Does it Take More than Good Information to Enroll Students?

Admissions officials for both traditional and nontraditional programs have often heard that the fit between institution and student is most important factor in admissions. Getting good information out to prospective students has been seen as a primary tool for recruiting them. But in this difficult economy, institutions that would achieve success must do much more than just inform prospective students of the programs available to them.

College and university marketing departments often do an excellent job of disseminating information about their academic and extracurricular offerings. Marketing communication strategies follow a predictable pattern: Advertising by mass media, personalized direct mail or email often drives prospective students to the college’s website where they can get detailed information on the program of their choice. This can help traditional and nontraditional students who know they want to go to college find out the information they need to make an informed decision. 

Unfortunately, what it rarely does is persuade anyone to actually enroll. Researchers Herbert Hyman and Paul Sheatsley of the American Association for Public Opinion Research discovered years ago that information campaigns often fail to effectively impart ideas, much less inspire action. In fact, according to Stanford Graduate of Business Professor Chip Heath and his coauthor, information designed to persuade the intellect can actually deter prospects from taking action.

Detailed factual information can actually inhibit action

The authors described a controlled study. College students were paid five $1 bills for completing a task. Inside the envelope containing the money was a donation request from the Save the Children foundation. The study was designed to measure what kind of message would best move college students to action – in this case by donating some of the money they had just been paid. One letter outlined convincing facts and figures that showed the critical need to prevent malnutrition among African children. The other message was designed to appeal to the emotions. It described the serious problems facing one African child, Rokia, with a request to help her and others like her.  

The results were quite revealing. Those who read the statistics contributed an average of $1.14. Those who read the heart-rending problems faced by a single child donated more than twice as much, averaging $2.38. Interestingly, when other students were given both sets of information – the statistics and Rokia’s story - were they inspired to give more? On the contrary, they gave less – just $1.43 on average! Adding facts and figures to a personal story designed to evoke emotion actually lessened its effectiveness, cutting the response rate nearly in half. 

This lesson was put to a rather cynical use by the tobacco industry, which used the “anti-vilification” clause in the 46-state tobacco lawsuit settlement to pull a highly effective emotion-based nonsmoking ad (The Truth Campaign) in favor of an ad with the tag line, “Think, Don’t Smoke.” A survey published in The American Journal of Public Health found that teenagers who saw The Truth Campaign ads were 66% less likely to smoke. However, those who saw the “Think, Don’t Smoke” ads were 36% more likely to smoke. The appeal to the rational thinking side of teenagers’ brains produced an effect that was the opposite of what the anti-smoking marketers intended.  

Now, determining whether or not to enroll at college can be less life-altering than a decision on smoking. It is far more consequential for the decision-maker than the choice of whether or not to donate to a worthwhile charity. But from the marketing communications perspective, these examples show that just providing good information to a target audience can clearly backfire. The manner in which colleges provide information to prospects can make a big difference in whether or not they are moved to inquire, apply or enroll.

Why does information dissemination seem to work?

The information campaign approach taken by many colleges does accomplish one thing. It helps the institution “pick some low-hanging fruit” by attracting those who have already decided to further their education and have that institution on their short-list. But for every prospect committed to going to that college there are several others who would consider it, or are considering it, with a much smaller degree of certainty. They may be good future prospects – but undergraduate, graduate and continuing education admissions professionals need to cultivate their interest, often through one to one communication.  There are some important psychological principles to keep in mind in doing this, and some institutions have benefited from creative, low-cost ways to employ them. Stay tuned.

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