All posts by Brenda Harms

Free Download | Just Because You Build It, Doesn’t Mean They Will Come

Dr. Brenda Harms is a leading expert in serving adult students within the higher education industry, Harms has assisted dozens of colleges and universities in successfully and strategically growing their enrollment through evaluation of key metrics, implementation of proven processes, design and execution of successful marketing strategy and tactics, and training for both management and staff.

Download the white paper, Just Because You Build It, Doesn’t Mean They Will Come, now. This paper discusses best practices for improving recruitment strategy.

From Yes to Completion – Communication for Student Retention

Adult students make the decision to come back to school. How do we see them through to degree completion?

We’ve developed this tool as a resource for adult student communications. Share this infographic with your recruitment and admissions teams. Print it out. Send a group email. Encourage them to keep these touchpoints in mind.


Looking for more insights on student communications?

Check out our webinar recordings on Recruitment: Communication to Grow Enrollment and Retention: Communication to Assist Students to Completion. Sign up for our upcoming webinar on Authentic v. Automated Communication to discover ways you can do both.

The 7 E’s — A Guide to Adult Student Recruitment

Adult students go back to school for a variety of reasons. We’ve developed this tool as a resource for adult student communications. Share this infographic with your recruitment and admissions teams. Print it out. Send a group email. Encourage them to keep the 7 E’s in mind during their inquiry and applicant follow up.

  • Emphasis
  • Experience
  • Employment
  • Earnings
  • Education
  • Economics
  • Environment

April - A Guide to Adult Student Recruitment

Looking for more insights on recruitment communications?

Check out our webinar recordings on Recruitment: Communication to Grow Enrollment and Retention: Communication to Assist Students to Completion. Sign up for our upcoming webinar on Authentic v. Automated Communication to discover ways you can do both.

How to Secret Shop in Higher Education

posted by Brenda Harms on April 22, 2015 in Converge Blog


Interested in knowing how your recruitment practices compare to your competitors? Suspecting your key messaging points are the same as the school down the street?  Concerned that your approach is costing you students?  One of the best ways to better understand your competitor set is to secret shop them – here’s how.

  1. Identify the six schools you are most interested in better understanding.
  2. Set up an email account purely for the purpose of Secret Shopping.
  3. Using the inquiry form that the majority of schools have online, submit your information.
  4. Submit your inquiries on the same day to compare frequency of communication.
  5. Now sit back and watch the communication come in.

At this stage in the game, I suggest you take the approach of being the “non-responsive” prospective student. It is easy to recruit a student who wants to engage, but sticking with students over time until they are ready to begin a discussion with you is how you increase conversions and enrollment.

Tracking is the key to this effort. Email is easy to track, additionally the majority of schools will leave voicemail messages that should be tracked and recorded daily. I suggest you let your “test” run at least 30 days to truly understand how others are communicating with their prospective students.

Now, you are ready for your analysis:

  1. Chart all points of contact for each school by setting them on a 30-day schedule (I personally find an excel spreadsheet helpful for this process).
  2. Color code calls/emails/mail/text messages to identify the total number of “contact efforts” made in the timeframe.
  3. Track and evaluate content by identifying the key message/messages for each point of communication.
  4. Add your own standard recruitment process to your chart.
  5. Critically evaluate where you land in comparison to frequency, messaging, and overall tone of your communication.

Gathering this information is only helpful if you actually decide to do something with it. Once you understand how others are recruiting, identify three things you are going to do differently at your institution. Add in more digital communication touch-points. Cut down the size of your mailed packet. Increase the number of phone calls you have your recruitment team conduct. Whatever it is – take action.

Check out our webinar recording for Recruitment: Communication to Grow Enrollment for more insights. Interested in secret shopping for competitor analysis, but need additional resources to execute the effort? We can help! Contact us.

Coming Together at CCCU

posted by Brenda Harms on February 25, 2015 in Converge Blog

Since receiving the invitation to speak at The Christian Coalition of Colleges and Universities (CCCU) Conference in Virginia Beach last Summer I have been looking forward to the event.  CCCU is a great organization and what I was particularly interested in was the conference they had structure this year bringing together leadership from Enrollment Management, Academic Affairs, and Marketing for three days of intense discussion around serving adult students.

This conference was particularly interesting to me for a few different reasons.  First – the topic, I’m always excited when higher education professionals take the adult student audience seriously enough to devote conference discussion to it.  Second – the location, in 7 years of non-stop travel I had never been to Virginia Beach.  And third – the audience, rarely do we pull these three groups together in a purposeful way and encourage them all to have the same learning experience and take it in through their individual lens.

