A well-researched and deep-level understanding of your personas is crucial for all college recruitment strategies. By segmenting your prospective students, for example, into distinct personas, you can develop messaging strategies tailored to the individual needs, pains, and decision processes. What’s more, if you do your research right, you’ll uncover opportunities you may not have thought possible.

In today’s post, I want to talk about an example of how segmenting can lead to interesting insights, using the academically uncertain student as our example.

The Academically Uncertain Student

A few years ago, the strategy consultancy firm Parthenon-EY published a higher education report called “The Differentiated University,” in which the authors detail the findings from a survey of more than 3,200 prospective and current undergraduate students. Their report focuses on six unique segments students fall into:

  1. Aspiring Academics
  2. Coming of Age
  3. Career Starters
  4. Career Accelerators
  5. Industry Switchers
  6. Academic Wanderers

While I highly recommend you read the report yourself, I want to draw your attention to two segments in particular: Coming of Age and Academic Wanderers.

The Coming of Age are first-time students. They’re young but not particularly ambitious when it comes to their future. They understand the necessity of college and hope that it will offer a path and direction for their lives. These are the students who spend the first year or two undeclared, exploring many programs before settling.

Similarly, the Academic Wanderers are hoping college will give them a path, but their much older than the Coming of Age cohort. These students may have some college experience in the past, but now they’re hoping a degree will open doors for them. According to Parthenon-EY, Academic Wanderers are the most at risk of all students “due to their satisfaction and expectations for completion.”

Together, the Coming of Age and Academic Wanderers make up 19% of prospective students.

Of course, these numbers may vary for your institution, depending on several factors, including location, income levels, ethnicity, competition, and a hundred other things. It’s important to do your own research to discover your student segments, but we can use Parthenon-EY’s segments as a starting place.

What I find interesting about these two segments is that the traditional website sitemap isn’t really built for the Coming of Age and Academic Wanderers.

The traditional higher ed sitemap looks something like this:

“Typical Website Sitemap for College Recruitment Strategies

The typical navigation consists of Academics, Admissions, Student Life, Alumni, and About. Most prospective students, in those early stages of the student decision journey, will visit the Academics and Admissions sections. For Academics, the prospect is searching for programs they’re interested in. Once they’ve spent time in Academics, they’ll head over to Admissions to either apply or learn about financial aid information.

Both of those sections of the site presume the prospective student has a strong grasp on what they want to study and what career they hope to have. But as we’ve learned from the Parthenon-EY research, the Coming of Age and Academic Wanderer have no idea what they want to study, much less the career path they want.

Yet we also know that both segments believe college is necessary to answer that question. For institutions, this creates a challenge. After all, if someone is hungry but has no dining preference, they’re likely to eat at whatever restaurant is closest, most convenient, and cheapest.

Recruitment Strategies for Attracting the Uncertain Student

Because of research and survey data, Parthenon-EY is able to break down the prospective undergraduate student into six segments, each with their own needs, goals, and challenges. If we bucketed all prospective students into one general persona, we might have missed out the real opportunity to attract the uncertain student.

Since we’re on the subject, what would our recruitment strategy consist of? How would the tactics we take here differ from other segments?

Create Interest-based Entry Points

The Coming of Age and Academic Wanderers may not know what major or career they want, but they have something their interested in. Everyone does! Therefore, we want to develop a content strategy that attracts prospective students based on their interests first and then nurture these visitors toward related programs and academics.

For example, a young high school senior may be interested in the outdoors, hunting/fishing, hiking, wildlife, and more. These interests sound like the start of a career in agriculture, biology, or physical therapy. If your institution offers degrees in any or all of those fields, you’ll want to start attracting potential students who have a natural inclination toward those careers—they just aren’t aware of it.

Your recruitment strategy, therefore, may include producing content on those interests and distributing them online or at schools in your market. Your job is to catch their attention and attract them to the brand. Your school is now on their radar, and you can begin to nurture them with deeper content as they move through the decision journey.

Develop Tools and Resources for Self-Education

No one likes to be told what to do. Moreover, experiencing an insight for yourself is more likely to stick than having one foisted upon you.

In addition to creating interest-based content to attract our academically uncertain students, you can also provide tools and resources that help inform their decision for choosing a school.

An interest assessment, for example, can help prospects realize where their passions may lie and how your institution can help them turn those passions into a career.

Provide Access to Recruitment Advisors

Once you engage a Coming of Age or Academic Wanderer, make sure you’re providing opportunities to move the conversation further. In your communications, include calls to action for getting in touch with recruitment advisors, whether through phone, text, or email.

If you can connect a prospect with an advisor—even for a simple question and answer call—you’ll instill important values about your institution. For one, your school will be seen as a trusted advisor, with people ready to help whenever needed. You’ll also begin to build those crucial relationships between the student and advisor, which in turn strengthens the affinity for your school. Lastly, you can use these opportunities to learn more about your students and improve your future strategy.


Because higher education institutions are so large and multi-faceted, the audiences we’re trying to target can feel overwhelming. As result, we tend to oversimplify our assumptions about the people with whom we’re communicating.

But as we’ve seen, our prospective students are more nuanced and segmented. As a result, a deeper-level breakdown into our audience reveals a much more fascinating landscape than we could anticipate.

Take the time to understand your audience. Their needs and goals are as varied as anyone’s, and they deserve a recruitment strategy tailored for them.

Have more to add to the story? Let us know on Twitter or LinkedIn.

The Ultimate Guide to Marketing Tactics for Fixing Your Funnel: Higher Education Edition