How Can AI Improve Enrollment Funnels in Higher Ed:

Changing Higher Ed podcast 213 with host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and guest Gil Rogers

Table of Contents

Changing Higher Podcast 213 - How Can AI Improve Enrollment Funnels in Higher Education with host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and guest Gil Rogers
Changing Higher Ed Podcast | Drumm McNaughton | The Change Leader

June 25, 2024 · Episode 213

How Can AI Improve Enrollment Funnels in Higher Ed

39 Min · By Dr. Drumm McNaughton

Explore using artificial intelligence (AI) to transform broken enrollment funnels and the four key challenges facing higher education enrollment management.

 

This podcast explores using artificial intelligence (AI) to transform antiquated and costly enrollment funnels, the four key challenges facing higher education enrollment, and strategies for leveraging AI to facilitate successful recruitment and admissions processes.

 

Gil Rogers, founder and CEO of GR7 Marketing, joins Dr. Drumm McNaughton to share his expertise on the evolving nature of enrollment funnels and the transformative potential of AI in higher education marketing. Through their discussion, they shed light on the four major challenges that higher ed presidents and leaders must navigate in these areas and offer strategies for leveraging technology to create more efficient, effective, and student-centered recruitment processes.

The Four Key Challenges in Higher Education Enrollment

1. Broken Traditional Funnel Model

Higher education institutions face a fundamental challenge with the traditional enrollment funnel model, which no longer accurately reflects prospective students’ complex journeys. While the visual of a funnel makes the process seem straightforward, the reality is that students enter and exit at various points, bypass certain stages entirely, or re-engage after initial disengagement. This fluidity demands a more flexible and responsive approach to student recruitment and engagement.

 

The traditional funnel assumes a linear progression from prospect to enrolled student. However, modern student behavior is far more dynamic. For example, some students may apply directly without formal inquiry, while others might express initial interest, disengage, and then return at a later stage. This unpredictability creates significant challenges for institutions still relying on outdated recruitment strategies.

 

Another critical flaw in the current system is the inefficient use of human resources, particularly at the top of the funnel. Admissions staff often spend considerable time answering repetitive questions and performing routine tasks that could be automated. This misallocation of resources prevents staff from focusing on high-impact interactions that truly influence student decisions and drive enrollment.

2. Demographic Shifts and Increased Competition

There will be tough times ahead for higher education enrollment. The impending enrollment cliff, driven by declining birth rates and changing demographics, presents a significant challenge for higher education institutions. The pool of traditional college-age students is shrinking, intensifying competition among colleges and universities for a limited number of prospects.

 

This demographic shift is compounded by the fact that many institutions are targeting the same population of students, leading to diminishing returns on traditional recruitment efforts. The practice of purchasing large lists of prospective students and bombarding them with generic marketing materials is becoming increasingly ineffective as students become more discerning and have access to more information about their options.

 

Furthermore, the changing demographics of the K-12 population, with a shift towards a majority-minority student body, require institutions to reconsider their recruitment and retention strategies to ensure equitable access and success for all students.

3. Affordability and Financial Aid Challenges

Rising costs of higher education and concerns about student debt have made affordability a critical factor in students’ college decisions. Institutions face the challenge of balancing their financial needs with the goal of making education accessible to a diverse range of students.

 

The complexity of financial aid processes, including recent complications with FAFSA, can be a significant barrier for many students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds or first-generation college students. Institutions must find ways to simplify and clarify financial aid information to ensure that qualified students are not deterred from applying or enrolling due to perceived financial barriers.

 

Moreover, the strategic use of financial aid to attract and retain students while maintaining fiscal sustainability is becoming increasingly complex. Institutions must navigate the delicate balance between offering competitive aid packages and managing their overall financial health.

4. Reputation and Value Proposition Concerns

Public skepticism about the value of higher education has grown in recent years, with only 36% of Americans expressing a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education, according to a 2023 Lumina/Gallup study and 53% according to the 2024 Lumina/Gallup study. This erosion of trust presents a significant challenge for institutions in attracting and enrolling students.

 

Colleges and universities must work to clearly articulate their value proposition, demonstrating the tangible benefits of higher education in terms of career outcomes, personal growth, and societal impact. This challenge is particularly acute for liberal arts institutions, which must communicate the broad applicability and long-term value of their programs in an increasingly career-focused educational landscape.

 

Additionally, institutions must address concerns about the return on investment of a college degree, particularly in light of high-profile stories about student debt and underemployment among college graduates. Effectively communicating student success stories, career placement rates, and alumni achievements becomes crucial in this context.

Leveraging AI to Transform Enrollment Funnels and Enrollment Management

Artificial intelligence offers promising solutions to many of the challenges facing enrollment management. By leveraging AI technologies, institutions can create more personalized, responsive, and effective recruitment strategies. Here are key areas where AI can make a significant impact:

 

Automating Repetitive Tasks

One of the most immediate benefits of AI implementation is the ability to automate routine and repetitive tasks, particularly at the top of the funnel. AI-powered chatbots and virtual assistants can handle basic inquiries about admissions requirements, campus life, and financial aid 24/7, providing instant responses to prospective students regardless of time or day. This automation not only improves response times but also frees up admissions staff to focus on more complex and high-value interactions with prospective students.

