The Impact of Marketing on Student Retention

An alarming amount of students have attended college and don’t have a degree or certificate to show for it. In fact, according to research conducted by the National Student Clearinghouse over the past 20 years, more than 31 million students have enrolled in college, yet left before earning their credentials. Almost one-third of this population had only a minimal interaction with the higher education system, having enrolled for just a single term at a single institution.

Improving retention and completion rates can, in turn, improve affordability and effectiveness, which in the eyes of post-traditional students, can make all the difference in getting them in, out, and on with their careers. By getting to know students more intimately during the marketing process and continuing to implement marketing strategies across the student life cycle, schools can better understand students’ needs and tailor outreach efforts to support them from start to finish.

The Importance of Marketing Now and Later

Marketing not only affects the first stage of the student life cycle, it has an increasingly important role throughout the duration of a student’s educational journey. Marketing communications can have a noticeable impact on student retention rates, creating opportunities to motivate students to start, stay, and, if necessary, even re-engage.

By tailoring campaigns and messages based on behavioral data and engaging in consistent communications over time, institutions can give students the tools and encouragement necessary to keep them progressing throughout their studies. Marketing campaigns must determine the right mix of messaging and cadence to recruit the most qualified prospects, and also retain those students through graduation. From a messaging perspective, institutions are more effective when they focus on themes that are relevant both now and later to reinforce their commitment to student support and student success.

Marketing During the Enrollment Process

Marketing allows schools to get to know students and predict where and when they might need additional support along the way. In this early stage at enrollment, it’s important to document as much information and behavioral data as possible. Instructors, coaches, advisors, and others who interact with students once they are enrolled then will have substantial background information to act on—and a solid basis for understanding—students’ individual paths and potential obstacles. This is especially important for post-traditional learners, many of whom enter college with work and family commitments that can hinder or interrupt their academic paths.

During the enrollment process, institutions can employ a variety of both personalized and automated marketing communication strategies (using direct mail, email, phone, and social media) in order to accomplish the following:

  1. Get to know the student on a personal level
  2. Identify risks or red flags that could impede a student’s path to graduation
  3. Discuss communication preferences
  4. Clearly define goals and expectations for the student
  5. Collaborate on support resources that are available and applicable to the student

Marketing Throughout the Educational Journey

The marketing process evolves once a student enrolls. In fact, all of the information that has been collected up to this point now becomes even more actionable, allowing those who interact with and support students to assess behavioral data, history, progress, red flags, and status, and therefore to engage in both personalized and automated outreach efforts accordingly.

Continuing to market to enrolled students through direct mail, email, phone, and social media campaigns can reinforce expectations, milestones, and support options—all in an effort to provide motivation and encouragement. Proactive campaigns and marketing communications to enrolled students allow institutions to:

  1. Keep the dialog going
  2. Assess whether or not a student needs additional support
  3. Gauge the likelihood that a student is planning to enroll in the following term
  4. Intervene with additional resources (i.e., tutoring, financial aid, career advising)

Remarketing to Students Who Have Withdrawn Early

Marketing strategies can help institutions keep track of students who may not have enrolled in a subsequent term and re-engage them. Remarketing strategies can help schools find out why students may have withdrawn early and develop action plans specific to students’ needs. This is of particular importance in encouraging post-traditional students who may have left college due to life commitments, but still have the drive and desire to return when the time is right. Campaigns and messaging ideally should focus on: reminding students why they enrolled in the first place, supporting resources that are available, and specifying initiatives that have spurred student achievement.

Using Technology to Streamline the Process

Institutions that use innovative technology and big data benefit from the ability to make strategic decisions and produce more streamlined marketing campaigns that can have a true impact on student retention. Technology that captures the appropriate data can be used as a go-to resource when creating campaigns. That same data can then be transferred into other platforms through the student life cycle to continue capturing information and making it actionable to improve ongoing communication that can increase retention rates.

The End Result

The behavioral data a school collects both in the initial inquiry process and through ongoing marketing campaigns is invaluable to the student retention process. It helps schools deliver more personalized learning experiences that drive results, which in turn reinforces what is perhaps a school’s strongest marketing message – its student success stories.

Marketing throughout the student life cycle maximizes interaction with students on a regular basis, whether during the inquiry process, once enrolled, or upon dropping out. It’s this ongoing outreach that boosts retention rates and ultimately helps improve affordability and effectiveness – not just for students, but for schools too. After all, it’s far less expensive for a school to retain an existing student compared to finding and enrolling a new one.


Kara Snyder

As the Director of Corporate Marketing, Kara brings nearly a decade of education marketing insights and experience to Helix Education. Before joining Helix, she worked in enrollment and affiliate marketing, undergraduate and graduate admissions, and student affairs. Kara earned her bachelor’s degree from Temple University.