Personalized Video: A Potent Tool for Maximizing Matriculation Rates

For this blog post, we have laid out, in full, a white paper we recently wrote, about putting personalized video technology to work to help colleges and universities increase their matriculation rates.


Executive Summary

Research suggests that while financial aid is nearly always available to prospective college students, many of these students – particularly first-generation college-goers or others who are unfamiliar with the world of college admissions – perceive higher education as unattainably expensive. Moreover, many prospective students (and their parents) find financial aid information to be confusing, so much so that they may not take advantage of aid that they have been awarded, including “free money” such as grants. Generally, when students do not feel that they fit a college mold, they are less likely to matriculate.


Video Reporting Technology℠ is a potent tool for addressing these very concerns. By delivering personalized, data-fueled video messages – via students’ preferred medium, text messaging – colleges can explain to each student the value of a degree from that college; the actionable details of that student’s financial aid award; and why the college is a fit for that student.


Recruiting a Diverse Student Body: The Challenge of “Fit”

Even as new forms of “college” emerge, including those offering online degrees and hybrid academic/internship models, and even as technical education becomes a more widely accepted post-graduation option for many students[1], a college degree remains the primary means of elevating earning potential, and thus socio-economic status.[2] While a college degree is not a definite “ticket out” of an income bracket, a socio-economic stratum, or a geographical region, it is the safest bet for most students.


Meanwhile, many colleges expend significant resources to recruit students to their campuses, especially students who would be the first in their families to attend college (first generation, or “first-gen” students), students from diverse ethnic backgrounds, those from low-income communities, and others who have traditionally been less likely to attend college. These measures range from waiving application fees and offering substantial scholarships[3] to extensive -- and expensive -- marketing initiatives, including personalized outreach.[4]


From the measures that colleges take to recruit a diverse student body, and from the persistent challenge that they nonetheless face in doing so, one message becomes clear: students need to see themselves in college, and at a particular campus, to matriculate. If they doubt that students like them can achieve success there, they are less likely actually to attend. Moreover, students need to understand and feel confident about the value of their degree – namely, that the degree will ultimately “pay for itself.”


Financial Aid: A Draw, but a Source of Confusion (and thus of Lower Yield)

One reason that students may doubt that a college is a good fit, or that attending that college is a worthwhile endeavor and expenditure of time and money (including the opportunity cost of not earning money from a full-time job), is that they misunderstand some key aspect of attending that school. There are many elements of the higher education proposition that a student may lack understanding of or confidence in, but research suggests that a primary area of confusion and doubt is the very element that should be a powerful draw: financial aid. Consider that, according to New America[5], financial aid award letters include confusing jargon, omit key pieces of information, lack clear direction, and generally serve to mislead students, instead of motivating them.


Research also suggests that when a student – and their parents – fail to understand their financial aid award they are more likely to doubt the substance of that award (i.e., that there is indeed money available to them) and that these students are thus less likely to matriculate.[6]


Thus, despite financial aid being more widely available today than ever before,[7] it has evidently not served as an effective means of persuading students from diverse backgrounds – especially first-generation students – that college makes sense for them.


The problem then, is clear:

●      Students must trust that a college is a good fit for them, especially if they are not used to seeing people like them (i.e., their family members) attend that college – or any college at all.

●      As the financial commitment to attend college is the most significant element of risk for many students, students who lack confidence that the commitment will pay off are less likely to trust that college is worthwhile.

●      And if communication about financial aid is not simply unclear but even confusing, the very tool that should serve to motivate students to attend college becomes discouraging.


Traditional Forms of Outreach: Falling Short

So: how to communicate clearly with every student about their fit for a particular college, including the fundamental aspects of cost and financial aid, and to ensure that they understand that communication?


Traditional forms of doing so – of personally conveying the value of the experience of attending a college (and of a degree from that school) – prove ambiguous, irrelevant, or costly:

·      Brochures and mail-merged letters, even those with photos of diverse collections of students, appear impersonal and generic. (As one admissions officer from a regional public university recently complained, “Please: no more sweeping views of campus, no more photos of multi-ethnic groups of students laughing under a tree. By now it all looks the same.”) Moreover, printed materials are extremely costly to produce and ship.

·      Text messages, while making use of students’ preferred devices – their mobile phones – are obviously superficial. While texting has been shown to address summer melt, the percentages by which students are moved to matriculate are small,[8] possibly owing to the brevity and impersonality of the medium.

