Northwestern Michigan College doubles applications in the first year using Ellucian Recruiter

Less processing. More recruiting.

Remaining competitive

Higher education institutions in the state of Michigan are experiencing a steady decline in enrollment—a trend expected to continue through 2023. Competition for students is heating up.

Historically, Northwestern Michigan College served as a first-rate community college for district students actively seeking post-secondary education. But it hasn’t had the resources to proactively pursue prospects on a larger scale.

“Given the increasingly competitive environment, we knew we had to start recruiting like four-year public and private institutions,” said Cathryn Claerhout, director of admissions. “And we could not do that with manual processes and limited outreach via print mail. Recruiter is taking us to the next level.”

Increasing efficiency

Northwestern Michigan College has, for the first time, automated its recruiting systems and processes. This has enabled recruiters to spend less time pushing paper and more time on strategic activities.

In the past, prospect data was kept in multiple places, in differing formats, usually requiring manual search. It was difficult to access information—a student’s status, history of communications, profile, and goals—quickly enough to act on many, let alone all, opportunities to engage.

Thus, Northwestern Michigan College began by using one of Recruiter’s most basic functions—storing and segmenting prospect data in a centralized, easily accessible format.

This has provided multiple benefits:

  • Reliable, timely reports on number and type of prospects in system
  • Ability to automate communications and follow-up tasks
  • Faster response time to students at every stage of the process

“Prior to Recruiter, we didn’t even send out acceptance letters on daily basis,” said Claerhout. “It was maybe once a week. That jeopardizes momentum for everyone involved.”

Faster response times have also reduced the constant influx of calls. Staff no longer devotes the majority of time fielding requests for updates and tracking down information.

Meeting student expectations

Today’s students are used to information on demand. Every day, they experience customer-focused online tools that enable them to accomplish tasks and get answers without delay.

Ellucian Recruiter offers students a user-friendly online interface where they can apply, track the status of their applications, respond to requests for missing information, update contact information, submit inquiries, and complete the admissions process.

Providing an automated online portal has greatly reduced calls to the admissions office from students inquiring about basic information. This frees staff to focus on more strategic activities.

And because the process is easier for applicants, Northwestern Michigan College is reducing the number of prospects that don’t complete applications because of delays or frustrations.

“A more sophisticated online presence is critical to the way students perceive our brand. The Recruiter portal reduces the chance we’ll be seen as an institution behind the times—and, more importantly, the chance prospects won’t complete applications due to a cumbersome process.”
Dr. Chris Weber, VP, Enrollment Services

Launching an active CRM strategy

Successful recruiters get prospects in the door and keep them there—right through to enrollment.

Prior to the launch of Ellucian Recruiter, Northwestern Michigan College’s prospect management was more reactive than proactive. With time-consuming manual systems, staff focused on processing applications and responding to inquiries, rather than reaching out to new students.

 “To be honest, before we launched Recruiter our prospects mostly consisted of students who applied on their own,” said Claerhout. “We did little outreach, and anything we did was not tracked in a system that would have allowed follow up.”

Creating a consistent, steady stream of communications

In the past, communications with applicants were sporadic, slow, and delivered through print.

Recruiter’s automated workflow management tools enable Northwestern Michigan College to preset actions that keep students moving through the recruiting and admissions process. These include digital acknowledgement letters, reminders, event invitations, and timely responses to inquiries.

For example, Northwestern Michigan College targets students at district high schools with dual enrollment and early college programs. Using Recruiter to follow up with prospects, target and track ongoing communications, and respond more quickly and effectively to questions helped the college more than double student participation in just the first year.

Engaging a wider pool of prospects

Northwestern Michigan College had recently begun increasing its outreach to various communities. But it had no ability to track these efforts in a systematic way.

The college now uses Recruiter’s prospect identification and cultivation tools to increase the impact of these initiatives. Names gathered are turned into profiles, automatic acknowledgments triggered, segments defined, and next steps with reminders scheduled.

“We used to take days to acknowledge paper applications and then follow up maybe two or three times,” said Josh Jacobson, CRM recruiter. “We now have a CRM cycle built on 10 to 15 communications per prospect to keep them continuously engaged.”

The college has begun to purchase lists that expand its reach to other districts—an increasingly important tactic in the face of dwindling state funding. They can upload lists to Recruiter and set up steady, targeted communications.

When Northwestern Michigan College held a week-long promotion offering new prospects the ability to apply for free, it was able to personalize emails to different lists, ensure rapid response to inquiries, and generate immediate follow up communications. As a result, applications resulting from the same promotion the year before increased dramatically.

Targeting communications

“In the past, we had a one-size-fits-all system,” said Jacobson. “Basically a ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ approach.”

Through Ellucian Recruiter, Northwestern Michigan College created its first personalized email campaigns.

The college began addressing prospects by name and replacing a no-reply email in the ‘sent from’ field with an actual staff member’s name.

“We were basically a processing center. We handled everything manually and weren’t able to get back to prospects in a timely fashion, let alone reach out proactively.”
Cathryn Claerhout, director of admissions

As a result, it more than doubled open rates on all types of email communications, including reminders to complete applications, invitations to events, and even FERPA notifications, which were opened by an unprecedented 50 percent of the target audience in 2014.

The very act of tracking open and response rates is a new capability for Northwestern Michigan College. And for the first time, they can test different messaging approaches, track success, and learn more about what works with specific audiences.

Through its various targeted campaigns, Northwestern Michigan College sent 116,000 promotional emails to prospective students in the first six months of using Recruiter—not even counting basic automated acknowledgements and reminders related to applications.

During the same period the previous year, the college sent 15,000 emails.

Using analytics to inform strategy

One of the most important new tools available to the recruiting team is a robust digital dashboard that tracks progress in real time.

“I’m now getting analytics every week in my meetings with the recruiting team,” said Weber. “The data is up to date, it’s segmented and analyzed, and we can assess ROI of various tactics. This is a new ball game as far as strategy and decision making.”

Increasing applications

In the 1980s, approximately 80 percent of funding for public and community colleges in Michigan came from the state. That has steadily decreased and is now down to 23 percent.

“A big shift is already underway,” said Claerhout. “Community colleges can no longer sit back and react or expect funding to come from the state. Tuition is now the key. And that means getting applications in the door.”

Since implementing Ellucian Recruiter, Northwestern Michigan College has doubled the number of applications received for its fall semester, from 603 in 2014 to 1191 for 2015.

“We can already see a big change in community awareness, prospect engagement, and sheer number of applications received,” said Weber. “And we cannot continue to increase tuition revenue without a sophisticated tool for driving relationships forward. We got Recruiter just in time.”