Leveraging Data to Energize Your Enrollment Strategy

Top-of-the-funnel (TOTF) data empowers your school to understand and overcome its recruiting challenges. To stay competitive in this supercharged higher education recruiting environment, you have to understand the full prospective student cycle. That starts with an intimate knowledge of your data and the higher education enrollment funnel.

Academics love data. The scientific method — making and recording observations — forms the foundation of academic culture. So, you’d think that most higher ed institutions would naturally favor a data-driven approach to achieve big goals and further top priorities like recruiting that next freshman class. Unfortunately, that’s not the case on most college campuses.


We’ve previously discussed how a more business-forward approach can help colleges and universities succeed. Accelerating that shift to a more business-oriented marketing approach can help your school leverage its available data to be more successful on the recruiting trail.

How to Use Top-Of-The-Funnel Data Effectively in Higher Education

Knowing as much as possible about who is coming to your school site, why, and how they’re navigating their digital experiences can provide all kinds of insights into the habits and interests of your prospective students. This knowledge can be instrumental in helping schools achieve their marketing and recruiting goals.
Before we dive into how to use your TOTF data to better guide your marketing decisions, we should define what “top of the funnel” data is.

The top of your higher education enrollment funnel is every prospective student who shows interest in your school. And how do you know they’ve shown interest? By tracking who visits your website. The data generated by your website visitors is that top-of-the-funnel data.

Top-of-the-funnel data can help your school:

  • Forecast enrollment
  • Identify holes in your recruiting funnel
  • Diagnose and fix website performance issues
  • Inform decisions about your academic offerings

Forecast Your Enrollment Numbers

If you know how many top-of-the-funnel visitors you need to fill each specific academic program, you can plan more effectively and deploy your marketing resources more efficiently.

Let’s say you need to fill 25 student seats for a specific academic program. If you’ve been tracking similar degree offerings, you might already know that you’ll need several thousand TOTF visitors (maybe 10,000) to your website to generate the required interest. That insight should give you at least a comfortable starting point for your marketing plan: 10,000 visits > 100 requests for information (RFIs) > 50 applications > 25 student offers > 9 matriculated students.

Defining that target means you can now tailor your marketing strategies and tactics to appropriate channels with reasonable estimations for returns on your efforts. You should also remember to track your actual performance against your projections. This will help you optimize your model, lead to more precise accurate projections and further refine your decision making.

Finding the Leak in Your Higher Education Enrollment Funnel

Having a proven working model based on real data can also help you find trouble spots further down the funnel.

If you know your digital strategy is working and you’re getting enough visitors to your site but you’re still struggling to fill seats, the problem might be elsewhere. If it’s not at the top, the next logical place to look is the middle.

The middle of the funnel is where your prospective students have signaled interest in your school (RFI or viewing the campus visit page) and need to be convinced that your school is the right place for them. Many schools struggle with the “closing” mindset that’s appropriate for this stage of recruitment. They eschew the sales cycle language and fail to act purposefully in response to clear “buy” signals.

This reluctance to be more results-driven in your interactions with prospective students is a missed opportunity.

Identifying and Applying Website Fixes

Of course, the problem in the middle of the funnel doesn’t have to be people. It can just as easily be the website — or, website content, to be more precise.

Analyzing and understanding user pathways throughout your prospects’ consideration journey is extremely valuable. These insights allow you to optimize and tailor the recruiting process for academic programs that might need a little boost. Creating that frictionless, predictable pathway for prospective students can go a long way to improving the health of an academic program.

Following the data also helps you to identify dead ends or content problems that stand in the way of a smooth user experience. For example, you might create a pathway that requires prospects to hit three specific pages. If they’re making it past the first page but dropping off before getting to the third, you might take a look at the second page and see what could be blocking users from moving forward.

Informing Academic Programming Decisions

Having that TOTF data to mine for insights and comparisons takes a lot of the guesswork out of balancing your school’s mix of academic programs.

Just because recruits aren’t flooding your perfectly set up conversion funnel doesn’t always mean there’s more optimization to do. Sometimes, an academic program has just reached the end of its usefulness. Diving into the data can help make that call easier. If there are no problems at the top, middle or bottom of the funnel, it may just be a product problem.

On the other hand, understanding general user patterns can help you better calibrate the launch of new academic programs. If you’re looking to bolster the academic portfolio of the business school with a logistics or supply chain degree, you could look to the enrollment funnel used for the project management degree as a starting point. Since the prospects for these programs have similar interests, they’re likely to follow the same user patterns.

Prerequisites for Website Data Application

Your website is your flagship marketing asset. Odds are that before any of your prospective students schedule a campus visit or submit an application, they’ll visit your website to learn about your institution.

But, before you can use the data your users generate, you have to collect it. And that’s sometimes easier said than done. Most schools experience two types of problems in implementing a more data-driven approach to marketing. One is technical, the other structural.

One Website, Not Twenty

Many higher ed websites are a patchwork of smaller departmental websites. They may be built by different teams, using different platforms and feature vastly different content management systems and user experiences.

The main trouble with a patchwork websites is that the various components have trouble communicating with each other. This makes tracking your website visitors difficult, if not impossible.

What causes this communication breakdown?

Many university websites were initially created by the school’s IT staff. And, in many cases, the IT department retains responsibility for maintaining and supporting the school website. The priorities of the more technically oriented IT department heads are different from those of, say, the marketing department.

It makes sense. If your job is to ensure the website works, you orient your work processes to keep the site operational. However, if your hope is to use your website as a powerful marketing force, your critical needs expand to optimizing and tracking the digital experiences of your visitors.

That starts with a school website that’s not just functional but also user friendly and easy to track. And, in many cases, this outcome requires an overhaul or a redesign of your school website.

Bring the Data Discussion to Where It Matters

Let’s say you have your website in order. You’re all set up to track user pathways from beginning to end of the journey. What else do you need to do to take advantage of your newly found wealth of data?

You have to leverage those data points to understand the full breadth of the user experience on your site. And then you have to make sure those insights are used to inform critical conversations.

Many schools with a beautiful, modern website still struggle to use their website data effectively. Why? Because there is rarely one person who owns TOTF data cradle-to-grave. Most of the time, user data is requested from higher ed marketing teams in the context of specific programs or departments. Many schools simply don’t have anyone asking about or considering the digital experiences of prospective students, which covers a lengthy buying cycle from recruitment through admission and campus onboarding.

And if there is someone with a holistic overview of the entire prospective student user journey, rather than one that is program- or department-specific, that person is frequently poorly positioned to impact the conversation or influence decision making.
One way to correct this problem is by ensuring that the TOTF data discussion is elevated to your school’s enrollment management team. That’s best accomplished by adding a marketing analyst well-versed in applying TOTF data to this cross-functional group.

Making the Most of Your Top-Of-The-Funnel Data

Bottom line, schools can no longer afford to ignore website data. Excluding top-of-the-funnel data from your marketing dialogue severely handicaps your ability to make influential decisions. And that has a huge impact on the middle and bottom of your school’s higher education enrollment funnel.

If your programs are tracking an unexpected dip, you need to know why. And that exact pain point is a great opportunity to introduce and implement a more structured, data-driven evaluation process for your school’s marketing and recruitment efforts.