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Before the 2025 Enrollment Cliff, the Search Cliff is Already Here for Higher Ed Lead Generation

Before the 2025 Enrollment Cliff, the Search Cliff is Already Here for Higher Ed Lead Generation
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The Enrollment Cliff, The 2nd Enrollment Cliff, the Demographic Cliff, the Search Cliff–working in higher ed is a perilous business. And while the parlance of hand-wringing higher ed enrollment circles can sometimes err on the side of melodramatic, there is a grain of truth in the hysteria. 

The reality is that traditional top-of-funnel lead generation engines–and their historical yield–are running, increasingly, on empty. Here’s what the formula used to be for lead generation in higher education, especially on the undergrad side:

Buy Names + Market to names + Attract Names = Enrollment Class

Organic traffic was part of the formula, but it wasn’t often the focus when there was a predictable list-centric yield strategy. Now, that’s being turned on its head.

Why the Search Cliff is Happening in Higher Education

Between the FCC ruling on one-to-one consent and recent state-by-state privacy laws, the traditional pools of those tried and true student names are getting shallower and shallower. 

This relates heavily to new rules around testing. The College Board usually offers extensive databases of student names and college preferences through SAT testing. Now, students who take the test digitally and/or during the school week are not eligible for contact from schools they don’t explicitly select. As students move toward more online and midweek testing, the lists of names offered by services like the College Board and the ACT are going to get thinner and thinner. 

Over the next three years, every state will see at least a 15% decrease in available names of eligible college students; for most, this will be even more dramatic. California’s name availability, for instance, is expected to decrease by 50%+ in the next three years, while states like Tennessee and Nevada–where the ACT is the test du jour for most seniors–will see an even more precipitous decrease. All told, the total number of available names nationwide is expected to take a 38% hit by 2027.

How the Search Cliff affects the Demographic Cliff

The Search Cliff would be more molehill than mountain if higher education didn’t have plenty of other factors complicating enrollment momentum. First, higher education has lately been under attack from politicians, members of the workforce, and, frankly, people who think the whole industry is just too darn expensive and debt-inducing. This is leading to more budget cuts, less state support, and more frustrating cries for higher education to be run “like a business”. 

This crisis of public opinion comes amidst what should, demographically speaking, be high times for higher education. In 2007, the US saw the most births in its history. That means 2024 should see the largest possible pool of homegrown students ever. 

After the Great Recession sent us all reeling, however, America stopped having so many children. The next 12 or so years saw a steady decline in the US birthrate–some are calling it America’s “Lost Decade”. 

By 2025, when those Great Recession babies start turning 17, the decline in eligible homegrown college students is expected to hit schools hard. That’s known in higher ed as the Demographic Cliff. 

Between the Demographic Cliff, the Search Cliff, and an embattled public brand, higher education looks toward a future of squabbling over fewer students with fewer resources and fewer clear paths to recruitment.

Higher education, of course, will survive these headwinds, but in an environment where every extra application matters, even small erosions to student turnout can have seismic effects. Since 2016, higher education has seen over 90 institutions shut their doors for good. Post-Demographic Cliff projections suggest that the rate of closures will only increase as higher education feels these effects (13 schools closed in 2023 alone).

So what are some options for schools looking to get ahead of these various pitfalls? Let’s explore.

Solutions for Higher Education Lead Generation

With less predictable yield and fewer tried-and-true channels, the top-of-funnel marketing problem is one that higher education will have to address. This means swimming in some of the more conventional marketing waters that higher ed has traditionally been insulated from.

There’s an understandable impulse to try out every shiny new strategy one can afford to drive traffic. Some experimentation is a good thing. Doubling down on conversion-oriented social posts on TikTok and Instagram are solid ideas–we find website traffic from TikTok converts around 2x more often than other social media traffic. However, since those properties are often owned by brand marketing, turning them into conversion engines could be difficult.

The main lesson we’re learning–and that expeditious institutions of higher education will almost certainly learn as well–is that there isn't a wellspring of new channels for lead generation. Between social media, list buys, paid search, organic search, etc., everyone’s using essentially the same funnels. And whatever market edge you might discover is unlikely to stay a secret for long. That means schools have to become more sophisticated with targeting, messaging, and differentiation.

Positioning Your School for Effective Differentiation

According to Suzan Brinker, CoFounder and CEO of Viv Higher Education, effective differentiation requires a content-first approach that starts with authentic story-telling. 

"Selling education to people like it's a regular commodity makes them a lot less interested in buying it." -Suzan Brinker, CEO Viv Higher Education

“A content-first approach takes the stories from people on your campus–which are inherently differentiating because no one has these people on campus–then you tell those stories.” Brinker explains.

This story-telling communicates value and inspires connection without coming off as a traditional sales pitch, which is a dangerous rhetorical trap for higher education in these more insecure times.

“People don’t want to be sold to by education because it’s supposed to be an honor to get in. Students are supposed to feel lucky for the opportunity. So selling education to people like it’s a regular commodity makes them a lot less interested in pursuing it,” she elaborates.

Pairing invitations to interact–those more transactional CTAs–with interesting content keeps higher ed from cheapening itself as a product in its own marketing approach. The next step is to deliver value when students do choose to go deeper.

Upgrading the Student Research & Admissions Experience

Ironically enough, higher ed’s top-of-funnel problem could have a powerful down-funnel solution. 

In the traditional higher ed numbers game, it’s understood that a high percentage of traffic and leads will fall through the cracks. In this new normal, where the student pool is smaller and every pageview is earned, creating anything less than a first-class experience will leave schools unable to compete.

Interested students are simply too valuable to lose. To keep them, websites have to become more engaging and user-friendly. Students need more opportunities to interact with interesting content, and admissions teams need to make students feel like they are being taken care of by institutions that have traditionally been intimidating.

25% of today’s undergraduate students cite their relationship with the admissions team as a key factor in their enrollment decision. Investing in ways to solidify that relationship is a proven path to maintaining enrollments and institutional health.

Of course, getting students to the admissions team represents another hurdle, and that starts with reinventing the infamously inscrutable higher ed website experience. 

That’s what Halda helps with. We create opportunities for students to interact with the information they’re looking for without having to enter the higher ed website labyrinth. Tools, like ours, use AI to build scalable personalization that nudges students down the funnel and to the admissions team. They’re designed to help teams deliver a tailored admissions experience without spreading themselves too thin.

The fact is, higher education is facing a perfect storm. Surviving it will require ingenuity, resourcefulness, and a little courage as marketers enter new territory for the industry. The hope is that these efforts will create a more sustainable approach to enrollment that drills down on what students need. That way, you can show them the most valuable experience possible. 

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