 

Personalized Communication at Scale

AI algorithms can analyze vast amounts of data to create highly personalized communication strategies for each prospective student. By considering factors such as a student’s academic interests, geographic location, extracurricular activities, and online behavior, AI can tailor messaging to resonate with individual students’ interests and concerns.

 

This level of personalization extends beyond just email communications. AI can inform the content displayed on an institution’s website when a prospective student visits, highlighting programs or campus features that are likely to be of particular interest based on the student’s profile and previous interactions.

 

Predictive Analytics for Targeted Recruitment

AI-powered predictive analytics can help institutions identify which prospective students are most likely to apply, be admitted, and ultimately enroll. By analyzing historical data on student characteristics, behaviors, and outcomes, these models can generate “likelihood to enroll” scores for each prospect. This allows admissions teams to focus their efforts on the students most likely to convert at each stage of the funnel, optimizing resource allocation and improving overall yield rates.

 

Streamlining Application Review

Machine learning algorithms can be trained to assist in the initial screening of applications, flagging potential issues or highlighting particularly strong candidates for human review. While it’s crucial to maintain human oversight in admissions decisions, AI can significantly expedite the process by handling the initial sorting and categorization of applications.

 

Optimizing Financial Aid Strategies

AI can play a vital role in developing more effective and equitable financial aid strategies. By analyzing historical data on financial aid packages, enrollment decisions, and student outcomes, AI models can help institutions optimize their aid distribution to maximize enrollment yield while staying within budget constraints.

 

Enhancing Yield Management

Once students are admitted, AI can assist in yield management by predicting which admitted students are most likely to enroll and identifying factors that influence their decision-making process. This information allows institutions to tailor their yield strategies, focusing resources on students who may need additional encouragement or support to commit to enrollment.

 

Improving Transfer Student Recruitment

AI can streamline the often-complex process of transfer credit evaluation, providing prospective transfer students with quick and accurate assessments of how their credits will apply to specific programs. This transparency and efficiency can make an institution more attractive to transfer students, who often cite credit transfer issues as a major barrier in their decision-making process.

 

Re-engaging Stop-outs and Non-completers

With millions of Americans having some college credits but no degree, there’s a vast opportunity for institutions to re-engage these potential students. AI can help identify former students who are good candidates for re-enrollment, analyzing factors such as credits earned, time since last enrollment, and current labor market conditions to prioritize outreach efforts.

 

Key Takeaways for Higher Education Presidents, Boards, and Executive Leadership

 

  1. Request a comprehensive AI strategy from the enrollment management team detailing how AI can be leveraged to address specific challenges in the recruitment and admissions process.

  2. Conduct a thorough review of how admissions staff time is currently being utilized, identifying opportunities to automate routine tasks and redirect human resources to high-impact activities.

  3. Examine current financial aid approaches for sustainability and effectiveness in attracting and retaining students. Consider how AI can be used to optimize aid distribution and improve yield rates.

  4. Develop a plan for ongoing training and upskilling of admissions and enrollment staff to work effectively alongside AI tools.

  5. Establish clear metrics for measuring the impact of AI implementations on enrollment outcomes, including conversion rates at various stages of the funnel, yield rates, and overall enrollment numbers.


Wrapping Up AI for Higher Ed Enrollment Funnels

We have explored the four primary challenges that university presidents and higher education leaders must navigate in enrollment management: the broken traditional funnel model, demographic shifts and increased competition, affordability and financial aid challenges, and reputation and value proposition concerns. These challenges represent complex issues that require careful consideration and strategic approaches to drive transformative change in higher education enrollment practices.

 

By leveraging AI technologies and rethinking traditional enrollment processes, institutions can create more efficient, effective, and student-centered recruitment funnels. This strategic approach will be crucial for navigating the challenges of the impending enrollment cliff and ensuring long-term institutional success in an increasingly competitive higher education landscape.

 

The successful integration of AI into strategic enrollment management requires a strategic approach, ongoing investment, and a commitment to ethical and responsible use of these technologies. As institutions navigate this new frontier, those that effectively leverage AI to improve their enrollment funnels will be better positioned to thrive in the face of demographic shifts and evolving student expectations.

 

About Our Podcast Guest

Gil Rogers is a strategic innovator in education technology marketing, serving as a fractional CMO for EdTech companies. With a background in higher education enrollment management and marketing, he has led institutions through record-breaking recruitment cycles.

Gil’s career highlights include marketing roles at Zinch.com (acquired by Chegg) and the National Research Center for College and University Admissions (NRCCUA), where he advanced digital marketing and data-informed enrollment strategies. As founder of GR7 Marketing, he helps entrepreneurs effectively communicate their services to educational institutions.

Known for his energy and enthusiasm, Gil frequently speaks at national conferences on marketing strategy for EdTech startups, leadership, and customer understanding. As a podcast guest, he offers valuable insights into effective marketing strategies and leadership in EdTech, making him an ideal speaker for audiences seeking innovation in this dynamic industry.

 

About Our Host

Dr. Drumm McNaughton is a higher education consultant who works with college and university leadership, management, and boards of directors to ensure they succeed in their mission.

