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Reflections on and Lessons from the Previous Enrollment Cycle

As this most uncertain and difficult enrollment cycle glides mercifully to the finish line, we’ve reached a moment that is ripe for reflection. Insights gleaned now, in the moments when both the fear and the facts are fresh in our memories, are the sort that institutions can transform into newer, better strategies for the next recruitment cycle now underway.

Many college and university leaders were understandably fearful as this past year bounded roughly over rocky terrain. Along the way to the enrollment cycle's predicted fatal capsizing – severe excess capacity at smaller, private colleges; ballooning yields at public institutions nationwide; unrecognizable enrollment patterns – something else happened: While this year presented complex challenges for most institutions and resulted in disappointing outcomes for some, there were many institutions that successfully built their first year classes, despite the forecasts.

Assessing Achievement

As colleges and universities with less than satisfying outcomes consider the experiences of the past year, it is useful to explore examples of institutions that achieved beyond what could have been predicted or expected. Are there common threads in their strategies and tactics?

In our observations over the past year at Maguire Associates, institutions that met their enrollment goals frequently shared some common strategies:

  1. Seeking flat first-year enrollment rather than growth;
  2. Minimizing tuition and fees price increases, where possible, to 4% or less;
  3. Proactively digging deeper into the applicant pool to admit more students than in previous years, and doing so in a timely manner; and
  4. Allowing for – even planning for – a rising discount rate by preemptively expanding the generosity of financial aid awards.

Indeed, private colleges and universities across the country stepped up very boldly, often in the face of budget cuts and layoffs, not only to protect financial aid budgets from cutbacks, but actually to increase financial awards and affordability.

Successful Strategies

The secret of enrollment success this year is that there is no secret. Any college or university, no matter how large or small, can incorporate effective strategies into their recruitment at any time, as long as they make a genuine commitment to one underlying principle: the best decisions are evidence-based. Executing evidence-based recruitment efforts at each stage of the enrollment process is best driven by what we call the 4A Strategy: Analyze; Attempt; Assess; Adjust.

In times like these – indeed, at all times – when resources are limited, institutions can be hamstrung by an inability to accurately determine the effectiveness of their individual efforts. This can occur because the initiatives have not been created, executed, measured, and evaluated in an intentional and comprehensive way. Experienced enrollment professionals know there is an art to student recruitment, but this art must be supported by science.

This past year, many successful institutions – including those presumed to be in danger – paid detailed attention to both of these dimensions. In doing so, they increased their applicant pools, hit their target enrollment goals, and maintained the desired composition of their classes.

With that inspiration in mind, here are three recruitment components we recommend considering for fine tuning your strategies going forward:

  1. Deploy sophisticated, strategic, statistically driven financial aid awarding: More than ever, financial aid was a focal point of institutions’ enrollment strategies – and will almost certainly remain so in coming years. Late last year, some commentators suggested that no one could possibly predict yields this year and that we ought to throw historical data out the window. At this point, anyone that did so is probably wishing they had not heeded that advice.

    Many colleges and universities rely on a “matrix-based” approach to determine awards for various groups of students, usually arranged by measures of student “quality” and financial need. This method is used well when the matrix is updated every year through analysis of prior-year results. However, a significant amount of enrollment and revenue may be lost by awarding fixed amounts or percentages of institutional aid to large groups of students. Many successful institutions utilize predictive models to transform a matrix-based approach into a highly refined, individualized approach that specifies the amount of institutional aid for each student that the institution needs to offer in order to achieve ambitious yet realistic enrollment and revenue goals.

  2. Pay continuous attention to parents: It has become common practice to involve parents in the recruitment process because they serve as trusted advisors for their children and, in the end, make influential assessments of the value of selected institutions. At some institutions, materials sent directly to parents only focus on financing the cost of education, when an institution's value proposition is perhaps the most important message of all.

    It’s important to remember that parents also participate in creating and advancing student interest in your institution. Some of the recruitment marketing we observe appears to have makeshift, sporadic, or sometimes nonexistent messages for parents, at least beyond the narrow lens of affordability. A page or two on the admissions website is not sufficient to engage these crucial influencers – who are sometimes decision makers – in the ongoing process of selecting a college. In vivid contrast, other institutions have developed carefully crafted parent outreach, that starts before the point of admission, to answer the question: Among many possible choices, why would this one be best for my son or daughter?

  3. Test new tactics: Yes, it is essential to continue improving your recruiting practices. It is equally important, however, to seek out new tactics and methods for accomplishing recruitment objectives. Repeating even worthwhile outreach without constantly incorporating innovative ideas can leave institutions vulnerable to their more nimble, creative competitors.

    The most inventive institutions investigate new concepts by measuring them. Doing so ensures they don’t get caught in the conventional pattern of always adding new work without eliminating the old – a recipe for confusing results and staff burnout. Using the 4A Strategy, they consider creating new promotional materials, compelling value messages, and ways to reach the marketing-saturated audience of college-going students. Trying something new these days may even mean trying something very old that has gone out of style, like hand-addressed letters or even hand-written notes to desirable prospective students.

Pedaling Another Cycle Uphill

There is no doubt that this was a difficult and challenging year for enrollment managers. However, many institutions thrived in this environment by doing their work strategically and efficiently. New questions about the coming enrollment cycle are now starting to materialize on the horizon. Indeed, we know that rising high school seniors have spent the past year thinking differently about their own college search than classes in years past. What will they choose when next spring rolls around? How will colleges address the next round of challenges? How many can afford to be as generous for a second consecutive year? What other options exist?

In this challenging economy there are no guarantees, but there are signs that prosperity is still possible. Taking advantage of effective strategies and proven practices, mixed with a healthy dose of innovation, is the way to give yourself and your institution the best opportunity to achieve success in such challenging times.

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