Are You Ignoring a Quarter of Your Applicant Pool?

Toronto — Stealth applicants aren’t going away. Deal with it, folks.

But how? On Friday morning, I heard some ideas during an a session here at the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s annual conference.

Stealth applicants—students whose applications are their first contact with a college—have complicated the traditional recruitment process, making it harder for colleges to know who’s a serious applicant and who’s not. The consensus here: Admissions officers must stop fretting about this trend, and develop better communications plans for engaging the growing number of students who fly below the radar until they finally apply.

That means stepping up post-application outreach. “Once they apply, these kids who are stealth prospecting, they still need to be engaged and involved,” said Stephanie Dupaul, associate vice president for enrollment management at Southern Methodist University.

One way Southern Methodist has done this is by beefing up its Web content. The university now posts video footage from “Mustang Monday” campus-visit days on its Web site, for instance. That way, prospective students who haven’t visited can get a feel for the campus from afar.

It’s especially important for current students—not admissions officers—to contact those applicants, said Ms. Dupaul, who wrote her dissertation about the behavior of stealth applicants. Often, she has found, such students distrust admissions officers, or even fear having conversations with them. “It’s definitely a generational thing,” she said.

This past year, 23 percent of Southern Methodist’s applicant pool was made up of stealth applicants. They were more ethnically diverse than other applicants, and a greater proportion of them were from out of state. “Ignoring this group is ignoring a group that is very, very important to our goals,” Ms. Dupaul said. “Really, do you want to not have a marketing plan in place for a quarter of your applicant pool?”

Not all stealth applicants are the same. Katharine Johnson Suski, director of admissions at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, distinguished between those who were in the recruitment pool from the start and those who had appeared out of nowhere. This past year, stealth applicants made up 47 percent of the pool at Southern Illinois: 30 percent had been identified through student searches, 17 percent had not.

As it turned out, the yield rate for applicants whose names the university hadn’t bought was higher than for those it had. So, Ms. Suski said, don’t write off applicants just because they haven’t already been identified.

Her advice? “Go big” on print mail and phone calls to reach such students. “A stealth app is better than no app,” she said.

Even when reading season gets under way, it’s not too late to build relationships with stealth applicants. Kirsten Fedderke, associate vice president at Lipman Hearne, a higher-education consulting firm, said colleges should consider ways of “catching them up.” View books, parent brochures, you name it.

And don’t discount prospective applicants who haven’t responded to all those e-mails your admissions office keeps sending, Ms. Fedderke suggested. Those messages may well be making an impression on them, she said, “even if they don’t respond as an immediate lead.”

After all, what do we know about today’s teenagers? Many of them are “super-investigators,” who comb various sources of information, cross-checking what colleges say with what they hear elsewhere, said Chris Long, president and general manager at Cappex, a college-search site. “Stealth applicants don’t want to give up too much information too early,” he said, “because they feel like they will lose control over the process.”

And they really don’t care if they wreck your recruitment funnel while they’re at it.

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