He is an innovator, strategic management pioneer, accreditation specialist, transformational and turnaround expert, and governance professional with P&L experience in multiple industries, having stimulated transformation that propelled double-digit growth for colleges and universities, startups, and Fortune 500 companies.

 

 

Transcript: How to Use AI to Improve Enrollment Funnels

Changing Higher Ed podcast 213 with guest Gil Rogers

 

Introduction and Guest Introduction

Drumm McNaughton: Thank you, David. Our guest this week is Gil Rogers, founder and CEO of GR7 Marketing. Gil is a strategic innovator in the field of education technology marketing, and he assists ed tech companies in improving their marketing messaging and articulating their unique value, all things that most higher ed institutions need help with.

Gil has been able to observe the enrollment process in depth over his years in EdTech, and he joins us today to talk about how the enrollment processes have changed and are changing, and how colleges and universities can improve their marketing messages and their enrollment funnel to combat the negative perceptions of higher education and the upcoming enrollment cliff to improve their actual enrollment and persistence rates.

Gil, welcome to the show.

Gil Rogers: Thank you for having me. I’m looking forward to an amazing conversation today. Absolutely.

Drumm McNaughton: well. you’ve been doing this, you’ve been in higher ed for quite a number of years, and you’ve got a very unique perspective, given your background in marketing, both inside higher ed with ed tech, as well as outside.

 

Gil Rogers’ Background and GR7 Marketing

Drumm McNaughton: If you wouldn’t mind, just give us a bit of your background so listeners can understand what I’ve come to learn about one of the experts in the field.

Gil Rogers: I started my company GR7 Marketing a little over a year ago. A big part of that was I came to the realization after working in ed tech, specifically in marketing roles for probably 15 years or so, that most ed tech companies, specifically small and medium sized startups, are always looking to add marketing effort, but unfortunately, because of their size, when they get to it, when they start to invest in bringing in marketing leadership, they put all their resources into that role and then don’t have enough to be able to actually do the rest of the marketing plan that marketing leader would then want to implement.

 So serving as a fractional CMO for a number of ed tech companies and startups, I’m able to help them with their B2B marketing strategy without soaking up the full time resources of a VP of Marketing or Head of Marketing type role, so they can deploy those resources to advertising and conferences and sales team incentives and all the things that they would need.

But prior to all of that, I’ve worked in higher ed and ed tech, as you mentioned, my whole career, I started as an admissions counselor at my alma mater, where I traveled and did the whole road runner thing as an admissions counselor, visiting high schools, going to college fairs, all that sort of fun stuff, and then I went to a school about 40 minutes down the road to continue that as a progression of my career. Then I went into the tech side and the consulting side.

So I worked in lead generation and digital marketing and a number of the different tools and resources that institutions still use to this day for everything from identifying students online, advertising to students online, hosting virtual events and digital content. Worked in all of those different spaces, but one of my passions throughout this entire experience has been continuing to work with colleges and universities as closely as I can to help with leveling up those types of strategies.

And one of the most recent things I’ve been thinking about a lot and working on a lot is kind of revisiting conversations around recruitment of traditional undergraduate students, especially with a lot of the challenges that are arising today. So to bookend all of that, I’ve been excited working in that space and supporting institutions as we go.

Drumm McNaughton: having that background, starting out in enrollment and then moving on to higher and higher roles, it gives you a unique perspective on what’s going on with higher ed enrollment.

 

Challenges in Higher Education Enrollment

Drumm McNaughton: right now, when you and I were talking earlier this week, there is a triple whammy going on between the reputation of higher education, enrollment cliff, affordability issues, and then for good measure, just throw in the FAFSA problems that they’ve had.

You, to me, had a really unique perspective about the enrollment funnel and how it’s been broken for so long.

 

The Broken Enrollment Funnel

Gil Rogers: Yeah, I think one of the things, and I think for everyone, it’s probably a good idea to define kind of what we mean by an enrollment funnel. Many probably already know and have a good understanding, but, if we think about it, the traditional process of attracting students to our institution, we have a large population of students that we seek to engage and reach and that’s the top of our funnel, is that “prospect” or “suspect” phase.

And traditionally, what we’ve sought to do is qualify those prospects in some way, get them to say they’re interested in our institution, and then we call those students “inquiries”. And from that bucket of students at that level, we get a certain number of those students to apply. Of that, we admit a certain volume of them and then that those students actually enroll at the institution and then we have conversations about retention and persistence that is a whole separate podcast that we could talk about, but I think that the model of a funnel, while the visual of a funnel makes it easy to understand how students are kind of going through our traditional processes. The reality is that the funnel has been broken for quite some time, a decade, maybe two, right?

there are on ramps and off ramps that students might take throughout that funnel. What a student is going through, they might leak out a crack at the “inquiry” to “applicant” phase and then return deeper down the funnel, or they might not inquire at all. They might just apply directly or send a FAFSA directly. And what’s happened is that, we’ve seen institutions who, and processes where we want to fill those cracks, right? But those cracks are gaping holes. And, at the end of the day, we’re putting so much effort and time into getting more and more at the top.

