The enrollment funnel—sometimes called the admissions funnel or enrollment management funnel—is a key part of the inbound enrollment approach for colleges and universities
Below, we discuss:
  • What the enrollment funnel looks like
  • Common marketing activities at each stage of the funnel
  • How to analyze your funnel and identify gaps
  • Opportunities to improve performance

Each and every stage of the funnel plays an important role in overall performance. As an enrollment management professional, you need to know how to analyze your enrollment funnel so that you can identify weaknesses and opportunities for improvement in order to consistently hit your goals.

A Closer Look at the Enrollment Funnel

For colleges and universities, the enrollment funnel is typically broken down into six stages: Prospects, Inquiries, Applicants, Admits, Deposits, and Enrolls. Let’s take a closer look at what each of these stages entails.

Higher Education Enrollment Funnel

1. Prospects

The first stage of the enrollment funnel includes prospects. In the context of digital marketing, prospects can include people who have taken anonymous interactions with your school’s website, social media platforms, or other marketing channels, but have not identified themselves or provided contact information. 

Prospects can also include people who have been identified, but have not yet engaged with your school. In other words, these prospective students exist as contacts in your database, but their profiles do not yet contain enough information to indicate a specific program of interest.


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Given the nature of the college search, this will likely be the largest and potentially longest stage in the funnel. For example, high school students may start passively considering their college options as early as their sophomore or junior year before becoming more active in their search during their senior year. 

Specific marketing activities might include:

  • Paid search (PPC)
  • Paid social media
  • Display and remarketing ads
  • Content marketing
  • Search engine optimization
  • Other traditional marketing tactics such as direct mail and high school visits and college fairs also play a role at this stage 

The primary goal of marketing efforts at this stage is to attract prospective students (often by driving traffic to the website) and generate inquiries. Once the prospect takes an action that identifies themself and indicates their interest, they are considered an inquiry.

2. Inquiries

Once the prospective student has taken an action that identifies themself—such as downloading a content offer, signing up for a newsletter, attending an info session, or reaching out to an admissions counselor directly—and indicates their program of interest, they enter the inquiry stage of the enrollment funnel. 

Now that the prospective student has “raised their hand” and indicated their interest in your institution’s offerings, marketing efforts can focus on nurturing the lead and guiding them toward completing their application. Messaging at this stage is aimed at establishing trust and building relationships. 

Top marketing tactics to consider at this stage include: 

  • Email marketing: Marketing automation allows enrollment professionals to streamline this process by enrolling prospects into lead nurturing sequences and can allow for increased personalization. 
  • Content marketing: Think of your content as a tool to build trust and help the prospective student make the best decision for their needs. Downloadable offers at this stage may answer questions about the application and admissions process, and continue to demonstrate the value of your program.
  • Calls to action: Effective CTAs at this stage often encourage prospective students to schedule a campus visit, talk to an admissions counselor, and, of course, apply for admission.

3. Applicants

If your college or university has made it onto the prospective student’s list of top contenders, the next step in the process is to complete an application. 

This is one of the more important stages in the enrollment funnel as the performance of each subsequent stage will depend on the number of applications completed during a given enrollment period. Due to this fact, the marketing activities leading up to this stage are critical. If the number of applicants at this stage is falling short, you may need to take action to increase the volume of prospective students entering the funnel and/or optimize your conversion rates.

4. Admits 

At this stage, it’s up to the admissions team to evaluate each applicant and determine which prospective students will be admitted. If an applicant meets the requirements, is deemed a good fit for the school, and is ultimately granted acceptance, then they can then make their final decision on which university to attend and proceed down the funnel. 

Keep in mind that students often apply to multiple institutions, and they still have a big decision to make after hearing back from all of their top choice schools. In fact, more than 80 percent of first-time freshmen apply to at least 3 colleges, and roughly 35 percent apply to seven colleges or more

Your marketing efforts can still play a role in winning their trust and helping them make that final decision. At this stage, it is important to deliver personalized messaging to strengthen your relationship and answer as many questions as possible. 

