Five Student Recruitment Challenges & How to Overcome Them

By Elise Hodge

shutterstock_1451669039In today’s ever-transforming higher education landscape, it’s more difficult than ever for recruiters to find the best students for their universities and colleges. While the global economy has created wonderful opportunities, it has also posed serious challenges for universities marketing to a whole world of students. To succeed, institutions will need to address these issues and make the necessary changes to move forward.

Let’s take a look at the top five student recruitment challenges and how you can overcome them.

1. Global competition amongst universities

Where once students had to compete against each other to gain entry into their course of choice, today they have more options than ever before. The stats show that 30% of students are applying to seven or more colleges, and many are considering studying abroad. This reveals that universities are not only competing on a local level but also on the global stage.

To capture student attention and increase enrollment rates, recruiters need to focus on building brand awareness by diversifying and marketing their offers, and choosing the right strategies. Today’s students are wanting to study at times that suit them around their regular work and family commitments. University course coordinators should adapt to these desires by providing offerings that allow flexible study. To increase access to services, institutions should adopt digital solutions such as online-advisory sessions via Skype or Zoom and a one-stop mobile app for campus services and communication.

2. Declining enrollment

Enrollment in higher education in the US has dropped for the eighth consecutive year, according to a 2019 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Increased course costs, shifting priorities, and the rise of the gig economy are key factors in young people choosing to opt out of the higher education system altogether. A whopping 61 percent of Generation Z still in high school and 43 percent in college say they would rather be entrepreneurs than employees when they graduate. Students want to be able to work and study on their terms, and know their learning is directly applicable to their goals.

Instead of teaching students how to become full-time employees, universities should prepare them for employment by equipping them with the skills to succeed as independent workers. This could include networking events with potential employers, skill-building workshops, practical scenario-based exercises, and even competitions in partnership with external companies (and future employers). 

University career services should also focus on helping students find independent work. Where, traditionally, students have been encouraged to take on full time work, today’s universities should link students with project-based work so they can build their portfolios. For example, The DePaul School of Music has its own app, The Gig Connection, to connect event organisers with its student musicians. Tools like this help students not only gain employment but understand what a future in their chosen career could look like.

3. Political uncertainty

Some of the biggest challenges facing universities are those that are simply beyond their control. Today’s education providers must figure out how best to recruit new students amid a rocky political landscape.Take universities in the UK, for example, which are feeling the impact of Brexit negotiations with the EU. To move forward, UK universities will need to employ short-term strategies in the case of a no-deal Brexit, but also long-term strategies to reinvigorate the higher education sector as a whole. Where the UK education system has fallen, Japanese and Chinese universities are making inroads, and students are turning to Canada, Australia and New Zealand in favour of political stability.

International students often feel the weight of these political tensions on their own campuses. Universities must work to create a friendly environment for these students. In the US, colleges are getting on board with a campaign called #YouAreWelcomeHere, which seeks to affirm the institutions as diverse, safe, friendly, and committed to student development. It’s these kinds of messages that universities and colleges around the world need to share and put into action if they are going to successfully recruit international students.

4. Lack of available resources to recruit students

Heading into 2020, universities will need to adapt to survive amid looming funding cuts. In the UK, universities are looking at major cuts to tuition fees as a result of damage from Brexit negotiations. In the US, colleges are staring down the face of significant cuts to higher education funding announced by President Trump last month.

However, finances are just one problem. Research shows that university staff feel they are overworked and underpaid. 85 percent of respondents from the US, UK and Australia say they have considered working in a different sector altogether. This would have major implications on student recruitment and retention.

Universities will need to turn to cost effective ways to recruit more effectively. Technology and automation is one such way of getting in front of large volumes of students while reducing workload. Recruiters should consider automated recruitment software to find candidates in a smart and efficient manner. University marketers should also harness the power of social media to organically build a student audience on Facebook and Instagram. Beyond the online world, universities must ensure they are looking after their most valuable resource and greatest contributor to the student experience, their professional and academic staff.

5. Financial support

While a lot of students want to study in the higher education system, some simply don’t have the money or means to relocate. The rising cost of fees makes this more difficult now than ever before. If students are paying a premium price, they expect a tangible return on their investment.

For today’s young people, going to university or college isn’t simply about getting a degree under their belts. Education, today, is about gaining practical career advice, receiving mentoring, and experiencing personalised support. If students can’t afford a program or don’t see the payoff, they will simply look elsewhere.

The evolution of new micro-scholarship startups are paving the way for universities to easily incentivise high school graduates to apply for their programs. RaiseMe is one such program US colleges are using to find new students and award scholarships in recognition of student achievements. Yale has recently expanded its financial aid policies to make a majority of American families with school-aged children eligible for a scholarship that covers tuition and fees, on-campus housing, meal plans, and hospital insurance. To stay competitive heading into 2020, universities should review their own scholarship programs.

While these key challenges are present in the higher education sector, the good news is that there is plenty of opportunity. The universities that ride the wave of change and heed to new ways of recruiting, particularly through storytelling and building personal connections with students, will be the ones that grow into the future.