·      Letters addressed personally to students are obviously also costly, both in the time required to produce them, and in actually mailing them. Similarly, personal phone calls – or certainly visits to schools or homes, which many colleges have committed[9] to in order to recruit diverse student bodies – are extremely expensive.


Meanwhile, today’s students do not consume information the way that their forebears did. New, digital forms of communication have overtaken traditional ones, with mobile video communication leading the way. Mobile video use has increased fivefold since 2014[10]. Millennials, meanwhile, spend more time viewing video than any other type of mobile content[11] -- and even their parents are joining the students; for example, 95% of parents in Los Angeles Unified School District, one of the nation’s largest and most diverse school systems, use their phones to access the internet at least once a week.[12]


Fortunately, though, there is a way to connect personally with every student, and to explain even the most nuanced aspects of the college proposition (e.g., financial aid) in clear, personalized language – in any language, in fact.


The Technology Behind the Solution: VRT

Video Reporting Technology, or “VRT,” refers to software that aggregates data, passes this data through a series of business rules that produce conclusions, and then communicates these conclusions as animated messages. Because the data behind a VRT video is specific to the user, the messaging is as well. Through VRT, users receive animated videos that are targeted to their specific situations, articulating not just the data itself, but the results of analysis of that data, and even recommended action steps based on that data. A native speaker articulates key messages – literally speaking to the viewer, in their preferred language – in sync with the animated, on-screen messages. While VRT is not necessarily delivered via mobile devices, it has been proven to be effective when done so. (See below for information about WestEd’s examination of VRT.)


One early application of VRT was AT&T’s video bill. (Example found at  This application did just what its name suggests: articulated the contents of a mobile phone bill through a personalized video. Serving as a complement – or an alternative – to traditional paper bills, replete with fine print, the video bill informed the viewer of key elements of their monthly usage and expenditure, as well as specific steps they might take to address overages or other concerns.


Educational Applications

It has been said that Video Reporting Technology can prove effective in any situation where a great deal of data is being communicated to a user; where it is possible – or perhaps likely – that at least some users will find that data overwhelming or confusing; and where important decisions are being made based on that data. Education, of course, is rife with such cases.


Spotlight developed the first-ever education-based application of VRT when it launched the Video Report Card – or “VRC” – in Oakland Unified School District in 2015. First delivered to parents of elementary school students, and later to middle schoolers, the Video Report Card made sense of the district’s standards-based report card, which articulates student performance not through traditional A-F grading but through less familiar messages describing whether students have met a range of academic expectations, or standards. The VRC articulated – to every parent, in their home language[13] -- just what these standards mean, and just how to think about their child’s performance against those now-understood standards. Later versions of the VRC even provided parents with targeted action steps, such as visiting free online math tutoring programs or enrolling in the City of Oakland’s summer reading program – with directions to the nearest public library.


The VRC proved informative and appealing to parents, particularly those whose first language is not English. In early 2018, WestEd released the findings of its study of Oakland Unified’s VRC, and the results were overwhelmingly positive:



Clearly these parents, representing a wide range of perspectives and backgrounds, feel that video reporting is helpful, and even motivating.


In addition to these high-level findings, the WestEd study also determined that parents generally find traditional, paper-based reporting to be difficult to understand, suggesting that the status quo is not meeting parents’ needs. And interestingly, at a time when attention spans are commonly believed to be short, and when the idea of a five minute video strikes many as far too long, 88% of non-English-speaking parents felt that the VRC – as long as seven-and-a-half minutes in Spanish – is about the right duration.[14]


More recent VRT applications have explicated more complicated data sets than those behind report cards. For example, in the fall of 2018 Spotlight released pilot versions of video-based standardized test score reports. As the information conveyed in traditional assessment score reporting is more complicated – and less familiar – than the grades described in a report card, it would seem that VRT-based score reporting would hold at least as much potential to inform parents, particularly those who do not speak English, or who lack the background to comprehend traditional, graph-heavy reports.


The Case for Video-Based Communication to Maximize Matriculation

As described above, Video Reporting Technology uses data to communicate personally to users, in their home language, and in language that they are virtually certain to understand. Any well-constructed personalized video “understands” a viewer’s needs, opportunities, and potential concerns, based on their data, and can not only explain relevant information, but can direct them to specific steps they might take to address those concerns.


Moreover, VRT can use aggregated data to show how a user might fit into a group. In the assessment score report examples above, a parent viewing a video understands how similar students have performed on the test, and which actions have proven particularly helpful.


