Reading Time: 10 minutes

millennial student recruitment

The millennial generation has occupied a special place in public discourse of late. We are increasingly preoccupied with the sheer enormity of this generation (the largest so far), as well as millennials’ distinct social outlook, spending habits, technology preferences, and economic challenges. Millennials are poised to become our next leaders and innovators, and according to Pew Research, already dominate the US workforce (they surpassed Generation X in labor market share back in 2015).

Given their influence, potential, and sheer numbers, it’s no surprise that colleges and universities are wondering how best to attract and engage with this fast-moving, highly adaptive, keenly discerning generation of movers and shakers. And while each educational institution or program will have its own distinct millennial persona(s), there are a few fundamentals schools should keep in mind when striving to reach and enroll millennials.

The following strategies focus on building trust and asserting credibility through thoughtful, tech-savvy, creative, and above all authentic communications with current and prospective 18 to 34 year-old students.

1. Use Snapchat to Reach Millennials in Artistic, Spontaneous Ways

Your school is probably already present on social media stalwarts, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram – but if you’re aiming at millennial audiences, it’s worth adding another platform to your social outreach. And that platform is Snapchat.

Mobile, visual messaging platform Snapchat is now more popular than Twitter, Pinterest, Vine, Google+ or Tumblr among millennials, and is quickly gaining ground as an online student recruitment tool for colleges and universities. Schools with their finger on the pulse know that online messaging apps (such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and WeChat) are emerging as the new normal in social media – and Snapchat combines the power and appeal of instant messaging with images and video, plus additional features that resonate strongly with millennial users:

  • “Snackable,” visual content one can consume quickly and easily while on-the-go
  • Personalized story-telling that feels creative, spontaneous, and fun (users can customize their snaps with hand-drawn doodles, captions, and filters)
  • Fast-paced, perpetually fresh content (Snapchat Stories erase automatically after 24 hours, and snaps sent to contacts self-destruct just seconds after being viewed)
  • Option to instant chat by text OR video

What’s more, seven out of ten millennials use Snapchat, including 70% of post-secondary students. And on any given day, Snapchat reaches 41% of all 18 to 34 year-olds in the United States.


millennial student recruitment on social media


Quite a few universities and colleges have already integrated Snapchat into their social media marketing strategy. Early adopter, the University of Houston got students snapping by holding a drawing contest via the app, which was organized to promote Counter Current, the school’s arts festival (an ideal campaign for Snapchat, because of its creative, artsy appeal). here’s the winning snap (posted on Pinterest):

millennial student recruitment

And here are some snaps students submitted to the University of Michigan’s Snapchat art contest, in which followers doodled on images provided by the school:

millennial student recruitment on social media

In these next three examples, we see how the University of Houston deployed branded filters Snapchat followers could apply to their snaps to show school pride (and complement their own doodles and messages):

millennial student recruitment on social media

millennial student recruitment

millennial student recruitment

The University of Houston saves the snaps followers contribute and pins them on their UHouston Snapchat Pinterest Board (a good way to attract new followers and showcase great snaps):

millennial student recruitment

Tips for using Snapchat to engage with potential and existing students:

1. Close-up shots of people and things perform better than images or videos of crowds and wide open spaces (it’s all about intimate, personalized content)

2. Snapchat is often used by brands to showcase behind-the-scenes moments at special events – the focus is on “insider access” for that highly personalized feel (for schools this could be behind-the-scenes moments at a graduation ceremony, community service initiative, athletic event, performing arts show, new student orientation, awards ceremony, etc.)

Here’s the University of Houston again using Snapchat to highlight their Welcome Day, and initiate students into the “Coogs” family:

millennial student recruitment

3. Use your school’s logo or mascot to create branded filters followers can lay over their images.

4. Promote your Snapchat account and contributors’ snaps on your other social media accounts to attract new followers.

5. Use your Snapchat account to extend and enhance other popular social campaigns, such as a question-and-answer session for prospective applicants, hosted by a current student.

The University of Michigan did just that with their #AskUMich campaign, using Snapchat’s instant messaging feature (plus they gave away free t-shirts to participants – another great way to promote the university’s brand). Here are some snaps from that campaign, encouraging followers to submit questions:

millennial student recruitment

2. Use Peer-generated Content to Build Trust with Millennial Students

Millennials are a particularly savvy demographic of consumers, who are used to digging up reviews and consulting widely with peers before purchasing products and services. They are highly skeptical of self-promotional marketing, and above all else, value the opinions and testimonials of people like them when choosing which business to buy from, company to work at – or school to attend.

When prospective millennial students are researching your school or program, they’re looking for stories from current students and grads – evidence to substantiate claims around things like personalized learning, providing an inclusive and fun learning environment, impressive job placements rates, excellent campus facilities, attentive instructors, high rates of acceptance into prestigious post-grad programs, etc. Whatever your key recruitment messages are, it’s best to have your own students deliver them, rather than relying on institution-driven communications.

There are several ways to gather authentic, peer-generated material to enhance your content strategy and development – such as the Snapchat contests we mentioned earlier. The universities of Houston and Michigan can (and do) use those submissions across marketing channels to promote themselves in genuine ways that resonate with millennials.

However, if you’re looking for a way to generate promotional content from current students on a regular basis, we suggest forming a team of millennial student ambassadors. Ambassadors can contribute unique ideas to engage with their peers, will work with the marketing team on specific campaigns, and will appreciate having their content published and distributed online through your institution.

