Oct 10, 2018

How to Increase Student Completion Rates Using Email

by Digital Marketing Institute

More students are applying to colleges and universities which includes on-campus programs, distance courses, online studies, and continuing education for adults looking to improve or learn new skills.

But just because there's a larger pool doesn’t guarantee that a prospective student will necessarily attend your institution or complete a course once enrolled.

In fact, less than half of students who enroll in college will actually complete a degree or certificate within six years at that institution. Of the ones who don't complete their studies, some will transfer and complete their degree elsewhere, while others will drop out entirely or remain enrolled but not finish.

There are many reasons why email is an effective tool for increasing completion rates. For one thing, it's highly personal, reliable, and a cost-effective way to engage with students. However, it’s crucial that you have a comprehensive and fleshed-out strategy if you want to succeed with email marketing.

In this article, we look at the 8 key steps to creating an email marketing strategy that engages students.

Step 1: Know the Importance of Email and List Building

Over 90% of people will use email by 2019, making it one of the most effective and universal ways to connect with your audience.

So where do you begin? For starters, it's critical to build an email list that includes prospects and current students who have permitted you to communicate with them via email. You can do this by collecting emails at college fairs, using sign up forms on your website, and keeping track of all the prospects who reach out to you.

From there, it’s important to segment your list into subcategories so that you can send tailored content, and that could include different segments for:

  • Prospective students who have shown interest
  • Students who have started the application process
  • Enrolled students
  • Active students
  • Alumni

Step 2: Get to Know Your Audience

Get to Know Your Audience

Email can be an extremely effective marketing format as long as it's executed properly, and a large part of that is creating targeted emails that are relevant to your audience. T do that, you must first have a solid understanding of who your audience is, what matters to them, and what kind of content will resonate.

One of the easiest ways to learn more about your audience is through direct communication, and surveys are a great way to ask poignant questions that will encourage students to tell you about themselves. Here are some basic items you might want to cover in a questionnaire or survey (which can be completely anonymous):

  • Age
  • Sex and gender
  • Marital status
  • Location
  • Interests
  • Challenges and pain points
  • Educational goals
  • Resources that would help students achieve their goals
  • Motivations
  • Career aspirations

Once you understand these things, customized content can be created that will speak to the needs and wants of your audience segments, and this will make for more effective email marketing campaigns.

Expert note: Now that you’ve gone through all this trouble to understand your audience, make sure they see your efforts by personalizing the emails you send. Personalized emails have a click-through rate that’s nearly 5% higher than generic ones.

Step 3: Create Targeted Content to Keep Students on Track

Once your email list is created and you have a good understanding of audience segments, you can start working on a plan to generate content that will speak to them and keep them engaged.

When it comes to content that will improve completion rates, you might want to focus on topics like finding extra help for students, information about study groups, where to go for financial aid, help guides for managing academic loads, tips for maintaining a good study-life balance, and more. In this case, it can also help to understand the main reasons why students don’t complete courses which can include:

  • Not having enough time
  • Being too busy with other obligations (such as work and family)
  • The reality of the course not meeting their expectations
  • They weren't prepared to put in the work
  • They're not learning what they need
  • They aren't seeing progress and give up
  • Not enough access to outside help

With any email, however, there are some essential elements to remember:

  • Have a clear objective with each email sent
  • Maintain continuity with every component of the email, including headlines, content, images etc.
  • Include calls to action to encourage students to stay engaged
  • Only send out relevant, interesting, and well-composed emails that will gain the attention of recipients
  • Include links to your website's landing pages, blog, and other resources
  • Write personalized content that speaks to your audience and the unique needs of each segment

Step 4: Create a Regular Schedule

Create a Regular Schedule

Email marketing isn't a one-and-done type of strategy, and it's vital to use your email efforts to build real relationships with students. Part of this is regular correspondence, so you'll want to create a schedule that will help plan emails and maintain frequent contact.

However, there's a balance to strike between regular communication and sending too many emails, and you'll have to use testing and surveys to find that balance.

For instance, students who are just going through the application process might only want a correspondence once every couple of weeks to remind them of important milestones, whereas enrolled and active students might benefit from daily or weekly emails to keep them on track.

Step 5: Use Email to Reinforce Other Avenues of Community Building

Another excellent use for email is to inform students about valuable resources that are available to them, and this is where you can bridge your email marketing with other efforts you have underway to support students and encourage completion.

For example, if you have a Facebook group set up for current students looking to find study partners, then you can include that information in your email campaigns to help students connect with the resources students need to complete their studies.

Similarly, if you have live events planned, you can also use email to keep students apprised of what's going on on-campus. And if you're looking for ideas that will specifically drive completion rates, then consider offering email incentives, bonuses, and other prizes for students who complete courses, achieve the highest marks, or obtain their degrees or certificates.

Step 6: Make Sure Emails Are Mobile-Friendly

Make Sure Emails Are Mobile-Friendly

You can create the best email campaign on Earth, but it won't do you any good if your students can't open the email on their device of choice.

And these days, most emails are initially opened on mobile devices, so if yours doesn’t display correctly on a smartphone or tablet, then chances are it will be deleted within three seconds.

Step 7: Have a Dedicated Response Team

Email is a two-way street, and responding to the emails your campaigns generate is a crucial component of successful email marketing.

For one thing, email marketing is about fostering relationships, and students must know they can rely on your institution to respond if they have questions or concerns.

Moreover, time-sensitive emails could mean the difference between academic life and death for some students or prospects (say an admission deadline is fast approaching and an applicant needs important information to move forward), so you must have a team in place to respond and be the face of your educational institution.

Step 8: Monitor and Measure Campaign Success

Monitor and Measure Campaign Success

The final step you need to worry about with a successful email marketing campaign is testing and monitoring, because this will ensure you're hitting the mark regarding connecting and engaging your audience.

Your institutions can use a range of analytics tools to ensure emails aren't bouncing, watch your open and click-through rates, and monitor unsubscribe rates. All of this data can help refine your strategy to cultivate a more effective approach and help you make sure emails are on-point and relevant.

A/B testing is similarly crucial because it will allow you to hone your efforts on the go. Here are a few examples of elements you can assess with this type of testing:

  • Content
  • Graphics
  • Headlines
  • Subject lines
  • Time of day to send emails
  • Email frequency
  • Calls to action
  • Effectiveness of incentives


Email marketing isn't just for businesses that sell specific products, even educators and educational institutions can use these best practices to develop relationships with students and prospects and to boost completion rates.

The important things to remember include building an email list, knowing your audience and creating customized and personalized content just for them, using offers and incentives to push students to reach their goals, leveraging email to advertise other resources, responding to emails quickly, and continuously monitoring your efforts and taking steps to perfect your approach.

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