Unless you live in a cave you know that Virginia Beach is a great place – but the weather last week was more than a disappointment.  It was bundled in fleece and a wool coat that I stepped off the plane Thursday night to an unusually cold 18 degrees.  I have rarely heard a group of people apologize so much for the cold!  While the location looked lovely – we all enjoyed it watching out the windows only.

The topic and the audience however, more than outperformed expectations.   Adult students are clearly becoming an increasingly important focus for the members of the CCCU group and it was a pleasure to watch the schools more “seasoned” at serving this audience engages in lively discussion with those who have played at the margins but have never invested fully in purposeful engagement.   The lessons shared from the “big winners” in the adult student audience were very valuable and shared with a spirit of camaraderie that shows theses schools true dedication to serving adults well and built on the need to do this by breaking down those infamous “silos” that we so often see in higher education.

As the closing keynote my charge to this group was to sit together at the same table more often.  To bring together the members of teams who may not easily see how their interconnectedness may benefit the institutions work with adult students in higher education but that, with continued dialogue, certainly would.  This will mean engaging with one another in different ways than they may have in the past.    The schools that are members of the CCCU are very well positioned to excel with the adult audience (as several already have) but they need to get moving.  The adult student audience needs to be served in much better ways than we have in the past, this group, with their newfound energy and their efforts to reach beyond their respective areas of the institution just might do it.

If your school is looking to focus growth initiatives around adult or graduate students please join me for a two-part webinar in April where we will look at communicating with prospects to bring them in the door AND to completion.

The Summit for Online Leadership and Strategy – Focus on Student Care

posted by Brenda Harms on January 28, 2015 in Converge Blog

The 2015 Summit for Online Leadership and Strategy, which is put on through a joint partnership between UPCEA and ACE, was held this past week in San Antonio, Texas.  As a first time attendee my expectations were high as several of our clients at Converge Consulting have attended this event and have identified it as one of the best for those leading online programs at their College or University.   While the content and speakers certainly did not disappoint – who can really sneeze at the Under Secretary for the U.S. Department of Education as a keynote just hours before the State of the Union – it was really some of the sessions on “care” for online students that caught my attention.

In considering the evolution of online learning within Higher Education I think our natural inclination is to focus on issues such as state authorization and learning platforms.  While these are important elements it seems that “services for” or “care of” our online students is often an afterthought.   While there were an abundance of sessions related to the high level critical topics offered at this years summit the sessions on serving online students well were packed with those who have realized that offering online programs is just the first step – having the supports in place to serve students well is an entirely different (but equally critical) thing.

As the conference wrapped up with a final keynote presentation by Dr. Michelle Weise with the Christensen Institute we were reminded that disruptive innovation often fits the description due to its servicing of an audience that was not previously able to be served by the traditional system.   While online education certainly fits that description I chuckled for a moment sitting in her presentation.   While Higher Education recognized that it could reach a new audience through a different learning platform (online) we are really just now purposefully looking at how we might need to alter services to ensure they are properly cared for as students

While online learning has been around for over 20 years, it seems the student services piece is just finally taking center stage.  The educational tools for learning have long been available online but the rest of the tools needed to be successful are just now getting the attention they deserve.   I am hopeful that the focus on student care continues to get the time and attention it deserves at this yearly event.   In order to truly focus on educating more students in the future Colleges and Universities MUST improve at taking care of the students they are getting.

New Academic Offerings are No Guarantee of Enrollment Success

posted by Brenda Harms on September 04, 2014 in Converge Blog

I worry sometimes that as marketers and recruiters we have spent so much time lamenting the fact that our academic offerings are old, tired, stale, and exactly what everyone else is offering that we are not ready when the skies finally open and our institutions FINALLY develop a new program.

For those of us who sit in the marketing and recruitment chairs getting the new program approved by the powers that be is simply the starting point of our heavy lifting – and trust me it will be HEAVY lifting. Getting a new program off the ground routinely takes longer than anticipated and the timeframe to recruit the first class is always abbreviated. This is life in higher education – this blog can’t fix that. But we CAN be prepared to hit the ground running in both marketing and recruitment.

