Grow Enrollment and Retention with Personalizing the Student Experience:

with Host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Guest Susan Aldridge | Changing Higher Ed Podcast 021

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Grow Enrollment and Retention with Personalizing the Student Experience

Grow enrollment and retention for your Higher Education institution podcast. New market forces are leading to disruption in higher education and institutions. Not surprisingly, tremendous innovation in technology-enhanced education, including the ways that students are taught and learn, continues to emerge. Institutions like Drexel University are testing new models that allow them to individualize education and diversifying their portfolio of programs to fit employers’ expectations.

Shifting Demographics

Institutions need to be watching the rapidly changing demographics. Serious shifts will be happening in the United States during the next five years. Institutions that are not taking these shifts into consideration in their planning processes will have a major shock. Many institutions are getting ready now through initiating new projects, models, and activities on campuses in order to navigate these changes while also taking advantage of these shifts.

For example, the book, Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education by Nathan Grawe, describes the impact that the 2008 economic crash had on the nation’s birthrates. The birth rates have not recovered over time. The greatest impact is in the Northeast as well as the Midwest. There also are pockets across the nation that will be impacted by this declining rate.

The timing for the major decline in student enrollment (the enrollment cliff) will be in 2025-2026. This is due to the declining birthrate as well as fewer high school graduates. Institutions will be competing for high-performing students; however, there will be fewer of these students coming through K-12 education. Institutions will face a challenge to create a brand that will allow them to recruit nationally instead of just regionally.

Building a Brand

The brand of the institution is important because it can help students feel like they are getting a quality education. For example, Drexel has created a brand that offers both face-to-face educational opportunities to regional students and online education that serves students in all 50 states and 30 foreign countries. That flexibility has been important since 90 percent of Drexel students who work can’t attend face-to-face campuses on a regular basis.

Many of these students, especially adult students, are seeking academic programs to enhance their credentials for a promotion, change jobs or careers. This population bases their enrollment decision on the quality of the program and the credentials that are offered as opposed to the institution’s location.  These students are savvy researchers who will search online to find the credential they will need to leverage their careers.

With thousands of institutions offering similar programs, it’s difficult to have visibility in this environment without very sophisticated search engine optimization teams, In addition, institutions are competing using the same word searches so institutions are driving up the cost of student acquisition for each other.

Personalized Approach

Drexel has worked diligently at personalization. This allows the institution to connect and build a relationship with the student that starts at the first contact where the prospect shows interest and continues through graduation. The technologies that are now available support personalization while creating efficiency and effectiveness, thus driving down personnel costs. Drexel believes that these technologies are an investment in the institution’s future.

Optimizing the Prospective Student Experience

Students have very high expectations and are willing to pay for their degrees. However, they also expect to receive value for that investment through their experience at the institution. Therefore, institutions have to manage the student’s experience from beginning to end.

There are a number of ways that Drexel is trying to address this. For example, the institution originally outsourced its call center but has since brought it back in-house in order to ensure that every touchpoint where prospective students interface with the institution reflects the institutional brand.

The institution also focuses on individualizing its approach to prospective students. They ask students how they want to receive messages. The institution also utilizes a system, which is based on student preference and allows counselors and advisors to communicate with the students. This system includes video-conferencing, chat, email, or phone.

There also is a smart routing system that recognizes the prospective student when he/she calls and then automatically directs the candidate to the individual who specializes in that academic area (health care, business, etc.). While a call is being routed, multiple computer screens pop up so that the counselor has information regarding previous communications with that student, the student’s preferences of how to be contacted, and if that student spent time on specific web pages (such as how to finance an education).

Drexel is committed to using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to manage this flow, including routing and staffing decisions as to the counselors’ schedule. This analysis includes the number of calls that come in at certain periods of time and also which times candidates with specific academic interests call. In addition, AI is used for efficiency. This includes lead scoring, which analyzes each caller’s attributes to see which ones are most likely to be successful.  Candidates who have specific characteristics that indicate they will be successful at Drexel are routed to the counselors first. Drexel then personalizes follow-up messages so students feel connected and create a sense of urgency to complete the application process.

Recommendations for how Drexel personalizes and improves its communication comes from the frontline staff. Drexel staff go out of their way to get feedback about each student’s experiences and then use this data to improve operations.

Successfully Competing to Grow Enrollment and Retention

The competition will increase among higher education institutions. Many institutional leaders and boards are concerned about some of the new institutions that are coming into the online education marketplace, such as the Ivy League schools. These institutions have a known brand, are changing their pricing structure for online students, and have created a pathway for students to earn their way in. Smaller universities and colleges need to stop their declining enrollment brought on by big marketing budgets and brand awareness of the competition.

To compete, institutions need to focus on creating value for students’ investment and prove the ROI of their programs through accreditation (it’s needed not a nuisance) and transparency. This type of focus on accreditation can also lead to a strong relationship so the student will return to the institution to earn certificates, advanced degrees or professional development. In addition, Drexel wants these students to become donors.

Therefore, institutions need to be very clear about their market niches through positioning, branding and market strategy and be strategic in their investments. They need to figure out where students can find value and where the institution can serve at a national level. In addition, institutions that can adapt and create tailored programs that companies need will be successful in the future.


Drexel has created a free website, Virtually Inspired, which focuses on innovation in technology-enhanced education. It covers a variety of technology as well as case studies.

The institution also created V Artifacts portfolio that is open-sourced. These resources are designed to help faculty create more robust online courses.

SaaS like Perdia Education helps grow enrollment and retention through online technology.

Bullet Points

  • Higher education will face major demographic shifts in the next five years. To survive, institutions need to take a strategic approach to their brand as well as the programs they offer.
  • Institutions need to focus on building their brand to set themselves apart from their competitors. This brand needs to take online students as well as traditional students into account.
  • A focus on personalization can help institutions create a relationship with students that starts with the first contact and then continues through graduation. This relationship can lead to additional opportunities to educate the student through certification programs, graduate programs, etc. as well as the cultivation of a potential donor.
  • Optimizing student engagement allows institutions to incorporate the student’s preferences, technology and data to refine interactions. This also leads to effectiveness (enrolling students who are a good match for the institution) and efficiency (such as staffing rates of counselors, better use of data to engage candidates, etc.)
  • Creating value, being strategic about market niches and developing tailored services can help institutions succeed in the future.

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