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Three Suggestions for Surviving Today and Thriving Tomorrow

It is a challenge in a difficult economy to ensure that the loudest and seemingly most urgent issues do not monopolize your time. In moments of uncertainty and stress there is enormous pressure to focus on urgent matters, whether or not they are genuinely important.

The two-by-two matrix depicting the relationship between importance and urgency (below) illustrates this point. As always, and even more so in this unstable economy, a key to effectiveness is to concentrate on issues that are important and urgent (upper-right quadrant) while not losing sight of important matters that may not seem as urgent right now (lower-right quadrant). With inattention, the latter can become urgent very quickly.

Determining the relative importance of the issues on your daily agenda will test the utility of your strategic plan. After all, what matters most ought to be evident in your institution’s highest strategic priorities. Otherwise, virtually everything on your desk or in your voice mail or email can seem urgent. How do you and your colleagues allocate your valuable time? How do you avoid being consumed by distractions that are urgent but not truly important (upper left quadrant)? Many higher education professionals are telling us that they feel overwhelmed these days, and it’s no wonder. It is not always easy to identify and prioritize what is most important.

Here are three urgent and important enrollment-related suggestions that provide some useful perspective:

  1. Assess and solidify your application pool. Monitor your application volume and composition carefully and frequently in these final weeks of 2008. Identify how this year’s pool differs from last year’s – ideally, last year’s pool at this time in the cycle. Given current economic conditions, diligent internal research is more important than ever. For example, it can be useful to identify changes in application patterns within key high schools or by geographical region, zip code, even submission type – online versus paper, institutional applications versus consortium applications. You can also use household-income data from the 2000 Census to target messages of value and affordability to prospective students and families who reside in areas with lower average household incomes. More expensive institutions may need to expend more energy sharing such messages or risk losing desirable applicants.

    We also offer the reminder that there is a significant difference between applications – numbers on a spreadsheet – and completed applications. Completed applications will constitute your admitted – and subsequently enrolling – class. That is why it is so important to allocate resources to encourage prospective students to begin their applications as soon as possible and, once the applications are received, to process those applications in a timely manner. That kind of speed provides real-time market intelligence that may give you a competitive edge in uncertain times.

    In previous years, there were fewer risks in waiting to see how many applications would be completed by January and February. Instead of waiting until there are hundreds of students to contact, use each new application submission and your institution’s stepped-up application-processing efforts as opportunities for personal interaction with applicants. Answer their questions, share your messages, encourage them to complete their application, and speak directly to their interests and concerns.

  2. Stay focused on next year’s prospects. The pressure to capture the attention of this year’s high school seniors can be all-consuming. However, high school juniors are also engaged in their own college searches right now. The period between Thanksgiving and the New Year is when juniors (and even sophomores) spend considerable time discussing college options with family and friends. Don’t shortchange your fall 2010 and 2011 recruitment by missing opportunities now to place your institution’s name and value message in front of juniors and sophomores.

    There will be a next year, no matter how harrowing this year may seem. Without concerted efforts to cultivate strong interest among this year’s juniors, however, you will be fighting an uphill battle to get their attention later in the process. Stay in front of high school juniors, even while you maintain a full-court press for this year’s enrollment.

    What is the best way to recruit next year’s enrolling class? Context really matters this time around. It is important to ask yourself the same questions that high school juniors and their families are or will be asking. While current seniors and their families have had only a few months to experience this difficult economy prior to making application and enrollment decisions, next year’s seniors and their parents will have had over a year to assess their circumstances and set their college priorities.

    It is important to understand how perceptions of families and students may change as a result of a prolonged economic downturn. Will next year’s high school seniors be more distressed or less distressed? How will the experience of a bumpy 2009 affect their decision making? Will this year’s messages resonate with next year’s listeners? Don’t hesitate to ask them! Reach out now with surveys and other inquiry tools. Better information from the students and families you seek to recruit and engage will lead to better strategies for your institution.

  3. Optimize recruitment resources. It is no small task to execute a successful enrollment strategy in tough times. We know that your resources are not unlimited. One proven way to manage effectively without busting budgets or working 24 hours a day is to deploy your attention strategically.

    For example, some institutions are currently evaluating how they recruit and treat transfer applicants. In an environment in which maintaining enrollment numbers and an enthusiastic student body is critical, transfer students can be an overlooked and undervalued resource. Consider investing modest recruitment and financial aid resources in recruiting transfer students. In some cases, transfers seek high-quality education at reasonable costs and your institution just might be their answer. Make sure you communicate that affordability message to transfers as well as traditional students. There’s no reason why some traditional freshman recruitment efforts – recruitment emails, phone calls, prospect name buys – can’t be creatively tailored to become part of a deliberate and intentional transfer-student recruitment strategy.

    Lastly, the prospective student-name purchasing season has arrived and ramps up to full speed in the next few months. For many institutions, this is a very expensive item in the recruitment budget. To achieve the best possible return on this investment, take time to analyze the historical outcomes from your previous name purchases. Use sound research techniques to assess whether your outreach to prospective students has been too broad or too narrow. After all, few institutions can afford designing, printing and mailing expensive publications to prospective students who will simply never apply. Assessing your return-on-investment in this manner will save you significant time and money.

Time Matters

Time is as precious a resource as money. Some would argue that it is our most precious resource. Right now, everyone is working against time. The objective is to work effectively and efficiently. Even in the throes of uncertainty, success comes to those who separate the important from the urgent, keeping both short- and long-term institutional objectives in view. We encourage you to take the time now – analytically, strategically and creatively – to maximize the value of your time during the challenging days ahead.

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