strong inducements in choosing a college. The presence of friendliness, accessibility of faculty members, and attitude of administrative officials during the campus visit are highly valued. These are used regularly and are considered very effective strategies.

Secondary and less effective college recruitment practices are visits to secondary or test markets; college fairs and nights; using alumni to recruit; hosting off-campus meetings or social events for high school counselors; multimedia presentations; billboard, print, or broadcast advertising; and school promotional videos.

Use of direct mail has continued to increase as written communication continues to increase. Many colleges use mailing lists that contain information compiled by national testing agencies. Names are purchased that fit criteria selected by the college, such as geographical location and size of the college. Many private four-year colleges send eight or more written communications to prospective students. Analytical techniques and market research tools allow institutions to effectively target direct mail, off-campus visits and receptions, telemarketing, and financial aid awards.

Telephone contact is also used as a practice in student recruitment to augment existing correspondence and as a cost-effective method to track students through the funnel. Telephone recruitment calls made by students, admissions staff, faculty members, and alumni are effective. Institutions are increasingly using commercial vendors for prospect identification.

The use of technology to market institutions and counsel students adds new dimensions to college recruitment practices. The Internet, World Wide Web, and CD-ROMs have played a major role in recruiting students while reducing costs for their institutions. Significant elements of college recruitment practices are moving to the Internet and it is common for students to apply online. The Internet affords a prospective student unlimited and uncontrolled access to formal and informal information about any institution.

Nontraditional Enrollees

Many colleges that experienced growth since the late 1970s have expanded their markets to include adult, international, and transfer students. An institution that has recognized the growing importance of the transfer student market and has recruited transfer students successfully realizes that two out of five newly matriculated students nationally are transfer students. Publications and recruitment techniques targeted for adult or international students should portray the campus from the nontraditional student vantage point. Effective institutional recruiting activities aimed at attracting international students indicates that academic reputation and costs are the most influential factors in choosing to apply and enroll. Recruitment efforts abroad made by college representatives and the development of personal relationships are effective practices. Recruitment strategies should include simplified application forms and brochures specifically targeted to international students.


The National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC) Statement of Principals of Good Practice defines ethical and accepted methods of student recruitment; institutional promotional techniques and admissions methods were adapted from the NACAC Code of Ethics and are clearly endorsed throughout higher education. Ethical issues are reviewed and revised annually. Joint statements, sharing the ethical values of the NACAC, have been issued and are recognized by all associations that govern the recruitment process in American higher and secondary education. Ethical standards include accuracy in the articulation of information and admission requirements and financial aid opportunities. Standards insist that admissions personnel are viewed as professionals and that their compensation take the form of a fixed salary rather than derive from any formula based on the number of students recruited.

Financial Aid as a Recruiting Tool

Financial aid has been increasingly used as a recruiting and marketing tool, especially for private institutions forced to compete with public institutions. Merit scholarships and non-endowed institutional funds are increasingly used to discount tuition and to make the college choice affordable. Enrollment managers are interested in net tuition income as well as in the number of students, and the use of leveraging financial aid awards has become important tool to increase enrollments. Although discussions continue over the appropriate mix between need-based and merit-based financial aid, colleges and universities use institutional funds to augment federal and state grant and loan programs. Private colleges are providing financial aid to a larger share of their students, and list in their view books the price of tuition before financial aid; public tuition continues to increase, not as the result of increased costs but because of changes in state fiscal policy. Institutional financial aid is used to increase enrollment goals and to change readily measurable student body characteristics.

The Future

Marketing and recruitment are likely to become even more sophisticated. Colleges will depend on a recruitment funnel that is tied to integrated marketing efforts and creates relevance long before the first contact is made. College recruitment practices will be increasingly integrated and coordinated throughout the campus to maximize recruiting initiatives. Traditional recruitment practices, augmented by Internet-based enhancements, will continue. The campus visit will remain a key component in the recruitment process. Mobilizing the total institution toward an integrated marketing enrollment program that fosters ethical, sound, and efficient recruitment practices will effectively serve prospective students and colleges.

See also: College Admissions; College Admissions Tests, College Financial Aid; College Search and Selection.


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Hossler, Don. 1984. Enrollment Management: An Integrated Approach. New York: College Entrance Examination Board.

Johnson, Anne Lewis. 2000. "The Evolution of Enrollment Management: A Historical Perspective." Journal of College Admission 166:411.

Kotler, Phillip. 1995. Strategic Marketing for Non-profit Organizations. Portland, OR: Book News.

McPherson, Michael S., and Schapiro, Morton O. 1998. The Student Aid Game: Meeting Need and Rewarding Talent in American Higher Education. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

National Association of College Admission Counseling. 2001. "Statement of Principles of Good Practice." In 2001 NACAC Membership Directory. Alexandria, VA: National Association of College Admission Counseling.

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Michael A. Grandillo

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College Recruitment Practices

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College Recruitment Practices