 

Automation and AI in Enrollment

Gil Rogers: When we should be really thinking about how do we make a better process at the top that is automated, especially with AI and all of the different opportunities that we have for efficiencies, and redeploy our resources as a people to the high impact work. And I’ll give you one really good example, right?

When I was an admissions counselor, traveling the road, visiting 3 to 4 high schools a day, going to college fairs every night, Monday through Thursday, sometimes on weekends. I answered the same questions over and over again. What’s your average GPA score? What’s your average What’s your average SAT score? What’s your average GPA? How’s your English program, right?

It doesn’t really matter if it’s me or some random talent that we hired to be the person at the table at the college fair answering those questions, because that interaction isn’t of high value. Where my value is, and if I’m an admissions counselor, is when a student visits campus, and I’m the one greeting them, helping them to find the place they need to be, connecting them with a student in their major, answering the families direct questions about finances.

These are things that we don’t want to automate because that’s not where the value is and that’s not where the interactions are. But all those basic and redundant questions at the top are a missed opportunity right now. And it’s been that way. It’s it still is that way today, and it was that way 15 years ago when I was an admissions counselor.

And so something is broken, something’s got to give, when it comes to how we are reaching and engaging and supporting students throughout the funnel.

Drumm McNaughton: Help me out and help me to understand, you talk about gaps becoming gaping holes. When you say a gap in the enrollment funnel, what do you mean?

Gil Rogers: So think about it this way. There are three to five vendors that institutions are actively using to cultivate names of students, right? We call it traditional search. We call it lead generation, right? These are places where students are researching camp colleges or replying to surveys about college or taking standardized tests and saying they’re interested in going to college.

And the reality is that the majority of institutions are all going after the same pockets of students within those lists. And so these students are being inundated with email, direct mail and advertising from every school that buys their name, and they can only go to one school. And so at the end of the day, when everybody’s going after the same population of students, meanwhile, that population, that traditional population is shrinking because of the demographic cliff. Now you’ve got a challenge of having to deal with bringing the, trying to identify and bring the right students into your funnel, and it’s not going to happen just by buying their test score, right?

And so you get these students who are not necessarily a good fit into the top of your funnel and they completely hemorrhage out and don’t become inquiries because they’re not a good match for your institution, or you’re spending so much of your people time trying to squeeze water out of a rock from those lists to get that one additional inquiry who doesn’t apply anyway. And so now you’ve got this challenge of each phase of the funnel, we’re having smaller conversions, which means we have to buy more names to get to the number we want at the bottom.

And that’s not a good recipe. All that does is add to our operating cost, it adds to our staff resourcing and time sifting through blank names and records. When what they should be doing is focusing on the students who are right in front of them and at the phase where they can make the most impact. I did a research study a number of years ago. It was Teens Talk, it was with Staymates at the time, with partnership when I was working at Chegg and we asked students about important and meaningful interactions.

And, it was an unpopular part of the presentation, but we pointed out that admissions counselors have very little impact on a student’s perspective of the institution when they’re just doing general research of schools. Where they make the most impact is when that student is admitted and now is looking for resources, looking for support and unfortunately, because of the way we’ve set up our process, admissions counselors are focusing too much of their time trying to get more applications instead of focusing on getting more of those applications to be completed and more of those admitted students to ultimately enroll.

And so when I talk about gaping holes in the funnel, it’s because we’re focused on the wrong effort and the wrong groups of students where that negatively impacts conversion and yield through them from the middle and the bottom of the funnel.

Drumm McNaughton: Okay, that makes really good sense. Now, thinking about it from the perspective of open enrollment right now, which is a big thing. Students apply, there’s a standardized application process, it goes out to multiple colleges. does that help or hurt the funnel?

 

Direct Admission and Lead Generation

Gil Rogers: Yeah, so I think one of the popular approaches right now and kind of gaining traction is things like direct admission, right? And direct admission being a process where institutions identify applicants key characteristics and key requirements that a student needs to meet. And if they meet those requirements, they’re automatically admitted into the institution.

So on its surface, it sounds like a great idea, right? I think if it reduces the stress and anxiety of a student, if they know they have a certain test score, they know they have a certain GPA and they know they’re interested in a specific program, they can kind of know. All right, the school is a fit for me or not.

The challenge is that, when institutions are leveraging these types of services, I to me, it feels like really expensive lead generation, because what’s happening is that institutions are buying lists just like they’ve been doing from different providers. They’re just called a different phase.

And then unfortunately what happens is, because our systems are not quite caught up to this concept yet, these quote unquote admitted students are inserted into our communication flows in our CRM, and they’re not treated any differently. And so then they don’t yield at the same rate. And so they don’t yield at a rate that is really commiserate to the cost, right?

And so if you’re buying a lead, that is 10 times the cost of just a name that you buy from a list, that list of those leads better convert at 10 times the rate of just buying the list and marketing to them directly. Otherwise, it’s not a viable investment. Like I said, on its surface and the intent and the idea of direct admission, I feel very strongly is a great one.

I think it’s a great idea to remove barriers, help students identify institutions that they might not have heard of before and are a good fit for them. I think the “swing and a miss” right now is for many institutions, it’s again, just treated like traditional lead gen, versus taking advantage of that opportunity to really make an impact on that student and really treat them differently and nurture them differently throughout the process.

