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How to Recruit and Retain College Students: A&W Interns on Strategies That Work

Colleges and universities are constantly looking for new, effective ways to recruit students and retain current ones. A recent article by Blackboard, a popular learning management system, suggests the best strategy for marketers is to “think like a student.” The author may believe her college sources know students well enough to be able to “think like a student,” but I can honestly say, as a student entering my senior year at Stony Brook University, that the only ones who truly knows how students think are, well, me and my fellow Austin & Williams interns: Ashley Lane, a business major at Mount Saint Mary College, Daniel Denning, an advertising major at Syracuse University, Kabir Bharara, a business major at SUNY Farmingdale, and Alex Boris, a computer science major at Stony Brook University.
We’re five different people going to different schools and majoring in different disciplines, yet we all agree the problem with colleges “thinking like a student” is just that: We’re all different, so we don’t all think the same way. I mean, I started college at 21 and have been working full time for my entire college career. I think—and want to be approached—in a different way than someone who went to college straight after high school.

Need some solutions to recruiting and retaining college students? My intern colleagues and I came up with a few.

Personalize Your Approach. When it comes to college and university marketing, we’re tired of seeing the same old ads: Students smiling while writing, students smiling while giving the thumbs up, students smiling while studying together in the library stacks, students smiling… doing just about anything.

Instead, think outside the box. “Colleges should use advertisements that look like memes—that would be clever and relatable,” Kabir recommends. “Yeah, if I saw a college advertising on Tumblr to promote their school, it would catch my eye, and I’d want to learn more about it,” adds Daniel, an avid Tumblr user. Ashley suggests using ads that resemble platforms that are heavily used by high school and college kids, such as YikYak, GroupMe and WhatsApp.

Connect with Us on the Platforms We Actually Use. Other than social media, mass media can also be used to effectively reach college students—but stay clear of radio. Most people in our generation don’t listen to the radio, and if they do, they “switch the station as soon as an ad comes on” (or at least Daniel says he does). “I never listen to the radio, and if I do, it’s Sirius,” says Ashley.

But we do think colleges should put their money into advertising on outlets such as YouTube, Spotify and Pandora. Students our age actually use these platforms, and since we have no choice but to listen or watch the ad to access the content we want, marketers are more likely to keep our attention.

Keep Us Happy After We Enroll. Colleges can’t sit back once a student is enrolled. Keeping students happy takes a lot of work. But schools seem to be going about this the wrong way: Our school email inboxes are filled with less-than-engaging messages. Here’s a little secret: College emails are generally used for connecting with professors, advisers and fellow classmates. Everything else either gets lost in the shuffle or deleted.

Personally, I hate being inundated by superfluous emails, so, believe it or not, I suggest snail mail—and my fellow interns agree. “I love getting real mail,” Ashley notes. And Daniel “actually saved” all of the brochures that were mailed to him from his top three school choices. Receiving regular mail makes us feel like the school cares about us as individuals.

Another way to show you care? Allow students to opt in to text messaging. After my own frustrating experience with a financial aid adviser in which I was sent away with three pamphlets and no clarity, I would have loved a follow-up text asking if I had any further questions. It’s nice to know you have an ally rather than feeling alone in what may be most students’ first experience away from home and out from under parental supervision.

Small Gestures Make a Big Impact. College can get overwhelming at times, but small actions, such as a getting that follow-up text from financial aid, a phone call from counseling services on campus or tips about helpful ways to cope with stress, can make a big difference. Take Alex, for example. He’s taking 19 credits this coming semester—more than the typical full-time student and a heavy course load for anyone to handle. “A friend told me that my school offers a ‘Free Spa Day’ during finals week, but it’s not well advertised,” he explains. “That’s something I’d love to know about when my course load is stressing me out.”

What’s the bottom line on marketing for colleges and universities? Higher education institutions need to recognize the diversity of circumstances students face—and taking the time to learn individual situations is crucial to meeting wants and needs. To effectively recruit and retain students, remember the importance of being personal and engaging. Reach out to prospects and enrolled students on the platforms they actually use, and take the time to connect with them in ways other than email—or messages could be deleted. So go ahead, reach out to us and pick our brains. Just don’t get us started about the dining hall food.

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