Here’s a great example from Ryerson University, who has recruited ambassadors to share their experiences as first-time university students (#RoadToRyerson):

millennial student recruitment

Wondering how Ryerson recruited participants for this campaign? The school held “auditions” through social media, inviting newly admitted students to become “Student Life Storytellers.”

millennial student recruitment

The ambassador team they’ve assembled contributes content to the school’s social media, as well as to the Student Life blog (or Stories section, as it’s called). Here’s one ambassador’s post about how Ryerson students can make the most of their morning commute to class (note that Ryerson is also using Snapchat to connect with students):

millennial student recruitment

Tip for setting up your student ambassador program

Be sure to create a section of your website that clarifies the code of conduct for ambassadors, the benefits of joining, your expectations in terms of time and output, and the process for applying. Here’s an example from Simon Fraser University:

millennial student recruitment

3. Demonstrate that Your School is Socially Responsible

Millennials want to associate themselves with brands that do good in the world. To earn their respect, it’s important to declare a mission and set of core values that show your school stands for something, and is driven by more than the “bottom line”. And then follow through by showcasing how your students live up to that mission in authentic and inspiring ways. Ultimately, you’re communicating your institution’s character through the acts of its administrators, instructors, students, and alumni – an important element of branding for schools, and crucial for building trust with millennials.

Here’s a simple, yet highly effective example from Algonquin College, who has incorporated charitable giving into the curriculum of their Public Relations program – and then amplified students’ participation on their blog and social media channels. Here’s a look at the blog post promoting a recent fundraising challenge PR students have been undertaking for the past 26 years:

millennial student recruitment content strategy

And here are shots of two student groups promoting their charity of choice to classmates, hoping their pick will get chosen for this year’s donation:

millennial student recruitment

millennial student recruitment

Authentic, socially-minded posts like these also tend to generate positive engagement from peers who are eager to “like” and share them online.

Here’s Algonquin again, promoting another ACPR (Algonquin College Public Relations) charitable initiative on Twitter, this time to raise awareness of mental health and schizophrenia, and raise funds for The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Center:

millennial student recruitment social media

Algonquin is smart to focus on local philanthropy, highlighting a reciprocal relationship with its host city, Ottawa. Many young students want to feel that the school they attend gives back to its community, and that by extension, they are doing their part to support local initiatives.

Take a look at this approach from the University of Manchester. They formalize their altruistic commitments in a dedicated section of the school website, where students can easily find and explore the university’s wide range of socially responsible initiatives:

millennial student recruitment content strategy

And to help back-up its claims, the University of Manchester posts a video on that same page, showcasing their most recent Making a Difference awards ceremony – clearly a well funded, attended, and thoughtfully planned event:

millennial student recruitment content strategy

This brings up a crucial point. Simply publishing a mission statement around social responsibility and community engagement isn’t enough. Millennials will dig deeper for evidence that your school actually “lives” its mission and core values. So if your institution is making claims around social justice, environmental sustainability, and giving back, be sure to amplify and substantiate those claims across your marketing channels.

4. Connect Millennial Students with Knowledgeable, Caring Mentors

Mentoring is fast becoming a key factor in student recruitment and retention. And some of the reasons why are easy to guess, and aren’t strictly applicable to millennials. For example, mentoring helps uncertain applicants of all ages clarify program selection, understand how their learning can be applied in the professional world, and feel motivated by recent grads who have been in their shoes.

But some benefits of including mentoring in your recruitment (and retention) strategy are particularly potent to millennials. Consider Deloitte’s 2016 Millennial Survey and the high value respondents placed on professional mentoring throughout their careers. Nine out of 10 respondents with mentors said that “the quality of advice”, and “the level of interest shown in their development” are extremely valuable and motivating. What’s more, employees with mentors are twice as likely to remain loyal to their organization (stay for longer than five years).

This touches on the idea of personalized guidance and growth-coaching that millennials often cite as important, both during their education and throughout their careers. There is a strong resistance to “one-size-fits-all” models that simply “funnel” students into and out of academic programs. Millennials need to see that your institution values their individual goals, concerns, aspirations, and interests – and can connect them to a community of knowledgeable advisors that will offer customized support.

Incorporating mentoring into your student recruitment strategy will reinforce your school’s commitment to nurturing growth at every stage, while subverting the notion of “assembly line” education where all students follow the same path to success.

 Here are a few ideas to consider

1. Invite a diverse group of recent graduates from each of your programs to hold Google Hangouts or Twitter Q&As with prospective students. Here’s a Hangout hosted by Syracuse University, in which alumni share how they landed coveted jobs at Google’s new office in New York City:

millennial student recruitment content strategy

2. Publish video or text-based interviews with graduates showcasing how they’ve applied their degree or diploma in the workforce, and perhaps answering some frequently asked questions you typically hear from incoming students about each program and career path. Here’s a text-based example from the Duke Fuqua School of Business:

millennial student recruitment content strategy

3. Highlight the ongoing mentoring you provide each student throughout their degree or diploma, helping them to successfully transition from student to graduate to professional. Concordia University holds a special alumni-student mentoring conference each year so students can get one-on-one time with grads in their field, helping them prepare for life after school:

millennial student recruitment online

Mentorship programs also help demonstrate another important “proof” to millennials who feel concerned about taking on debt to attend school, and want visibility into how your institution will help them secure employment after graduation. Showing them that you provide access to knowledgeable, caring mentors helps assuage doubts about whether school is really “worth it”, while providing assurance that you’ll help them succeed every step of the way.

For more on different mentorship models and correlations between student advising and retention rates, take a look at a recent post we wrote on the subject, Why Alumni-Student Mentoring is Crucial for Attracting & Retaining More Students.

And there you have it. Four ideas for aligning your student recruitment strategy with the values, online behaviors, and expectations of millennials.

Have other ways of effectively connecting with and attracting millennials to your school? We’d love to hear your comments, questions, and insights in the section below.

Discover more bright ideas for smarter student recruitment