The Value to Universities in Balancing New Student Experience with Recruitment

August 6, 2021

Boosting enrollment numbers is always at the forefront of most universities’ strategic recruitment plans. Yet vital to an institute’s long-term success is to avoid turning a blind eye to a naturally necessary counterpart – fostering positive new student experiences. New research tells us that this often neglected “stepchild” could hold several keys to ensuring a university’s sustained growth.

Beyond initial admission, higher rates of satisfied freshman—via positive new student experiences—directly contribute to higher retention rates at universities. While the more obvious outcome is that this guarantees more stable financial returns, in the long run, it also fortifies messaging for the university’s branding, prospects, and overall perception via both traditional communication channels (e.g. word of mouth) and digital channels (e.g. social media, online reviews).

The Association of Heads of University Administration (AHUA), in its guidance for educational institutions, recommends that institutes need to focus more resources on new student experiences in order to maintain continued growth, especially in challenging environments like those caused by the COVID-19 pandemic (PA Consulting, 2020). They recommend using an omni-channel approach which “ensure[s] we can serve [new students] on and/or offline, and allow them to switch seamlessly in-between” various channels, and tailoring the on-boarding and engagement experience for new students by building in support between prospective applicants and existing students. Specifically:

A digital onboarding service – [that] helps ensure clear communications and engagement with applicants and students. This builds a bond. We’d expect this service to include:

  • a countdown to becoming an undergraduate.
  • a virtual campus to explore.
  • guides on accommodation and finance.
  • a buddy matching service creating vital connections.
  • Equally important is for administrators to understand the experiential needs of Generation Z and the growing number of adult and online learners seeking enrollment.

    In RNL’s 2019 National Freshman Motivation to Complete College Report, a similar finding is shared in 1 of the report’s 8 key strategies aimed to help institutions with engaging their newest students. The study, which surveyed 95,000+ entering freshmen, identified that a significantly higher percentage of incoming freshman requested assistance in meeting new friends. This number has increased by 17% in 2018 to 73% of freshman surveyed, compared to 56% in 2013 (Ruffalo, 2019).

    The findings suggest that “‘meeting friends’ is a top desire for incoming students, including being introduced to experienced students who can offer education and career advice”. It is vital for educational organizations to foster channels that allow students to make campus-based in-person connections (e.g. extra-curricular activities, societies and clubs) in addition to digital connections via online channels (e.g. peer-to-peer networks, social media). The Value of “peer power”, the report finds, is the power of enlisting “currently enrolled students as peer leaders/mentors in helping connect your newest students to your community in both face-to-face interactions during orientation and virtual experiences online and through social media” (Ruffalo, 2019).

    Today, as universities continue to evolve their recruitment strategies, it is vital to recognize that recruitment and new student experiences can no longer operate in a vacuum—they are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they have a mutually reinforcing relationship. As a result, as universities evolve with their strategies, an effective recruitment strategy must focus on creating a seamless experience for the prospect who transforms into a freshman by using a variety of tools from both the traditional and digital toolboxes that are available to institutions.

    PA Consulting. “Focus on Student Experience to Succeed in These Uncertain Times.” Association of Heads of University Administration AHUA,
    Ruffalo Noel Levitz (2019). 2019 National Freshman Motivation to Complete College Report. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Ruffalo Noel Levitz. Retrieved from All material in this document is copyright © 2019 by Ruffalo

    Our latest news