Drumm McNaughton: There’s another piece with that as well. A few weeks ago I had Chris Gilmore from education dynamics on the podcast. And he said that the students that are applying, primarily at graduate, but also undergraduate as well, they’re far better prepared for what they want than previous level students.

And so the traditional admissions funnel, you go through, you get the application, et cetera, et cetera, and then it goes to this board that says, okay, we’re going to review all the applications and pick out what we think of the best ones. The problem with that is, for those students who are well prepared and know what they want, what we’re seeing right now is the first college that accepts them they will frequently go to probably 80%. And so that traditional pipeline of having your admissions board, et cetera isn’t working.

Gil Rogers: Yeah, I think that, that’s a great point to about if we think about like the sales process, quote unquote, of going to college. The old adage used to be “first to mailbox”. Right? And so every institution, when the PSAT score list was released, you wanted to be the first one to get that list to your mail house because you wanted your search piece in the mail immediately because it’d be the first one in the mailbox. And if you’re the first one in the mailbox, you feel like that’s going to completely increase your chances of enrolling that student. And sure, do you get a flood of inquiry cards earlier? Probably.

But again, those, I feel like the use of direct mail is as its own separate podcast, again, we can have a conversation about, but it’s thinking about how do we, being there when the student is ready, is I think the most important element of this and being where the students are when they’re ready. And I feel like there is a certain level of stress and anxiety for many students when they are going through the traditional college application process as an undergrad. It’s gut wrenching in many respects to them. Because they’re, for many of these students that aren’t used to being rejected. They’re not used to being told they’re not good enough.

And so they’re being asked to put their life and effort out there to these institutions that they may or may not actually have researched deeply. They just are applying to a list of schools based on who their parents know, who their guidance counselor recommends. And in many respects, they might be under matching based on who they think they can’t get into because they’re afraid of being denied or wait listed. And so I think there are different ways that we can adapt the model here to better support students and get them a better experience through that college application process.

Drumm McNaughton: So when we spoke earlier in the week, we talked about a quote, new funnel. And solving many of the problems that we’ve already talked about. What does that new funnel look like, and how do you use technology to take advantage of it?

Gil Rogers: I think again, when we talk about the funnel, a funnel is a really good visual to drive home the point of, the population shrink throughout the process. It’s good to use because it’s linear in many respects. However, we also need to couch that with students come and go throughout the process and it’s more of a stream or more of an engagement t process than a true traditional funnel.

Drumm McNaughton: It’s a sales process for higher ed.

Gil Rogers: exactly. It’s a sales process for higher ed. but I think there’s a certain level of understanding that the students can bypass a phase very easily, right? They can, a great example is I was presenting at a conference a number of years ago, and one of the, my co presenter told me about his niece had gone through the college search process.

And he said that she did not, Request information or inquire at any schools. She was looking at she followed all those schools on Instagram and made her decision to apply based off of their Instagram content and how good of, their student takeovers were and how the beauty of the campus and how it looked and how it felt right.

And so now, obviously, that’s a sample size of one. But it’s the reality is that you’re going to have students who apply that never go through that traditional funnel. but when I think about the new funnel, I think about a way for, again, automation to help with a lot of this, right?

Is if there are Thousands upon thousands of students who are researching institutions across the web, they’re on and they’re on scholarship search sites. They’re on college help sites. They’re on college prep sites. These are students who are in a college going mindset where an institution traditionally, which is by that list of prospects from one of those sources and start to market to them based off of some regular some standard data.

But now they’re just in that same old process. And so there’s a, the. An opportunity, particularly with a I to use this technology to help to vet these students a little bit better, right? And so think about it as kind of like a, a zip recruiter of the college search experience. I every morning when I dropped my daughter off at school, it’s around 7 30 in the morning and I hear the ad for zipper career because they’re advertising for zipper career.

For people who are probably on their way to an office. I work from home, people are on their way to an office. They’re hiring and their whole model is you post a job and then they go out to all the job sites across the web and find you the best applicants. So imagine a scenario where it’s that exact kind of a model where you create a list for.

Students who specifically meet your institution’s needs, specific majors that they’re interested in, values, interests, and then based on those lists, the bot is now trained to follow you. Identify and engage with students who meet that criteria or who could meet that criteria. And as it interacts with these students on, a single platform or multiple platforms, it’s collecting more and it’s learning more and it’s going to be able to identify students better and better.

And now once a student meets a certain level of engagement, with your content and is identified as a solid prospect, that student can be delivered to your admission staff as an applicant ready prospect. It could be used for direct admission. If we wanted to think about that path, like we were just talking about as a, as an access type of an opportunity, but I feel like, there’s confusion around that.

And there’s still some iteration that needs to happen with that model. Whereas directly connecting with a prospect in a meaningful way and getting that student to apply is a meaningful. And so I feel like there’s definitely some, ways to best use that type of technology to, to better support student outcomes, by eliminating some of the stress and anxiety by making your team available, for students more, in a, in when the in person interactions matter most, which is then, from a cost perspective helps to deploy resources more effectively.

