With the average high school senior applying to between three and five colleges–and with the growth in online programs expanding students’ options–college recruiting has become more competitive than ever. What’s more, the communications habits and expectations of today’s students, who have grown up with cell phones and instant messaging, are changing the way schools interact with prospects. To keep up, schools are turning to online tools such as multi-channel communications software, instant-response information centers, and even sophisticated constituent relations management (CRM) software, which allows school admissions departments to target their efforts more effectively–and better track results.

Across the country, colleges and universities are stepping up their web-based recruitment strategies as they attempt to lure tech-savvy high-schoolers to their campuses with communications strategies that include instant messaging, blogs, podcasts, personalized eMail, and text messaging.

As another college admission season begins in earnest, high-schoolers are increasingly turning to the internet for behind-the-scenes insight. Next to campus visits, one study shows, schools’ internet sites are the most important tool high school seniors use when evaluating and choosing a college.

Such sites now rank higher than high school visits from campus representatives and direct mailings in importance as recruitment strategies, said Steve Kappler, an executive director at Stamats Inc., a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, firm that provides consulting services to about 100 colleges and universities a year.

The importance of the web has schools beefing up their web sites to lure prospective students.

North Dakota State University’s web site, for example, matches current and potential students with similar interests and encourages the interested students to eMail questions about life on the Fargo campus. And students at Franklin & Marshal College in Lancaster, Pa., muse about college life in video web logs, called “vlogs.”

Brian Niles, chief executive officer of the interactive recruiting firm TargetX and a former university admissions officer, said such efforts indicate that schools are trying new strategies in their efforts to attract students.

The current group of college-bound students, part of the millennial generation born after 1981, is different from their predecessors in the way they respond to information, Niles said. “These teenagers are much more interactive,” he explained. “They want to converse with colleges, not be marketed to. They want to be able to ask questions and comment on what they see and hear. They demand the unvarnished truth and are extremely resistant to hype and advertising speak.”

Niles added: “I call this new environment Recruiting 2.0. You can no longer talk at students through publications, direct mail, static web sites, and eMail broadcasts. You have to open a dialog with them.”

Recruiters: ‘Just IM me your questions’

One strategy Niles said has worked for Immaculata University in Pennsylvania is the assignment of instant-messaging (IM) addresses to everyone in its recruiting office. “A young woman who had just graduated early from Penn State was working in the guidance office at Immaculata. She was IMing with a prospective student,” Niles said. The other staff members were surprised to discover this, he said. What was just as telling, however, was how surprised the young staffer was at her colleagues’ response. “The staffer, of course, said, ‘I have it on all the time–it’s the way I live my life,'” Niles continued.

Soon, everyone in the university’s recruiting department had IM screen names to engage directly with prospective students.

To help facilitate this kind of electronic communication with prospects, TargetX offers a suite of products aimed at attracting and recruiting students online. One of the strengths of these products is how they work together, Niles said.

“You can plan, eMail, chat, host all kinds of events–and everything coordinates with everything else,” he explained. “For example, you can promote an event online, track the response, register people, send reminders, record cancellations, follow up with those who attended and those who didn’t, and manage all these activities through a web-based planning tool.”

Harding University, a Christian school based in Arkansas, reports that undergraduate applications increased sharply after the school began using a web-based recruiting and real-time prospect intelligence system called eCRUIT, from the New York City firm GoalQuest, earlier this year.

“It was obvious to our admissions office right from the start that GoalQuest was having a positive impact on the number of applications we received,” said Glenn Dillard, assistant vice president for enrollment management at Harding. “During the first 11 weeks of the eCRUIT campaign, more students applied for admission than in those very same weeks one year earlier.”

Ceding some control

Using a proprietary blogging tool from GoalQuest, called UBlog, Harding assigned six undergraduates to act as “virtual ambassadors” for the school, connecting with prospective students and providing information on everything from preparing for exams to getting ready for summer break. The software lets prospects add comments or post queries to any blog entry.

Offering prospective students a less carefully controlled view of campus life through the use of blogs creates challenges for school officials, who worry that inappropriate material might harm the school’s image.

Yet Stamats’ Kappler said the casualness of such blogs is what students find appealing. And he urged schools to leave student blogs unedited unless they contain something “egregious.”

That’s the approach to student blogs taken at Ball State University. “We wanted them to be authentic,” said Nancy Prater, the web content coordinator at the Muncie, Indiana, school, where the student blogs have averaged more than 10,000 visits a day since last Christmas break.

Prater noted that prospective students already have unedited glimpses of college life, thanks to college networking site Face book.com and MySpace.com, a popular web hangout for teens and young adults.

“I think you are a lot better off choosing the people talking about you,” she said.

Near-instant answers to questions

Another element of GoalQuest’s eCRUIT solution is a feature called Student Service Center. Harding University uses this feature to provide a service known to prospects as “Ask Harding,” which encourages them to ask questions and provide feedback on a variety of topics, such as the admissions process, financial aid, or dorm life. Questions are time-stamped and sent to pre-determined campus administrators. Students are promised a speedy response from the school personnel who are best able to help them, while administrators can analyze the flow of questions and answers to see the types of questions students ask most frequently–as well as the average response times of various university departments.

Timely response to students’ questions is of paramount importance in the recruiting game, experts say. The speed and quality of responses has a direct impact on student satisfaction–and that influences the decision-making process.

According to standards from the Customer Operations Performance Center, a recognized authority on performance improvement in customer-contact businesses, the average wait time for a chat or telephone interaction should not exceed 30 seconds. Yet, in a recent survey of more than 100 U.S. colleges and universities by the Bellevue, Wash., firm Talisma, officials found responses to telephone and eMail requests to be a major area of concern: 23 percent of incoming calls were never answered, Talisma says, and 49 percent of eMail messages were never answered.

