• Dr. Mary Darden

Part II - Pivots for Success: Reforming the Admissions-to-Graduation Relationships

Our company, Higher Education Innovation (HEI), works with colleges and universities to conduct research on what they need to thrive. During the past three years, we have encountered a number of significant trends that we believe may be beneficial to a large number of colleges.


Research data indicate that a majority of colleges in the U.S. have experienced declining enrollment over the last decade. Most have struggled to obtain a handle on how to even slow the bleeding. We have identified some common consistencies that could help explain the losses.


Tracking/CRMs/Messaging


We have a saying at HEI: “A student not tracked is a student lost.” Throughout the years, I have hired and observed admissions counselors. Although it is not the single determining factor, the most successful of these counselors thoroughly and regularly tracked their prospective students. In order to do this well, it requires the effective and regular use of a customer relationship management program (CRM). We have been surprised to see how many colleges do not utilize CRMs, or if they do, they often do not use them regularly and consistently. In order to maintain high conversions rates from the point of inquiry to enrollment, and to support relationship development, we believe CRMs are crucial. Although CRMs were initially developed to support commercial sales, many are great tools in managing the admissions, enrollment and retention processes. We use a CRM from contact-day-one through graduation. When used well, it helps to develop and maintain the supportive relationship with the college and is extremely time-effective.


Second, we focus on the number and type of client contacts. We have found that messaging and timing are two critical factors that will make or break the student relationship, and far too often they are broken. We have developed specialized training for messaging. Some of the key recommendations in that training are:

  1. Messaging should be addressed personally to the individual student (easily done en masse with a CRM).

  2. All messaging should begin with a warm greeting and close with an encouraging word.

  3. All caps should be avoided at all cost and bolding should be rare.

  4. Highlighting or typing in red, yellow, orange, hot pink (or even use of any colors) should also be avoided. Colors can create a startling response. Students who open an email with lots of bright highlighting have expressed worry that they thought they had done something wrong or were in some kind of trouble. Keeping anxiety low and the warm support high is very important.

  5. Regular and consistent messaging is a life-line for success. We recommend at least weekly messaging in the admissions process and at least monthly messaging during retention. Too much messaging can create message-fatigue, so making things relevant, personal, as well as short and concise when possible, is important.

  6. Finally, response time is one of the most important factors in sustaining the student-institutional relationship. Colleges once assumed – and some still do – that responding to a student email or message within days or weeks is acceptable. Particularly in the early days (during inquiry and admissions), we recommend a response within hours and – if at all possible – within minutes. Students frequently bond with and gravitate toward the first person who responds to them. After studying some of the newer rapidly growing institutions, we know that people are often online waiting for an email and respond immediately. Once the college choice has been made by a student and that relationship is well managed, there is little chance for another institution. There has been some push-back on this – among other – cultural shifts in operations, and the resistance has won out in a number of cases. However, just like with online education, resistance can be allowed, but decline usually follows.



Mary Landon Darden earned a doctorate in Higher Education Administration from Baylor University, is author of the book: Beyond 2020: Envisioning the Future of Universities in America published by the American Council on Education and Rowman and Littlefield, and is the President of Higher Education Innovation, LLC, (HEI). HEI’s mission is to assist affordable non-profit colleges and universities with critical pivots to enhance future thriving.


Email: maryd@heitoday.org

Phone: 210-202-1104

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