Desire Paths Revisited: Recruiting Students in Low Friction

During a recent glance through the Capture blog archives, our editors came upon this piece written six years ago this month by Capture’s then Vice President of Data Science Thom Golden, Ph.D. The “Desire Path” remains such a potent metaphor for the importance of behavioral intelligence when recruiting students, we decided to republish the piece, which originally posted on May 8, 2017. Product names have been updated.

As architects go, Rem Koolhaas is a cultural luminary, with a CV featuring hundreds of striking accomplishments such as the Seoul National Museum, the Seattle Central Library and the China Central Television Headquarters in Beijing. The moment you hire Koolhaas and his team, your construction project gains an exponentially greater degree of architectural expertise.

It is telling then that despite this depth of experience and design “best practices,” Koolhaas credits the feet of college freshmen as a leading guide for one of his best-known university campus creations. In 1997, Koolhaas sent a team of designers to the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. Their task, to observe the pathways students were taking through the series of parking lots that occupied the lot that would become the McCormick Tribune Student Center.

Recruiting Students

The McCormick Tribune Student Center at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

Using these pathways, Koolhaas created a space that sought to live within the framework of the natural flow of students across campus, rather than steer it.

Stop and think about this for a second: if these college students are anything like me, they are cutting across lawns and parking lots primarily because they’re profoundly late, or just generally do not care where the sidewalk designer thought they should be going. They are resourceful and will always look for the path of least friction.

We all do it too.

Koolhaas, with all of his mastery of architecture, would have been forgiven had he decided to override the data conveyed through these shortcut pathways. He chose otherwise, and in so doing provided instruction we as enrollment managers can heed. It takes humility to admit your audience knows their needs better than you do.

Designers have a word for these dirt paths that cut across campus lawns: desire paths. They are the clearest visual reminder that those of us who create things (whether it is a set of sidewalks or a communication flow to prospective students) will receive feedback data on how useful our target audience found them. In many cases, the data isn’t kind. We can clearly see that our designs were ignored and an alternative path was created.

Recruiting Students

The question then is what to do next?

When we’re faced with a paved path and a dirt desire path, I am afraid that all too often, enrollment managers, convinced of their own marketing themes and anecdotal evidence, simply re-sod the dirt when recruiting students. We blame the prospective student for not having the bandwidth or interest in reading the copy we slaved over. In essence, we override the data.

Recruiting Students

Too often, when faced with a paved path and a dirt desire path, enrollment managers simply re-sod the dirt.

Last month, ENGAGE, Capture’s marketing automation software developed specifically for recruiting students, tracked its 20 millionth visitor across all of our partner sites. (Editor’s Note: To date, Capture has tracked more than 250 million visitors.) This corpus of data serves like a Google Earth-like view for us on the college searching behavior of prospective students in a way that has never before existed in higher education. And while we are pushing out as much learning as we can on individual topics of interest, if I were to condense what we have observed from ENGAGE data in one sentence it is this:

You do not have to get more students interested in your institution — they are already there, they are highly engaged with your brand, and they have found their way to you through their own low friction pathways that often have nothing to do with how you have designed the recruitment “pipeline.”

Today, we are awash in data about students, what they want and how they want their needs met. The question therefore isn’t “what do we know,” it is “what do we do with what we know?”

(Thom Golden, Ph.D., is founder and CEO of Golden Educational Consulting.)