Presbyterian College used a texting platform to communicate with students and saw improved indicators for enrollment
In an era of undesirable communication trends (e.g., ghosting), universities and colleges are looking at different ways to reach prospective students—and sometimes even garner a response.
“I don’t want to sound too dramatic, but there’s a communication crisis in higher education,” says Dave Marshall, president and product manager at Mongoose, an SMS management platform. “[Schools] can’t reach [students]: They don’t answer phone calls, and they’re not checking their e-mail.”
For some context, a HubSpot sample of more than 965,000 e-mails found the average e-mail open rate for the jobs and education category is 32%. Figures from Constant Contact customers are even more dismal: Data from more than 200 million e-mails show the open rate for higher education is 13.39%.
“Our initial challenge was [finding] a way to communicate to these students,” Marshall says. “Then it became [figuring] out who is a quality applicant, or which applicants are serious and which aren’t. That became the goal.”
Suzanne Petrusch joined Presbyterian College as vice president for enrollment and marketing in spring 2016. The South Carolina school was already texting students, but messages were clunky and transactional. Petrusch had previously worked with Marshall, and she asked her new colleagues to consider the Mongoose platform. Impressed by the tool’s usability, the school decided to put it into play. The concept of enhancing communication through text made sense.
“Think about studies you may have seen on what students use, or even just anecdotal stories,” Petrusch says. “I’ve heard friends or colleagues say, ‘I used to just call out loud to my son or daughter to get them to come down for dinner,’ but now my friends or colleagues will say, ‘My son or daughter wasn’t responding, so we text each other.’ This is a way of communicating that is very much a comfort and familiarity to these students.”
Petrusch says the first step toward adoption was to get the college’s counselors comfortable with the Mongoose platform. The team then made sure this communication channel was open by recommending users opt in to receive texts and verifying the collected numbers were for mobile phones.
Mongoose’s application integrates with a school’s student information system, which can include names, intended majors, interests and more. A school can choose custom fields from which to pull information, such as whether the institution has received the student’s high school transcript, and use them to build a segment based on criteria, Marshall says. “That’s how they decide who they’re going to send the text to. That updated student information goes from the school’s CRM into our platform every night.”
Presbyterian College uses the platform to send students reminders and ask questions. For example, last fall was the first year for early FAFSA submissions, so Petrusch’s team sent a text to remind those eligible. Counselors may also text prospective students about open-house programs at the school.
“We always are trying to get people to think about the next action step,” Petrusch says. “In many cases, that does have to do with a visit to campus, so I would consider that transactional. But then we started to watch how many students were responding to these texts. Sometimes it was ‘Thanks! I plan to be there,’ or ‘I can’t wait to visit campus.’ ”
Some students even responded with questions that were off topic, but still related to the school. At times, responses would come days later, sparking a conversational tone that Petrusch called a pleasant surprise. These questions don’t disappear into the ether; counselors at Presbyterian College log into the system and answer the messages.
The school was also careful about the volume of messages it sent because understanding how younger people communicate also means understanding when you might be encroaching on their space.
“We have to be very respectful,” Petrusch says. “[A phone is] almost an appendage: You carry your phone with you all the time, it’s very personal. It’s an opportunity to talk to students and engage with them in a medium that’s comfortable for them, but that doesn’t mean we should abuse that privilege. They said, ‘Yes,’ (to opting in) and that allows us to enter into a dialog with them. We wouldn’t want to be hitting their inbox every single day.”
Using the Mongoose platform not only boosted communication between prospective students and the school, but it also gave Presbyterian College a better feel for student intent to attend.
Mongoose and Presbyterian College found the more interested the student, the more likely they are to provide their mobile number: 74% of applicants opted into receiving texts, 81% of accepted students opted in and 92% of those who confirmed attending the school opted in. They also found 40% of confirmed students sent five or more texts to admissions counselors and 80% of confirmed students sent one or more texts to counselors.
The platform also increased the efficiency of the small Presbyterian College admissions staff. Rather than making phone calls to each potential student, the school could send text messages asking if the student or family had questions about, for example, financial awards, and then schedule a call.
“It allowed us to much more effectively use our time with those who were interested,” Petrusch says. Scheduling was also beneficial to the student and family, who could ensure they were available at a particular time and had their questions prepared. “You weren’t catching a parent or student off guard.”
Marshall says calling young people today can come across as an invasion of privacy.
“They have a very short list of people who are—quote, unquote—allowed to call them,” Marshall says. “When somebody else calls them that’s not on that list, maybe a school, it can almost be considered rude. You’re not ready to have a conversation; the medium is not right for that. But when you text them, they have the ability to read the text when they want. They can take as long as they want to respond and they can think about what they want to say. It’s a much better medium to put them at ease.”
Other communications with students and their families—brochures, e-mails, campus visits—aren’t going away, nor are the stresses that come with choosing a school. A platform that communicates as a student does, however, adds value for all parties.
“For years and years, the sacred cow in higher education in terms of a predictive behavior was the campus visit,” Marshall says. “Schools would say that if they could get [students] to visit, they were very likely to enroll. The behavior of a text response is much more predictive than that. If they’re taking the time to write back, not only does it show that they’re interested, but it also might help them clear up misinformation or get their questions answered.”