  1. Get trained up on this new program (even before it has been approved by the accreditation folks). Find the on-campus champion of this new program and get him or her to spend an hour with your marketing and recruitment team. Be prepared to pepper this person with the types of questions our adult students need answers to. Things like – how long will it take to complete the program, what are some of the “WOW” courses that will be included in the major, what will be the background of the typical adult interested in this offering, and what kind of jobs will these graduates get will launch you into a discussion with faculty that will be hugely beneficial to your work.
  2. Develop (and agree upon) the key points that will be messaged. I urge you to reach consensus between your marketing and recruitment teams because I have seen all too often these two teams not speaking the same language when it comes to communicating with students. Consistency in message (although arguably far greater detail will be provided by a recruiter engaged in a conversation with a prospective student) is hugely important in helping our adult students to understand the benefits of the program.
  3. Prepare the talking points (using data) regarding outcomes.– What jobs will these adult students be eligible for when they graduate with this major?
    – What does the employment forecast look like in your area?
    – How much money can they expect if they land one of these jobs?These are the pieces of information that are critical for both marketing and recruitment to have at the ready to ensure that prospective students are well informed in making their decision about returning to school, and more specifically to this program.
  4. Manage expectations. There is an interesting phenomenon that happens around the rolling out of any new academic program that I like to describe with an analogy of racehorses. On occasion I have been known to urge schools to “put out to pasture” the race horses (academic programs) that have historically done well for the school but just aren’t making the leader board any more. Managing expectations with any new academic program is – in part – keeping people aware of the fact that you rarely are able to just go buy a winning horse (unless of course you have unlimited resources). Most often, winning racehorses are “raised up” over time and take a few years to really prove their worth. In those early days of your new academic program urge leadership to set reasonable enrollment goals for a new program that will need a bit of time to get into the marketplace.
  5. Let people know of your new offering. While this sounds ridiculous to mention I can’t tell you how often I have seen a new program that is almost kept under wraps from past inquiries and current students. Having something new is a huge opportunity to reach out to every inquiry that you have had in the last half-decade. Let those past inquiries know that you have a new offering – and that you would like to connect with them to discuss it. We know that many adult students actually elect to “do nothing” (or not return to school” when they inquired – those folks are still your prospect pool and this new program may be just the thing to get them engaged with you again. Additionally promote your new program internally. While it is true you already have these students in your classes you have no idea who they know, manage, or are married to and this offering may be something that is just perfect for one of their friends.  New offerings also give current students the sense that exciting things are happening at your institution.
  6. Be prepared to shift budget. Most schools never think of providing additional marketing dollars to support the rolling out of a new offering. This leaves the marketing department with the task of making difficult decisions about how to pull resources from other areas to be sure to have the funds to market this option. Invest these limited resources wisely in the mediums we know adults most frequent when they are considering a return to college – the web.

(photo credit)

Great Recruitment is the Answer

With the majority of adult and graduate programs in the nation experiencing a mandate to grow enrollment, those who win will be those who figure out quickly that great recruitment is the answer.  Note I did not say a bigger investment in marketing or more leads (although these may be pieces of the bigger puzzle) – I said great recruitment. Why?

Here is the thing – it is possible for a school to have amazing marketing, it is possible for a school to spend literally millions of dollars using that great marketing to generate leads. The bottom line, however, is pretty simple: RECRUITMENT is what ultimately turns a prospective student on or off when it comes to enrolling at your institution.  

In talking to thousands of graduate and adult students over the years, I have NEVER ONCE heard the statement “I came here because of the amazing marketing” – never once. Nobody (and yes, I’m willing to say NOBODY) spends the time and money going back to school because they were wowed by an ad or tagline – it just does not happen. Sorry marketers – you are not the secret sauce. Your recruitment team is. They (often by name) are the “reason” that most people pick you.

I am fond of saying that marketing does not enroll students, but rather people enroll students. Marketing’s job is to get the attention of the prospect and the people in the recruitment shop are the ones who close the deal. This is a team approach, no doubt. But without recruitment taking care of business, I can promise you that your enrollment will not grow.

Is your institution expecting great things from you in relation to enrollment this year? If yes, I highly suggest you tune in to Converge Consulting’s free webinar, A Midsummer Recruiter’s Dream: How to Heat Up Your Marketing & Recruitment Strategies with Barbara Coward, founder and principal of Enrollment Strategies.

If you are really serious about growing your enrollment this year take it one step further. Grab your marketing guy or gal and your boots, and head to Nashville in October for Converge 2014. The whole conference is focused on marketing for recruitment and it is sure to give you a ton of new ideas and things to try when it comes to growing your enrollment in these competitive times. We would love to see you there.

A Moment of Change

While ‘Own the Moment’ was the theme for the 99th Annual UPCEA National Conference in Miami this week, change was the message that came through over and over in keynote presentations as well as the break-out sessions.