RightNow Technologies, of Bozeman, Montana, offers one solution. RightNow says more than 50 colleges and universities worldwide are using its automated answering service to answer questions from prospective students, alumni, and other stakeholders quickly and effectively.

“With RightNow, we are able to get high-quality information to people where and when they need it,” said Betty Roberts, associate vice chancellor at the University of Houston. “And we are doing it at less cost to the university than ever before.”

Typically, a number of factors prevent schools from delivering timely responses to questions–including decentralized structures and limited budgets. RightNow says it addresses these issues by consolidating information from all university offices and making it readily available to students and staff alike through eMail, telephone, and the web.

Talisma, a maker of sophisticated CRM software for schools, offers its own solutions that integrate chat, eMail, and internet self-service to help answer inquiries.

With most students using the internet as their primary means of research and communication, statistics show that chat yields a higher rate of satisfaction than the telephone, Talisma says–and it enables real-time responses to inquiries with less cost and effort.

Developing relationships

With help from Talisma’s CRM software, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln reportedly has increased its student enrollment by nearly 20 percent over the past two years. Once the province of businesses, CRM software is being used by a growing number of colleges and universities to build personalized, one-on-one relationships with prospects, current students, and alumni to help achieve enrollment goals, fund-raising targets, and so on.

Talisma’s software allows schools to easily capture, analyze, and leverage information on prospects, students, alumni, and other stakeholders, the company says. Users can create automate proactive marketing campaigns and communication plans; manage and automate multi-step workflow plans for reaching out to (and following up with) various groups of constituents; automate the response and routing of eMail replies to queries; facilitate real-time, one-on-one chat sessions with stakeholders; and analyze the effectiveness of all such efforts once they’re completed.

“With today’s powerful integration and automation technologies, universities can send out letters, eMails, and start calling prospects nearly as fast as they can get their database filled with PSAT names,” said Jill Lindenbaum, a spokeswoman for Talisma. “What’s new here is & that technology is finally helping higher-education institutions relate to their students and prospects better, while cutting costs.”

CRM software enables schools to deliver a more personalized experience for prospects, Lindenbaum said–which can pay off in terms of enrollment.

With Talisma’s software, “we can truly differentiate how we interact with our prospective students–with the goal of developing lifelong relationships,” said Deanna Miller, coordinator of information management for UN-Lincoln. The technology, she said, is helping school officials “better manage our recruitment efforts and yield more fruit from … that area.”

‘One-stop’ college sites help students find, apply to schools

Admissions officers and others interested in the college-application process are monitoring the development of one-stop, state-wide web sites that streamline the college enrollment process for prospective students and their parents.

The need for such accessible information was underscored not long ago by the plight of one mother in Georgia.

With her first child headed for college this fall and two more soon to follow, Carol Wright was lost. Campus tours, applications, financial aid forms, transcripts, SAT scores, class planning–and that was just the beginning.

“It’s unbelievable,” the Carrollton, Ga., mother said. “You don’t know where to start or what to do. It’s trial and error, at the mercy of everybody telling me what to do.”

Then she heard about Georgia’s year-old web site, gacollege411.org–a one-stop shop for applying to the state’s colleges and requesting financial aid. Modeled after a similar site in North Carolina, Georgia’s already has registered more than 100,000 students and families in just 18 months.

Georgia is now among about 35 states with such sites, an effort by education officials to make college more accessible by demystifying the daunting application process while making it easier for students to enroll in schools within their borders.

The $1.5 million site includes free preparation classes for the SAT college-entrance exam, a class planner for students entering high school, applications to more than 100 colleges, virtual campus tours, and information on getting one of the state’s full-ride, lottery-funded scholarships.

Most states’ sites have information on every college in the state–both public and private–and what kind of programs are offered.

But they do have private-sector competition, such as princetonreview.com.

Rob Franek, publisher of Princeton Review, said his company’s site has many of the same features but takes a national perspective. It also includes annual rankings based on student surveys about quality-of-life issues.

“We’re unapologetic listeners to student opinion,” Franek said.

But some state sites offer advantages unavailable elsewhere, including the ability to apply electronically for state-sponsored scholarships. For the individual states, the sites also help standardize admissions technologies and directly support efforts to bolster access to college.

North Carolina’s cfnc.org, which launched in 2000, has been credited with helping increase the state’s college-enrollment rate from 57 percent to 68 percent of high school graduates.

“What we were trying to do is level the playing field,” said Bobby Kanoy, senior associate vice president for academic and student affairs with the University of North Carolina system. “We had to get that information in the hands of students and parents who otherwise wouldn’t have thought about going to college.”

On the majority of the sites, students must register to get access to the features. Once they register, they have an account that they can monitor and update throughout high school, which makes applying for college as simple as a few clicks of the mouse. Students can submit applications, letters of recommendation, transcripts, and financial aid forms all electronically.

North Carolina, which spends about $1 million a year to maintain its site, has 1.3 million students and families registered for accounts. That’s up from just 14,000 after the site’s first year.

“It’s very helpful,” said 19-year-old Jessica Priddy of Eaton, N.C., who used cnfc.org to help determine that she wanted to attend the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, where she is now a sophomore.

The trend of one-stop college web sites reportedly began in California in 1996, when the 23-campus California State University (CSU) system saw a need to fill in the gap left by a shortage of college counselors in high schools. Allison Jones, assistant vice chancellor of academic affairs for the Cal State system, said csumentor.edu cut down on the red tape involved in applying to college and reduced the amount of paper required to admit students.

CSU now prints only 100,000 applications, compared with several million before the web site. Close to 98 percent of the 500,000 applications received are through the site, she said.

— From staff and wire reports