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McCauley on Building Enrollment: The “Right Student”

Here’s my take on the famous exchange from Alice in Wonderland: 


“Would you tell me, please, how I can market my program to students?"
"That depends a good deal on which students you want to get to."
"I don't much care which ones –"
"Then it doesn't matter how you market.”

Every successful marketing effort is targeted at a specific audience or in this case, specific types of students.  The days of mass marketing are rapidly disappearing. In the business world they speak of “riches in niches.”  In other words, even if our product has value for a wide range of people, reaching them with our value proposition means recognizing them as individuals and developing marketing strategies based on their individual characteristics – values, lifestyle, interests, etc. 

While we may believe that every student would benefit from our classes, whether it’s accounting, marketing, or principles, the truth is we need to focus.  Both our marketing message and our program design need to recognize that not all students (and their influencers) are the same. A shotgun approach is not very effective.  A targeted design, more likely to be successful, requires us to carefully define our market -- our audience of students, parents, and others who influence student choice.

Targeting calls for a bit of planning.  There are several target audiences we must address.  The primary concern is our final consumer—our students.  Can we identify our “ideal” student?  Perhaps even create a “student profile” similar to a customer profile created by a business.

Does the perfect student for our program . . .

  • Have a certain GPA?
  • Have parents with a certain level of education?
  • Demonstrate involvement in extra-curricular activities?
  • Have specific courses on their schedule?
  • Hold leadership position in other organizations?
  • Male or female?
  • Have a part-time job?
  • At a certain grade level?


You get the point.  These and many other characteristics can be used to segment the school population into a targeted audience for our marketing efforts. Key to this exercise is being certain that each of the characteristics used to define our ideal student has meaning in terms of our program design and marketing efforts. For example, a glaring omission in the above list, which I hope you noticed up front, is career interest.  And, we need to keep in mind that the profile of a student interested in an accounting program may be quite different from that of the would-be entrepreneur, or of those planning college majors in HR, management, marketing, or other business administration options.

Your student profile on which to base your initial marketing and communications strategies might end up looking something like this:

  • Female
  • 10th grade
  • 3.0 or higher GPA
  • Member of at least one school club or extra-curricular activity
  • Parents who own a business or have professional positions in business
  • Older siblings who have been successful in our program


Or, something like this:

  • Took the 9th grade personal finance course
  • Plans to major in business in college
  • 10th grade
  • 2.5 GPA, but does better in elective courses
  • Works part-time which prevents much extra-curricular activity


Or, maybe:

  • Identified by counselors as potential school dropout
  • Low GPA, but tests indicate high potential
  • Dislikes “regular” classes, but excels in some electives
  • Views school as irrelevant and want to get “out there”


There is, obviously I hope, no right ideal student profile.  My point here is that each of these profiles represents a very different student.  Students who fit one are will likely respond to different program offerings, different marketing messages, and different value propositions.  

Once you’ve identified your target students you will also have to consider the “influencers” in their life.  Friends, parents, counselors, etc. who will sway their course selections must be factored into your marketing efforts. That makes the actual marketing a little tricky.  Just as the message to a potential student is different based on that student’s profile, so too is the message to those who will help him or her decide what courses to take.  Are the parents thinking “Save my kid.” or are they thinking “Help my kid get into a selective college’s business administration program.”  Are the counselors looking for a way to serve problem students, or are they looking to help that would-be entrepreneur get a jump start?

The big question: Why bother? Many of you have full classes.  Your enrollment is fine.  Numbers are never a problem.  I’ve been there, and I’ve been with those of you who wonder if you have enrollment sufficient to retain your job.  We bother because it matters.

  • It matters because teaching a class full of students who want to be there is a better experience for everyone. 
  • It matters because teaching students with a desire to learn allows you to go in depth with your instruction. 
  • It matters because preparing for the various CTSO competitions will be stress-free with targeted students.
  • It matters because we want to serve students. Business is not for everyone, but for those who find their future in business—we have an obligation to seek them out and to serve them.   


There is another reason why targeting students for recruitment is critical.  One hallmark of a prestigious university is the percentage of applicants they accept. Harvard accepts less than 6% of all applicants, while many lesser-known colleges accept up to 80% of all applicants.

We generally accept everyone who signs up.  Can you imagine the difference in the quality of your program, your experience and the experiences of your students, if you recruited rather than “accepted” students?  Nearly everything we dislike about teaching disappears if we have students with a sincere interest in what we teach, and the willingness and ability to accept the challenges we present.

I wonder what would happen if we offered our classes “by application” only?  Although doing so is probably not an option for most of you, what if we designed our programs and our marketing strategies as if it were?  In effect, use what we know about business to build demand for our business programs.  Then, make certain that we do everything possible to help the “right” student be successful and to encourage the others to find programs better suited to their needs. 

Targeting students for our entry level courses may be a particular challenge. If so, perhaps we encourage the world to enroll in that first principles of business course and then use that course as a way to determine who has the essential skills and attitudes to succeed in the more advanced and specialized offerings.

Speak up!  Across the nation, the number of business and marketing programs continues to shrink. At the same time, business administration remains the number one college major of choice and business careers represent the number one or two largest career opportunity.  Let’s keep talking until we figure how to align this mismatch.  Let’s continue the conversation:  www.Facebook.com/MBAResearch