Drumm McNaughton: And I can also see the possibilities of Using AI platforms, when you’ve got the application, when you’ve got the essays in, to say, Yes, this person clearly meets the criteria that we’ve set up their borderline or no, they aren’t. And it could potentially eliminate weeks of the committee looking at all the applications.

an AI platform can do a full application, I would assume in less than five minutes.

Gil Rogers: Yeah. I think that, and that’s where. We need to decide where what level of automation we want at what phase of the process. I think there’s the human element of reviewing the application is a, is important. but with that said, there are going to be student, and this is where the concept of direct admission has legs is if a student is clearly admittable based on their profile and based off of their information.

Do we need a human element? Connecting there and know that the human doesn’t need to read the application that human needs to focus on reaching out to that student and making sure that they’re interested in the school and making sure they know about why the school is so it’s recruitment right and I think that’s the that’s the thing that happens when we have it.

Institutions or when we have institutions receiving so many inquiries because it’s just so easy to click a button to say they’re interested or they’re receiving so many applications. you see the app, you see the reports every year, the press releases record breaking number of applications, record breaking number applications.

here’s the deal. We’re going to start to see that demographic cliff hit. If everybody’s receiving record breaking applications, but a smaller base of students are applying to more schools. All that’s doing is adding overhead to your institution. And so if you can take those resources and redeploy them to the bottom of the funnel by allowing the technology to identify and engage with those students at the top.

Now, as you said, those fringe students that need that human eye Get the human eye, but the students who are clearly admittable. I know many state schools are doing this already with direct admission processes, right? It just, you based on your high school GPA and your transcript, you say which schools you’re interested in and boom, you get automatic admission.

And that’s not the problem, right? The problem is that in addition to all of that. That counselors are still deployed at the top trying to get more when they need to be at the bottom getting that engagement and conversion to convert.

Drumm McNaughton: And then you’ve got the whole deal with census is you can accept. Are they actually gonna come? And that’s where I think I hear you talking about. That’s the most important place to deploy your people to help close the deal, so to speak.

Gil Rogers: Yeah, absolutely. And I think if we apply the sales analogy again to higher ed, right? Good sales organization is going to have their sales people unlocked from all distractions and laser focused on the most important activities to drive revenue. And the, and that’s what the admissions, it’s hard to, it’s hard to swallow sometimes in higher ed that your admission staff is your sales team.

But that’s the reality. the difference is that your sales team is hyper mission focused, student centric, and wants to do the job of engaging with students. Students directly. I was on a webinar a couple weeks ago, with, enroll ML, teach material, has a really great research study on the time that admissions counselors spend not recruiting students and it’s eye opening how much time is spent on data entry, how much time is spent on number crunching and looking at spreadsheets there.

And unfortunately you hired a bunch of people to be data jockeys. And that’s what’s driving the, that’s what’s driving great resignation and staff sort of shortages, right? It, all of these things are linked and I think it takes, it’s going to take some effort to really understand if we focus on efficiency at the top of the funnel.

That solves a lot of challenges for admission staffs with staff retention and conversion of students throughout the process. it’s just we have to get out of this mindset of, Oh, automation is going to take their jobs. It’s not going to take their jobs. It’s going to make their jobs more effective and efficient because they’re able to focus on the higher value interactions.

Drumm McNaughton: There’s another piece.

 

Transfer Students and Degree Completion

Drumm McNaughton: We’ve been talking about the traditional students coming directly out of high school, but there’s other pieces that we can use this AI technology. And I think, David Decker at Franklin University, their degree completion. Multiple avenues for folks coming out of community college or transfer students to be accepted, what blew me away about what they’re doing is they’ve got over 1200, articulation agreements with community colleges across the country to where if a student submits their transcripts, they’ll know within five minutes of all the credits.

That will be accepted and if they can be accepted or not, that’s the kind of use of technology that to me makes so much sense. You’re not wasting people’s time doing data crunching or having to send transcripts to faculty saying this is from XYZ University or Community College. Do we accept these credits?

It’s like, no, if you’re in the database, we accept the credits, period.

Gil Rogers: Yeah, I think the transfer and continuing studies type things are interesting to me because that’s, there’s so much opportunity there for supporting students to finish what they started, get that credential so that they can now have that higher earning potential and job placement and all of the benefits that come along with it.

And I think one of the things that, that. Is interesting from a transfer student perspective specifically, is that. It should be extremely easy for a student to know if I take this course and I get a, and I get this grade, is it acceptable for transfer credit at this institution? that, that is a transfer equivalency is something that is, is still to this day, a little too complicated.

if you’re, obviously, if you’re part of a state, again, if you’re part of a state associate, a state system, and you graduate from a community college, and you’re going to a school within the system, that stuff. Yeah. Seems to have become more seamless across at many places, but it’s still not right.

And there’s still questions. And the issue that I see is that transfer students, again, I did a research study on this back when I was at Chegg on transfers specifically, half of transfer students don’t do not engage or reach out with an institution directly until they’re actually ready to apply. And that is why.

Yield on transfer students is so much higher than a traditional first time undergraduate because you have these large lists that you’re marketing to and they’re not, they’re soft applicants and you do all these sorts of things. Whereas a transfer student, all they want is how many credits am I going to get transferred and how much is it going to cost and how long is it going to take to finish my degree?

