The New Phenomenon in Higher Ed: Recruit to Deny

Every enrollment period, millions of emails are sent to prospective students. Big schools and small schools, state schools and private schools—all of them reach out to high school students across the country with news on exciting majors, campus life, and study abroad opportunities. But in an effort to recruit record numbers of students, are schools hurting their prospects and themselves?

Applications Are Up

In this race to recruit, schools strive to garner the interest of as many students as they can. High schoolers in states like Pennsylvania or New Jersey start getting brochures, pamphlets, and emails from schools they’ve never heard of before, schools in the middle of Ohio or Connecticut or Colorado.

student hiding behind book pileFor a college student, this can be an exciting time. Suddenly, there are so many possibilities. There are so many campuses to see, so many subjects to study, so many new people to meet. As a result, the number of college applications increases.

In fact, 2016 and 2017 saw explosive numbers in college applications. Princeton’s applications jumped as much as 18%. Meanwhile, UCLA received more than 102,000 applications—the first time ever that a school reached six figures.

Acceptance Is Down

Recruitment rates are higher, application pools are larger, but college enrollment across the country is decreasing and so too is college acceptance. In 1997, Stanford had an acceptance rate of 15%. Now, it is 4.7%. Meanwhile, schools that were once popular “back up” schools are also turning down more students than before.

There’s a variety of reasons why acceptance rates are lower. However, rankings by the U.S. News & World Report often carry most of the blame. When acceptance rates are low, a school looks more selective. When a school looks more selective, it gets a better ranking.

However, the pressure to meet enrollment goals also forces schools to recruit more students. Despite high application rates, enrollment and yield rates are down significantly. Admissions departments are trying to expand their reach and capture the attention of as many students as they can.

But where does that leave a prospective student, a few months away from graduating high school and the recipient of hundreds of emails touting dozens of schools? Sometimes the emails even come with pre-filled applications, making the student truly believe acceptance is a shoo-in.

But it’s not.

From Recruited to Rejected  

What colleges are really doing is a practice known as “recruit to deny.” They’re begging students to apply, even students who may not academically fit the school. All that matters is an influx of applications. Then, a majority of those students are rejected.

Understandably, this phenomenon has frustrated many prospective students. The college admissions process is already stressful. Being recruited and praised by an Ivy League school can boost anyone’s confidence while being rejected in a form email can destroy that confidence twice as quickly.

As Katy Murphy of Bellarmine College said in a Hechinger Report on “recruit to deny:” “[colleges] are really breaking the hearts of kids across the country,” even if they don’t mean to.

What Can Colleges Do?

The first thing schools can do is spend more time and resources recruiting students who will be a better fit for their school. Enrollment management tools like ReachBright can help schools better identify and target students they know will be successful in the classroom and on the campus. Targeted marketing techniques can personalize emails and give students the information they’re most interested in, whether that’s about academics, athletics, or activities.

graduates throwing capsRecruiting students who are a better fit for the college will help boost yield rates. Prospects who see a school truly getting to know and understand them and their interests are more likely to accept their offer from a school.

Finally, students who better meet that school’s academic standards are more likely to stay enrolled. College retention rates are steadily increasing, but still low. Colleges should do everything they can to help boost those numbers, especially by starting early and recruiting, not the most students for their school, but the best.

As an added bonus: slowing down in the recruitment race doesn’t necessarily mean rankings will suffer. After all, the U.S. News & World Report only weighs selectivity at 12.5% of its total score. Retention rates are given the most weight at 22.5%. Instead of dedicating resources to recruiting students schools know they will reject, resources should be dedicated to ensuring that the accepted students are given the attention they need.

It’s time to put away the long lists and dig deeper into prospective data. It’s time for colleges to stop looking at who they can deny and instead at who they can accept. It’s time to stop “recruiting to deny” and instead “recruit to succeed” by helping students find a higher ed fit that will help them excel.