Enrollment Funnel or Bottleneck?

We’re all familiar with the image of an enrollment funnel.  Many individuals enter as “leads” and hopefully a few make it all the way through to become enrolled students.  Traditionally, you’d want as many leads at the top of your funnel so that you can have your pick of hot prospects to convert into enrolled students.  Ideally, you’d want your funnel to look something like this. But in today’s recruitment environment, more leads may not necessarily be such a good thing.  In fact, too many leads (especially bad leads) could turn your enrollment funnel into an enrollment bottleneck. According to Wikipedia:

bottleneck is a phenomenon where the performance or capacity of an entire system is limited by a single or limited number of components or resources. The term bottleneck is taken from the ‘assets are water’ metaphor. As water is poured out of a bottle, the rate of outflow is limited by the width of the conduit of exit – that is, bottleneck. Increase the width of the bottleneck, and you can increase the rate of which the water flows out.

This week, I’ve noticed two trends that are impacting a number of institutions and creating bottlenecks in their recruitment funnels.  

1) The first is a simple matter of not having the supply to meet demand.  This was a point highlighted last week by the New York Times in a story that showed how many of New York’s community colleges are having to turn away students because applications have increased so dramatically.    

2) The second is the fact that while many schools are seeing increased applications, they’re not changing their admissions standards.  This means that schools are having to manage many more applications without any way to facilitate the selection of candidates.  Some schools that have traditionally guaranteed admission to students living in so-called service areas are now turning away those applicants in favor of non-local students to make sure they reach their recruitment goals. The logic is that schools that are concerned about yield will still hit their numbers if they admit more students.  However this could have the end result of forcing institutions to turn away more qualified candidates than ever before.

In each scenario, the admissions process is made more difficult for both students and administrators due to limited resources.  Additionally, each scenario also poses these questions:

If you’re facing more demand than you can meet, how are you directing students to other options or making it possible for them to stay connected to your institution for when a spot does become available?  If your mission is to provide access, how are you ensuring that students have access even if you’re not able to provide it?

If you’re taking in more applications than ever before simply to make sure you hit your enrollment numbers, what are you doing to analyze your yield and how are you ensuring that you’re still enrolling (not just admitting) the caliber of student you ACTUALLY want?

So what are you doing to keep your leads flowing and at the same time avoid bottlenecks? In both cases it may help to NARROW your funnel rather than cast a wide net.  As I noted a few months ago, this pre-qualification could help minimize a lot of the cost an effort associate with recruitment and ultimately lead to better results in terms of admissions and retention.  

Additionally, at a time when many institutions are trying to battle the forces of supply and demand, some are asking if there’s perhaps an over emphasis on the importance of college to begin with.  GOOD Magazine’s blog recently summarized a discussion at the Chronicle of Higher Education where participants were asked “Are too many students going to college?”  According to GOOD, the responses basically fell into two camps:

Camp one: Postsecondary education is a practical necessity that everyone should pursue and have access to. Sample quote from Daniel Yankelovich, a public-policy expert: “In today’s society and economy, virtually everyone who has the motivation and stamina should acquire some form of postsecondary education.”

Camp two: Traditional bachelors degrees are not actually the best move for most students; they can be a waste of money; and statistics (and anecdotal evidence, surely) show this, over and over and over again. Sample quote from Charles Murray, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute: “We have a moral obligation to destroy the current role of the B.A. in American life. It has become an emblem of first-class citizenship for no good reason.”

If what members of Camp one say is true then more students should be be seeking higher education and institutions should do everything in their power to give them access.  If what Camp two says is true then more unqualified students are seeking education than ever before making it more difficult for selective institutions to sift through the crop and/or there is additional  burden on less selective institutions who are now forced to deal with students that should not be there in the first place.


For many institutions, particularly public institutions, budget cutbacks and orders to limit enrollments have made it more difficult than ever to manage their traditional marketing funnels and created bottlenecks for both prospective students and administrators.  Add to that a mix of new technologies and evolving customer expectations, and you may find that your funnel may have several bottlenecks at each stage of the recruitment lifecycle.  In fact, your bottle (funnel) probably looks more like a pretzel as the chart below from Forrester Research illustrates.


So how exactly do you narrow the funnel to avoid bottlenecks (or some of the twists and turns above)?

That’s the hard part.  However, there are things that can be done at each stage of the recruitment lifecycle that can help narrow the funnel.  Branding plays a big part.  Ivy League schools, for example, have an inherently narrow funnel at the top because most students know they have to meet certain criteria in order to even be considered. However, while most institutions don’t have that luxury, there are other ways to brand and position your offerings in order to attract the right student for YOUR institution and avoid some of the noise associated with the front-end of the funnel.

For others there may be opportunities to narrow the funnel at the inquiry stage. For example, what if an inquiry comes in and you discover that the student may in fact be a better fit for another institution?  Do you keep engaging them or do you recommend that other institution? 

The point is that there’s an opportunity at every stage of the marketing funnel to make sure you balance the needs of the market with what your institution has to offer.  Selectivity and segmentation should begin long before that first inquiry form is submitted or before that application is filled out.  Doing this can help you avoid a lot of headaches and bottlenecks.

For those on the front lines, what are some bottlenecks you’re seeing?