If you can answer those three questions, you’ve got a really good chance of enrolling that student. And that’s where you’re, first to mailbox first response thing really comes in. If you’re first to respond with an offer that they like, Okay. you’ve got a great opportunity. and I feel like to your point, you using technology, we should be able to have an equivalency table that is just, here’s our equivalency table for every school that in the country, this is a great, this is the, this is what we’ll transfer in and this is what you’ll have.

Drumm McNaughton: And that right there with however many people are transferring in, plus you’ve got 40 million students who have dropped out and potentially could come back. this is a way to solve the enrollment crisis. Very easy. I wouldn’t say very easily, but it’s a way to solve it.

Gil Rogers: Yeah, I think, what do they always say? It’s, it’s cheaper to keep a customer than to go out and get a new one. and I think that, we, there’s this huge pocket of students that as our, as the traditional population declines, if we can backfill that with stopouts and get them to return to the institution and continue their degree, that at least it’s, It sounds like a band aid, but it’s at least a band aid for a few years, right?

where we’re then able to one provide the value to those students that they invested in to begin with. And so from a student focused perspective, These students should have the opportunity to complete their degree and they need that. They need that process to be easier, right? And so we’re falling short in the degree completion department for sure.

and I think that like you said, that’s a way for instituting. You already know who those students are that, students who have not completed their degree with you. You can do some work with student clearinghouse data to see where they went. And we can. If we put the effort in there again, if we deploy technology at the top of our traditional recruitment funnel, that opens up a staff member to work on that project, right?

And to do better there. And I think it’s a priorities thing for many institutions. We get so caught up in the U. S. News ranking. And the press release about the number of applications we received or most selective class that we forget about all of these different opportunities. And I’m using a broad brush here.

there are institutions that are looking at this and focusing in that way. And they’re the ones who are going to win in all of this, because as, and you mentioned it at the top, the value of education gets questioned as are, as the number of students continues to decline.

Not just because of birth rates, but also because of interest or value of the investment. We’ve got to think differently about how we reach and engage students. And it’s the traditional funnel, but it’s also transfer, it’s also degree completion. and you name it, and there’s multiple paths.

Drumm McNaughton: Well, Illumina Foundation just came out with a study not too long ago, talked about the 40 million dropouts they have, but also too about all of these kinds of things. We need to be looking at better ways to reduce the cost of higher education. We need to find better on ramps for students and technology can solve a lot of these issues.

Gil Rogers: Yeah, I think it does. And I think there’s, Again, pie in the sky thing. If we spend less money on recruitment, maybe we charge less in tuition. I know that’s not all how it works, but I think that there’s a that mindset of. If we are able to be more efficient with our efforts, that’s a huge opportunity for us to best support students.

And then I think, when we think about things like our financial aid strategy, there’s lots of places who are doing a lot of work.

 

Financial Aid and Affordability

Gil Rogers: And I think one of the challenges we’ve run into, and you mentioned the FAFSA conundrum at the, at the beginning of the conversation, the issue for many institutions is they needed that data to maximize net tuition revenue per student, right?

And so that, that was a, it’s a business driving. Element that impacts students in that process, but as we’ve gone through, we used kind of traditional models that are, five year regression analysis that’s based off of, and we have all these, I did an interview on my podcast, a couple of weeks ago with Carlos Cano, and he, was doing, he mentioned that every year there’s something right.

And so our model is only as good as being able to evaluate off of normal. Situations, right? And we don’t have a normal cycle over the past five years to be able to reliably use these big box store type of approaches. So I recommend to a lot of institutions to really think about is that something they could actually do in house or do they work with a smaller, more nimble firm to be able to.

to really be better about that, because I think part of it is how we’re divvying up money, And how we’re making resources available. The other is, and I, I’ve had conversations about this a lot recently is it’s just things like. merit aid is just a discount on tuition.

It’s not real money. It’s play money, right? And you can’t just say, Oh, I got a 12, 000 scholarship. I’m going to use that to buy books. No, that’s 12, 000 discount off of your tuition. And so tuition resets, obviously being a strategy, but. The reality that I think many of us all understand is that the reason why merit aid is important or effective to some extent or to the main extent is that when you get to the water cooler talk of the application process, mom and dad are at soccer games with your, with their junior or senior, it’s, it feels better to say.

That Johnny got a scholarship to so and so school, not Johnny is going to a cheap school. And so I think that’s a, another driving factor in, in higher ed that creates equity issues because students and families don’t understand all this and they just look at the price tag. And so again, they undermatch, Because they’re not applying to a school because, Oh, that school is going to be too expensive.

again, when I, and again, the challenge with me is I think about, I’ve been talking about this stuff and been a part of this since my first job as an admissions counselor. And what was my answer to students who would say, Oh, that school is too expensive. I’m not going to apply.

As admissions counselor, I’d say, you don’t know that until you apply, because once you apply, we can consider you for scholarships and you file the FAFSA and then you get your true cost of attendance.

So don’t rule out any school based off of the price tag. You should apply based on where you feel you fit. And then you get that later, right? Why is that the still the same answer today? I think there’s a certain element of, of we need some change in that process. And, I, and it’s not, I think making the FAFSA easier to complete.

