WilmU: Engaging Nontraditional Students
Wilmington University (WilmU) is a private, non-profit, four-year institution. WilmU’s population is comprised mainly of nontraditional students. As a result, the university’s programs are tailored to be flexible, many completely online, for students. The university offers more than 130 academic programs, from the associate to the doctoral level. Further, The Chronicle of Higher Education named it one of the top five fastest-growing universities in the country.
WilmU’s admissions staff were having problems with student engagement. While they were gaining more applicants, they struggled to build a personal connection with them. Simply, applicants were not responding to admissions outreach efforts that had worked well in the past. For example, campaigns sent via email, outbound calls, and direct mail saw little to no response/engagement.
Student surveys showed that they wanted more personal, two-way conversations rather than one-way outbound calls, direct mailings, and emails. Because these nontraditional students often work while going to school, students also wanted to be reached non-intrusively so they could respond at their convenience.
Recently, WilmU launched a Guided Pathways student success program that relied on a strong new student onboarding experience. Admissions staff agreed that it was crucial that students understood from the start what would be expected of them from the start of their academic journey to the end. Beyond in-person meetings, staff wanted a way to nudge students to keep them on their pathway.
As a result of these conversations with students and university-wide changes, WilmU staff chose to work with Signal Vine to begin two-way, non-intrusive, personal communication.
The admissions team led the effort to implement Signal Vine at WilmU. The process was two-fold. WilmU created a new services unit in the admissions department with specific staff designated as “specialists.” These individuals went beyond responding to students’ questions. They also took a proactive approach by reaching out to students to remind them of deadlines, requirements, and steps they needed to take. WilmU provided the specialists the Signal Vine platform to use for outreach. This helped to streamline the admissions process. Currently, WilmU texts around 3,000 applicants and newly enrolled students.
Since staff began using the Signal Vine platform, engagement rates with students have steadily increased. In Fall 2018, the engagement rate on the platform was 30.5%. This means that 30.5% of students had responded to at least one message sent through the platform. By Fall 2019, that number soared to 57.1%.
Before staff used texting as a form of outreach, they found it challenging to get students to send in their transcripts. This was a huge problem for staff as WilmU’s conversion rate was 31 percent higher for students who submitted their transcripts early. Staff used texting to help combat this problem. They texted students a message that both thanked students for applying and reminded them to send in their transcripts. Now, staff report a record number of transcripts to process.
WilmU’s staff also note their confidence in using Signal Vine instead of phones or email. Essentially, they note, texting provides 24/7 help. Students aren’t getting a busy signal or a voice mailbox if they text a question after hours. Rather, because students know they are texting after hours, they expect a delay. As a result, they are happy to wait for a response because they know they will reach a human who will pick up the conversation and help. Staff note that this has worked much better than email outreach.
Another unique result of implementing texting is improved employee morale. In any busy admissions department, employee burnout is almost inevitable. At WilmU, staff expressed that they wanted to know that they were helping students. They wanted to see firsthand the results of their work. Texting has helped them do that. Staff can now receive immediate feedback from students on what they need, and students express their gratitude directly to the staff helping them. In turn, this has helped combat burnout in the admissions department.
Wilmington University staff attribute their engagement rate improvements to several best practices:
- Acknowledging where a participant is in the enrollment funnel by personalizing introduction messages and providing specific next step instructions relevant to them.
- Engaging participants during WilmU’s rolling admissions/multiple start time schedules by sending out registration nudges at four and two weeks prior to the start of the term.
- Dividing programs into groups that can be shared across multiple staff teams throughout the university.
Adding two-way texting into our outreach arsenal has made the admissions process conversation with our prospective students so much more accessible and responsive. We often receive feedback from students confirming how impressed and appreciative they are that we are personally engaging them this way.
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