The Solution: Yield Maximization Videos

Spotlight’s Yield Maximization Video Reports employ Video Reporting Technology to effect this very dynamic: communicating personally to a student…

●      Why a specific college is a good fit for them;

●      What their financial aid package really means;

●      How they fit into that college – namely, why they can be confident that students like them can achieve success there;

●      And which actions they should take, considering their specific data.


The optimal Yield-Maximization Video exhibits the following elements, thus drawing on the technology’s core capabilities:

·      The video welcomes the student personally – by name – to the school. It may communicate other personal elements, to foster a connection with the student. (Note: while a Yield-Maximization Video communicates personal details in a personalized fashion, it shares no more actual data than, for example, a financial aid award letter. Nonetheless, Spotlight takes every measure to ensure that student data is kept private and secure.)

·      It reminds them of the field of study they have declared – in case they have changed their mind.

●      Importantly, it explains the student’s financial aid package in clear language. Key elements include:

●      Specific loan and grant amounts, with explanations of what must be paid back.

●      A concrete description of what repayment might look like – duration of the repayment period, and approximate monthly amounts. (e.g., “That means that if interest rates stay about the same, you’ll need to pay around $120 per month for 15 years.”)

●      But it also compares the long-term implications of any loans to wages that the student might earn, based on their field of study, and on typical local wages.

●      Apart from financial aid, the video also portrays the college as a comfortable, even familiar place, by explaining that similar students (“Students a lot like you”) attend the school. This “similar students” conclusion may be drawn from information ranging from gender and ethnicity to intended field of study and hometown (or even hometown type, such as other small, rural locations).

●      Finally the Yield Maximization may even name specific students who have agreed to serve as points of contact. These might include students from the same region, or who share other characteristics with the accepted student.


The Yield Maximization Video is delivered directly to a student through the medium with which they are likely very comfortable – mobile video – and is also delivered to their parents in their home language. It can be delivered to every accepted student at a fraction of the cost of a mailed letter, and certainly far less expensively than making phone calls, or other direct-to-student measures.


A “teaser” example of a Yield Maximization Video for fictional Centennial College may be found at Note that this sample is intended to serve as a demonstration of VRT’s personalization capabilities. An actual video may feature an entirely different motif, format, sequencing, and “personality.”

A Final Caveat

Video Reporting Technology can prove useful and effective in any case where many people receive large amounts of detailed information, upon which they must base important decisions, yet are likely to misunderstand at least some key elements of that information. Grades; standardized assessment results; medical test results; investment performance; mortgage documents – and certainly financial aid, and the other information up which a student might decide to attend a particular college.


However, for Video Reporting Technology to prove effective, the disseminating institution must be able to credibly offer real value to the student. VRT is not a means of “putting lipstick on a pig.” The institution must offer effective academics that prepare students for careers and for life after college; well-administered financial aid programs; programming and other forms of support that make students from atypical backgrounds feel welcome; and fellow students who indeed do welcome their classmates to the school. Personalized, video-based communication can be a paradigm-shifting means of connecting with accepted students and maximizing matriculation rates, but it is not a substitute for substance.



[1] Career Technical Education Is Growing; Research Must Follow, Inside IES Research, 2016

[2] It’s Not Just the Money, Lumina Foundation, 2013; Is College Worth It?, Weekly Standard, 2018

[3] Are You First Gen? Depends on Who’s Asking, New York Times, 2017;

[4] Bucking tradition: Recruiting an adult or first generation college student, University Business, 2017

[5] Decoding the Cost of College, New America, 2018

[6] Eliminating Complexity and Inconsistency in Federal Financial Aid Programs For Higher Education Students: Towards a More Strategic Approach, Barry D. Burgdorf & Kent Kostka, 2006

[7] Trends in Financial Aid, College Board, 2017

[8] Social and Behavioral Science Team Annual Report, Executive Office of the President National Science and Technology Council, 2015

[9] Another Barrier to Enrolling a Diverse Student Body: It's Expensive, The Atlantic, 2014

[10] Cisco VNI Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast, 2017

[11] Common Sense Media, 2017

[12] Los Angeles Unified School District, 2018

[13] The Oakland Unified Video Report Card was delivered in Arabic, (Mandarin) Chinese, English, Hmong, Spanish, and Vietnamese.

[14] WestEd Memo for Spotlight: Parent Videos, 2018