Is a step in the right direction. Obviously this cycle is another year of an outlier, right? But I think that the, because of the launch issues, but ideally that’s next year, it’s a get making it easy to file the FAFSA. Yeah. Just like direct admission is not a bad thing directionally, but it’s not the only thing.

And I think that, we need to have a broader conversation around the narrative of cost and why we publish these grandiose price tags and then have a 60 percent discount rate.

Drumm McNaughton: Ian. Exactly.

 

Final Thoughts and Takeaways

Drumm McNaughton: So Gil, this has been a fascinating conversation for me. you’ve raised more questions, I think, than we’ve gotten answers, which To me is the way a good podcast should be is like, it makes people stop and think. So breaking it down, three takeaways for university presidents and boards, what do they really need to be talking to their enrollment folks about?

Gil Rogers: Yeah, so I think the first thing that presidents and boards should be Asking is what is our plan for the use of AI, right? That’s going to be one. And if there is no plan or if the plan is basically, we got a chat bot for our website. There’s more that we can do there. And I think that’s a, that’s something to think about.

not to say that a chat bot on the website’s a bad thing. You should probably think about that, but there’s more to it. And there’s going to be different AI for different use cases, right? They’re going to be trained to specialize in different things. So what is the, I guess the deeper question is, what is the strategy for use of AI at the top of the funnel, I think is a Is the first question they should ask.

I think the second question that a president or boards should be asking the VP of enrollment is how are we using our most expensive assets, which are our people, right? Our people are being worked really hard and there’s, they’re dedicating a lot of time and a lot of hours.

And again, I’ll say, that admissions staffs and just like student affairs and just like financial aid offices Are filled with amazing people who are trying to do the right thing and they’re trying to support students Because they care right, and we need to leverage that and support them By identifying ways that we can make their jobs more efficient.

And it’s the old cliche of, this is the way it’s always been done. And we need to avoid that cliche and identify ways that we can best support them. And then I think the last is again, on the affordability point is. and this is more for probably, VP of enrollment or head of financial aid.

And obviously you’re cheap business officer and registrar and bursar, right? They, need to be part of these conversations, is. Is what are we doing? What is our financial aid strategy to ensure that we are going to weather this enrollment cliff, right?

And it could be incentives we have for students to return, right? And do we, waive their current debt? If they are able to put down a deposit for a future program, right? What are things that we can do? Cause it, at the end of the day, that’s your discount rate, right? is foregoing the sunk cost of what they might owe on a prior bill if they’re going to finish their degree.

And so I think that there’s, Certain things around what can we do financially to grow enrollment by bringing students back who have departed and attracting more transfer students. and unfortunately, broadly, that’s a, it’s a zero-sum game, right? There, the institutions that execute and do it well are going to be the ones that are sustained and survive and thrive.

And the ones that don’t are going to find themselves in a tough situation.

Drumm McNaughton: Yeah. And we’re seeing a lot of that tough situation right now. I read something today that a college is closing. One college a week is closing. And that means. This year we’ll have over 50 colleges closing, which is not a good stat. Gil, what’s next for you?

Gil Rogers: let’s see, aside from spending the summer in the pool with my kids, because that is what we need to do up in here. We have a very narrow window in Maine, right? for when it’s sunny and nice out. So we take care of that. but I continue to, I continue weekly to publish my podcast.

It’s FYI for your institutions presented by mongoose. we have conversations with a wide variety of folks related to enrollment, fundraising, advancement, student retention. so find that on your favorite podcasting app. and, when you’re done listening to this podcast, you can go listen to that one.

but that’s my fun project that I get to work on with them. And as a fractional CMO, I continue my work with my clients to, To help with the outcomes that they’re looking for. what’s great is all of the companies that I work with are all doing really cool things to support better student outcomes.

That’s one of my benchmarks for wanting to work with a company is really seeing what they’re doing and the impact that they’re making on student success. that’s what I’ll be doing hopefully for years to come.

 

Conclusion and Next Episode Preview

Drumm McNaughton: it’s been a pleasure having you on the show. I look forward to the next time we have a chance to chat. I know we’ll never run out of great topics. So thank you.

Gil Rogers: Awesome. Appreciate it.

Drumm McNaughton:

Thanks for listening and a especial thank you to our guest, Gil Rogers, Founder and CEO of GR7 Marketing, and for sharing his thoughts on how higher Ed institutions can improve their marketing funnels through the use of AI.

Tune in next week when we welcome back Courtney Brown of the Lumina Foundation. Courtney is Lumina’s VP for Research and they and Gallup have recently released their 2024 report on the state of higher education and it’s fascinating reading. As always with Courtney, this promises to be a very informative and interesting program. Thanks again for listening. See you next episode.

 

 

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Coming Up Next Week on Changing Higher Ed® Podcast

Tune in next week when we welcome back Courtney Brown of the Lumina Foundation. Courtney is Lumina’s VP of Research and they and Gallup have recently released their 2024 report “The State of Higher Education” and it’s fascinating reading. As always with Courtney, this promises to be a very informative and interesting program.

 

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