5. Deposits

A deposit is a strong indication that the admitted student intends to enroll in your program, but it is not a guarantee. Unfortunately, a small percentage of those who send their deposit and secure their seat for the academic year will not complete the journey and become an enrolled student. One of the most common reasons for doing so is being admitted to another college or university after being waitlisted. Other reasons may involve unexpected life events, financial concerns, or other factors.

Similar to the previous stage, enrollment and admissions professionals should continue to nurture relationships with these admitted students by answering their questions, keeping them engaged, and getting them excited about their journey at the school.

6. Enrolls

Finally, once the admitted student has paid their deposit, they can continue on to enroll in classes and successfully matriculate and begin their experience as an enrolled student at your institution. 

7. Retention, Alumni, and Donors

Although not often showcased in the typical enrollment funnel, it’s important not to overlook the stages that follow successfully enrolling in your institution’s programs— student retention, alumni engagement, and donors. After all, many of the marketing activities used to support the earlier stages of the funnel can be used to drive performance in these areas as well. 

Analyzing Your Enrollment Funnel

With a clear understanding of what the enrollment funnel looks like and the key marketing strategies at each stage, you can begin to analyze your current performance and identify opportunities for improvement. 

To start, you’ll need to take a look at your current performance and set realistic goals for each stage in the funnel. If you find that you need to establish or realign those goals, start by working backward from the bottom of the funnel. 

For example, you likely already know exactly how many applicants you need to capture in order to meet your enrollment goals for the upcoming academic year. Assuming that your historic conversion rates remain steady, you can work in reverse to calculate how many inquiries and prospects you need to reach the goal number of applicants. 

Take the time to run these calculations for different scenarios to see how changes in one stage can impact the entire funnel.

Once you know how your current performance stacks up against your goals, you can identify certain aspects of your funnel that might be falling short and make improvements. These opportunities will typically fall into two categories: Increasing volume and improving conversion rates. 

Increasing Volume

After running the numbers, is the actual volume of prospective students needed at each stage in the funnel lower than the volume you need in order to hit your goals? 

If this is the case, you will likely need to take steps to bring more people into the funnel. If your conversion rates remain stable, growing the size of the funnel and attracting more prospects and inquiries will trickle down and result in increased applicants. 

To do so, consider strategies that will help you attract more visitors to the website. Some simple yet effective options often include:

  • Using SEO best practices to optimize your program pages and blog to improve visibility and get in front of more prospective students
  • Creating new, valuable content targeting high-volume keywords
  • Supplementing organic traffic with paid search and social media ads
  • Leveraging remarketing ads to re-engage visitors 

Improving Conversion Rates

On the other hand, if you notice a significant drop off in the volume of prospective students from one stage to another, the problem may lie in low conversion rates. 

At the top of the funnel, this could involve optimizing calls to action and creating more opportunities for conversion. For instance, you might consider creating a free downloadable content offer that provides value to the prospective student such as an application checklist or a career guide related to a particular field of study.

In the later stages, this might include optimizing the application process for mobile usability and user experience or finding ways to ease the common barriers that prevent prospective students from progressing.

As you work to grow your funnel and improve conversion rates, don’t forget to create benchmarks so you effectively can measure your progress toward your goals.

A Holistic Approach to Inbound Enrollment

Increasing the volume of prospective students in your enrollment funnel and optimizing your conversion rates often go hand-in-hand when creating an effective inbound enrollment approach. In doing so, it’s important to consider the many different factors that can influence your performance and help—or hinder—your growth. 

One of the very first steps in optimizing your enrollment funnel is understanding who the prospective students are that make it up. Download the toolkit below to start creating or fine-tuning your student personas so that you can take steps towards optimizing your marketing efforts with your ideal students in mind.




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