The Rise and the Fall of the Stealth Applicant
Higher Education Marketing

The Rise and the Fall of the Stealth Applicant

Date posted: December 2, 2015

Traditionally students had to make themselves known during their college search process – in fact, it was the only way to, firstly, get general information from an institution, and secondly, gain access to the documentation needed to apply. Those days are long gone and with the rise of consumerism, the internet and third party resources, prospective students today have the option to exhaustively research, compare and select their higher ed institutions of choice without every contacting them, until they formally apply. Hence the rise of the stealth applicant to levels of almost 50% in some recently reported cases.

Stealth applicants

So What Exactly is a Stealth Applicant?

The most common definition of a stealth applicant is a prospective student whose first recorded contact with an institution is the submission of an application for admission. It is important to note that under this typical definition, the stealth applicant may have in fact had multiple touches by an institution, but that these contacts are not captured by the marketing nor admission tracking systems. For example, institutions may buy prospective student names from lead aggregators and send them email or traditional mail on multiple occasions but not track these initial contacts.

Stealth apps in funnel

Red indicates “stealth” applicants versus the blue “known” individuals.
Source The College Board

Why are Stealth Applications an Issue?

Some admissions offices see increasing numbers of stealth applications simply as a bonus, providing them with more options to fill their student rolls. Other more traditional types may see them as uninvited intrusions into their previously well-organized and well-oiled recruitment funnels. Regardless of your take on this spectrum, increasing numbers of stealth applications come with their attendant issues.

As much of the predictive modeling in traditional enrollment marketing relies on pre-applicant contacts, stealthy prospective students upset the balance of the established funnel ratios. Though clear differences do exist in behavior compared to known applicants, similar predictability and roughly equivalent rates of yield have been demonstrated for stealth applicants.  Also effecting application patterns today is the fact that students are now submitting applications to more institutions than they have in the past, averaging somewhere between 6-8 applications per student, with outliers up to 20.

Stealth apps chart

Source : 2012 Recruitment Funnel Benchmarks Report for Four Year Private and Public Institutions, Ruffalo Noel Levitz

These changing patterns can put admissions officers on the spot and leave them with more difficult decisions at admissions time, forcing them to make decisions about individuals with which they have had no direct contact. This makes it particularly difficult with borderline prospects. Admissions also needs to make strategic decisions on their processes based on how they impact their acceptance rate, yield and ultimately retention rates, as these factors all effect their school’s overall college rankings in third party resources like US News and World Report.

Why are so Many More Applicants Today Stealth Applicants?

There are many reasons why students remain unidentified until application. Maybe the most simple is that they don’t need to identify themselves earlier in the process. A recent Cappex survey shows “more than 50 percent of students who did not contact schools before applying said it was because it was so easy to find information about a college and to apply online.” This is not necessarily a choice rather than an outcome of the successful migration of much more complete program and institution information to the web.

But practical student concerns can also have a direct influence. Many students delay campus visits as they can’t afford to visit schools until they are sure they are admitted. And with no perceived benefits to identifying themselves, it is simpler to remain anonymous.

Often students don’t want to engage with the recruitment process due to intimidation, fear and distrust of the traditional process. Student’s seeking entry into post-secondary education are engaged in a process where the stakes are extremely high and they are generally feeling highly stressed. An impression that admissions departments will talk up their school, that they are trying to “sell them” regardless of fit, may not be completely unfounded. Student generally don’t want to engage with this type of scenario and frequently remain dark until it suits their purposes to be identified.

How to Reduce the Number of Stealth Applicants at your Institution

Some institutions make it mandatory that students speak with their advisors before acceptance. This solves the stealth problem but seems to strike a rather authoritarian tone that likely discourages some candidates from interacting with them.

A more effective way to reduce stealth applicants is to realign the recruitment process across marketing and admissions, leveraging best practices in inbound digital marketing to improve the quality of the prospect’s journey, tracking them from end to end, and positively interacting with them along the way to educate, engage and “enchant” them.

This realignment could involve a number of actions, including:

  • Committing marketing and admissions to work together to align their interests and systems
  • Create unique student personas for each principle type of student (i.e. undergrad, graduate, transfer, international, etc.)
  • Map each type of student journey
  • Personalize website, emails, and the recruitment process to these personas to more effectively engage prospects earlier
  • Integrate CRM, marketing automation, and email solutions (i.e. add all purchased names into contact database and track interaction with them across complete recruitment lifecycle)
  • Apply appropriate analytics and reporting tools
  • Develop agile methodologies to develop, track and test the recruitment process improvements

In recent years the stealth applicant has steadily risen in terms of a percentage of overall applicants. In coming years, I forecast that this trend will reverse as inbound marketing principles drive website improvement and marketing automation tools become more commonly used to manage the student recruitment process. Today’s unengaged and poorly tracked “stealth applicant” will likely become less common as colleges and universities integrate their marketing and admissions process and rediscover a more complex yet more trackable relationship with early-stage prospective students. That’s my intuitive forecast for now. Unfortunately we’ll have to wait a few more years to see if it actually plays out this way!






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What other challenges have the increased number of stealth applicants of recent years caused your admissions process?  Has marketing automation helped you reduce your % of stealth applicants? What other approaches/tactics have been successful at your institution to help manage this issue?