A “lean back” culture in higher education won’t work with the new wave of students who are digital natives, Sextant CEO says during a panel discussion at P3•EDU hosted by George Mason University and University of Colorado Denver.

P3 EDU Panel Discussion _ Digital Recruitment

Many universities continue to rely on traditional models for student recruitment and enrollment. But these models will not work as the pool of potential students declines, a more tech savvy generation graduates high school, and academic institutions fail to put in place the digital recruitment resources they need.

During a recent webinar panel discussion at the P3•EDU conference co-hosted by George Mason University and the University of Colorado Denver, Sextant CEO Adrian Marrullier discussed key factors that have put colleges and universities into a position where they must make changes, and soon.

Marrullier said university presidents must understand the current enrollment process is outdated and will never again work as well as it once did.

“Presidents have to realize that the traditional method of search for high school juniors and seniors is fundamentally broken. And it’s fundamentally broken because of this rapid shift to digital,” he said. “We are now dealing with a student population that is 100% digital natives.”

He noted that this new generation doesn’t use email as much, but they’ve grown comfortable simply asking questions to Alexa and Google.

“Imagine what that means if an 18-year-old, two years from now, asks Google, ‘What school should I go to’ or ‘what is the application process at George Mason?’ These are major shifts in the way these people are doing it.”

Virtual Panel Discusses Declining Enrollments

The virtual panel came together as part of the P3 EDU 2020 conference. Other panelists in the discussion included Jenny Rickard, President and CEO of The Common Application, and Alby Salsa, Senior Director with Blackboard. The panel discussed the general higher education landscape and the best tactics to attract students, including digital recruitment strategies.

David Burge, Vice President of Enrollment Management at George Mason University, moderated the discussion. He asked Rickard about declining enrollments during the pandemic.

Rickard reported that The Common Application, which handles college applications for more than 800 schools in the United States and around the world, has seen the number of returning members decline 3% this year, while new account creations also went down about 3%. She noted public institution applications are down 6%.

Marrullier expects that trend to continue. He noted that an aging population has been an ongoing issue for a decade or more, putting “demographic pressure” on schools.

But he added: “I’m going to be positive and be an optimist here.  I think that there are still enough students to go around.”

Innovative Technology Only Works if You Use it Effectively

Marrullier said that to attract the right students, schools must do a better job leveraging the possibilities of innovative technology in the enrollment process. That, he said, has not always been the case with schools in recent years.

Students today expect real-time responses, he said, noting that “if I can get a Rocket Mortgage in 20 minutes, I should be able to apply to a college.” This shift has led to the failure of traditional approaches.

“Universities are just not structured properly to handle this. They’re heavily siloed,” Marrullier said. “Technology is now de rigeur, it’s what we need, but university technology departments are not set up to support marketing and enrollment departments on a daily basis. And that’s a requirement.”

He noted that schools invest millions into CRM systems and other technology, including AI bots, but they often don’t connect them.

“What we see every day with our clients is the fact that they’ve made massive investments in all of these various technologies, they have a marketing department that is excited to use it and an enrollment department that is excited to use it, but none of it is connected,” he said. “So, the promise is not there. They bought the right things, but they didn’t connect it right. And worse, they don’t really know how to organize their teams to do it.”

Marrullier said this is why schools are realizing they need to partner with a company such as Sextant Marketing to provide the expertise and resources they need for digital recruitment and enrollment efforts.

A ‘Lean Back’ Culture

Marrullier said that many colleges and universities are what he would call a ‘lean back’ organization. “They have prided themselves on getting a lot of applications, turning away a significant amount of them, and believing their U.S. News and World Report rankings will go up because they show some level of exclusivity,” he said.

He said part of that lean back culture involves doing things on their own timeline, but students today demand faster responses.

Burge agreed, calling it “lunacy” that exclusivity is used as “a surrogate for quality.”

Connecting with Parents

The panel also discussed the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on higher education and students in high school. Marrullier pointed out that the online experience has not been great for many students as high schools – and some colleges – scrambled to put classes together.

Beyond improvements in online classrooms, both Rickard and Marrullier said schools must do a better job assuring students and their parents the traditional college environment remains safe in the coming semesters.

Parents also may play a bigger role in making college decisions for their kids, because students have not spent as much time around peers, teachers and advisors at the high school level who can influence their decision.

That alone is reason for schools to make the effort to communicate with parents, but Marrullier said it goes beyond that because of the financial impact of the virus.

“The unknown here is the state of the economy,” he said. “If we continue to see a declining economy, if we see layoffs that continue to grow, then I think we will be in a situation where Mom and Dad will have a lot more to say about where Johnny and Suzie are going to be able to go next year.”

On the other hand, he added, “I don’t think human nature has changed. These young adults want to go out, they want to break away from Mom and Dad.”

Despite all the issues, Marrullier said that the current situation presents “tremendous opportunity” for college presidents. But, he said, it will require them to “radically rethink” their approach to digital recruitment and enrollment.

Listen to the full discussion below.