In a normal year, most high school juniors would be receiving daily entreaties in the mail from colleges to “find their destiny.” But this year, for many students, it’s crickets. The source of the river of traditional undergraduate marketing has, to some extent, dried up, and institutions have been forced to pivot toward new methods of engagement.

With fewer students in physical schools and taking standardized tests, fewer students are checking the boxes that allow them to be seen in college searches. A sizeable swath of students may simply be invisible to the traditional search marketing machine of higher education—and this poses considerable problems for students and institutions alike.

At Eduventures, the intelligence from most of our clients is that inquiries are down this year, sometimes quite significantly. Thus, a constant concern about reaching so-called “stealth students,” those that only make themselves known to an institution upon application, is a crucial consideration. Many institutions are facing fewer students in the tops of their enrollment funnels. While it follows that some of the absent students may be sitting on the sidelines of college search, others are simply unseen and must be engaging in college search on their own terms.

Those unseen are disproportionately underserved students from diverse urban schools that were remote this fall—often where access to standardized testing was also impacted by the pandemic. Eduventures research on seniors applying to college during COVID-19 shows that urban students were far more likely to have had fully remote schooling during COVID and thus suffer communication difficulties with their school counselors: 42% of urban students were remote in the fall in our national survey. Remote urban students represent 31% of all students.

Their disparities become clear when you compare this important segment to another very different segment, the suburban student for whom hybrid instruction was the most common form of instruction (52%), representing 11% of all students.

 

Table 1. Urban/Remote vs. Suburban/Hybrid High School Seniors, Fall 2020

 Urban / RemoteSuburban / Hybrid
Concerned about applying during COVID66%57%
Test confident (will take & submit)51%64%
Difficulty taking standardized tests54%41%
First-generation73%64%
Income less than $100K67%82%
Underserved minority51%24%
A or A+ student32%40%

 

Urban remote students are far more concerned about applying during COVID, less confident about testing, and have had greater difficulty taking standardized tests this year. Urban remote students are also disproportionately first-generation and underserved minorities.

If this large group of students is not sitting for the SAT or ACT—or otherwise attending school in-person where they may have other opportunities to opt in to search—they won’t be seen by schools. These students are slipping beneath the radar of traditional college search. They’ll be left to undertake their own searches on their own terms as stealth applicants.

This suits some students just fine; they have the support of family and schools. For others, it leaves them entirely at sea. This year’s stealth applicants are both stealth by choice and stealth by historical accident.

What is to be done?

Smart institutions already recognize that stealth applicants are engaged in search in other ways than through traditional search. Eduventures Student Sentiment Survey™ reveals how students became aware of colleges prior to COVID-19. Figure 1 shows that college email has registered with students as the primary driver of awareness regardless of the number of access factors a student has. (As a reminder, we consider being low-income, first-generation, or being a member of an underserved minority an access factor.)

 

Sources that Made Students Aware of Specific Colleges During Search (Pre-COVID)Figure 1.

 

Now, with a potentially high degree of stealth applicants, traditional methods of push marketing (like email and print) will be less effective given the decrease in inquiry volume at the top of the funnel. But the data shows that students learn about colleges in other ways that colleges can factor into their lead generation strategies.

Figure 1 shows that students with no access factors rely heavily on family and friends for advice on colleges. These are the more traditional stealth applicants who are going to seek you out. Students with three access factors rely on high school counselors and teachers to a greater extent. These are the students for whom your connections to feeder schools are critical.

All students, regardless of access status, will engage with your website, pore over online guides, and get on social media.

The Bottom Line: No Easy Answers, Four Interwoven Strategies

There simply are no easy answers to working with stealth applicants except to try to see them and meet them where they are. This year, engaging them is more important than ever. Your team must be creative and inventive about stimulating this engagement. Consider bringing these four strategies together to build student engagement in your enrollment funnel:

Make your search as strategic as possible.

Now more than ever, institutions should dig deeply into the data science to uncover their best-fit students and identify those who have a better chance at converting into inquiries.

Make your search count with resonant messaging.

It’s pretty much a guarantee that those students who are receiving email and mail are receiving a lot of it; the battle to stand out has intensified. This year especially, your messaging must be on point and memorable. Make sure your communications team reviews email and print messaging with the current environment in mind. How can you adjust your segmentation given the circumstances? What would this look like for certain key segments? Give extra attention to the discipline of concisely, visually, and emotionally impactful messages.

Maximize your digital strategies to engage students.

Students are on social media and the internet learning about colleges on their own terms. Make sure that you have robust digital strategies to find and engage students on the right platforms for your institution. Strategies like custom audience targeting, search engine marketing, and advertising on emerging media platforms like TikTok and YouTube can serve content to students and drive them to your website. Convert students to true inquiries by reaching them consistently on their most-used platforms and drive them to custom landing pages.

Recommit to grass-roots work to reach students in their communities.

This may be the most important strategy. Many students may never know you exist, or even engage in college search at all, if you don’t work to stimulate the process in the high school community. Reconsider what your important feeder schools and communities need and strategize how to strengthen ties to counselors, schools, and families during this time. What kind of information and support is needed and how can you share it?

 

In the end, stealth applications are only stealth because many systems aren’t optimized to their fullest extent. Students are out there searching for colleges on their own terms, perhaps more so than ever this year. While this may be the year of the stealth applicant, we should also acknowledge that there have always been stealth students. The need to find unseen students made invisible by the pandemic has made traditional college marketing more challenging for important student segments. What we now call “stealth” may become more common: all the more reason to find strategic ways to engage students on their terms.

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Kim Reid

Eduventures Principal Analyst at ACT | NRCCUA
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