Perhaps most invigorating was the presentation on Thursday morning byDr. Dileep Rao, Clinical Professor of Entrepreneurship at Florida International University, who shared some of his thoughts about the future of higher education and the interesting times that we face.

When speaking of threats to business schools specifically, Dr. Rao provoked the audience by sharing ideas like why ‘old-school’ B-Schools will become New-Age Dinosaurs and perhaps even more damning his belief that 50% of MBA programs will fail in the next 10-15 years.

As Dr. Rao illustrated with examples from a wide range of industries, the reality is that those who are not willing to innovate in fairly big ways may very well fall away as more of the market share is snapped up by those institutions willing to make change.

While the presentation was light and laughter rippled through the crowd, Dr. Rao warned those in the audience that it was time to panic and also time to take action. He posed to those in the audience that he was unsure of which should cause more worry—working at an institution where senior leadership was putting pressure on regarding change, or working at an institution where senior leadership was not putting pressure on.

In this moment of great change, what type of institution do you work for?

The Challenge – The Solution

One of the biggest challenges higher education faces in relation to institutional .edu sites is multiple key audiences. Depending on who you are as a customer (or consumer) of the site, your needs are focused and specific but you are engaged by a website that is not. In many ways higher education websites try too hard to serve too many masters. If you are a 16 year old prospective student, a faculty member, a donor, a trustee, the parent of a current student, a fan of the football team, a prospective graduate student, or a 37 year old adult trying to return to school to finish the bachelors degree you started 20 years ago – you are all directed to the same place. Needless to say, this is a problem.

For decades higher education has taken the approach that consumers of their site would simply search until they found what they are looking for, but more and more we are realizing that is not true, especially as it relates to the highly-competitive adult and graduate student market.

Websites are tremendous marketing tools, and they are also the first line of recruitment. For the adult and graduate student market that is “shopping” online, being unable to find what they are looking for on your website quickly can become a deal breaker. If a prospective adult student can not find what they need on the website, get hung up in the traditional undergraduate admissions requirements, or (worse yet) mistake the residential undergraduate tuition for their own – they move on to one of the six other options they found when they did a Google search.

Clear information presented in a simple easy using a format that intrigues them enough to fill out a request form is the goal; but as we see all too often on institutional sites, it is often not a goal that is accomplished. If you would like to learn more about how an audience specific microsite can benefit your customers (prospective students) and ultimately your enrollment, please register now for our free upcoming webinar: The Challenge – The Solution.

Higher Education Has Changed

It kind of seems like world’s biggest statement of the obvious “Higher Education Has Changed.”  No kidding right?  But if it is SO OBVIOUS why is most of higher education still acting like it’s 1995?   You might laugh, but you know it’s true.  Look around you, look at your institution, what year is it?

When you glance over the infographic you see a compilation of issues that were not even on the radar for most colleges and universities in 1995.  Online education, For-Profit Institutions, Young Alumni Engagement, Moocs, the Cost of College….. these issues were hardly a whisper on the landscape nearly 20 years ago.  How quickly times have changed.  Today you can’t attend a Higher Education Conference in North America without hearing about all of them.  If we really wanted to go crazy we could just as well add Social Media, Competency Based Learning, Big Data, Digital Marketing, and Web Analytics to the list.

I have heard some speakers say the “conversation has shifted” in higher education but honestly, I am beginning to think that’s a lie.  The conversation hasn’t shifted, it is an entirely new conversation!  The language of higher education is different today than it ever has been before. The intensity with which these changes have steam rolled their way into the higher education arena demands attention, and the seriousness of the consequences for those schools refusing to deal with what is solidly right in front of their face continues to rise.

The good news?  For the schools that are pushing themselves; delving into this new language, and having the difficult conversations on their campuses each and every day the potential for payoff is huge.  Is there risk? Of course.  Staying relevant in a fast changing market is risky business, and there will be stumbles along the way, but there will also be victories. Those schools that are progressively evaluating opportunities, making decisions, and moving at the accelerated pace that is required in our increasingly changing higher education culture, have the greatest potential for success.

The gap is getting wider.  The schools that are being progressive, embracing the changing landscape of higher education, and making the most of their opportunities to get out in front are all moving toward one side.  And the schools that are holding on to the past with two hands? They find themselves further and further behind looking out across what is now a vast divide that is becoming increasingly wider.

So I ask you, what side do you see yourself on?  When you hear the phrase “higher education is changing” do you fill in the line with  “and so are we”?  Or are you stuck with  “but we are not”? It’s a tough question, but one you must ask yourself now.