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What We See Now
and Three Ways to Think About It

Shifting economic winds over the past six months have brought an end to a powerful, healthy wave that many institutions have ridden successfully in recent years. While the work of college and university leadership teams is never easy, the recent student demographic spike, the abundance of online admission applications, and half a decade’s surge in financial markets have made for mostly smooth sailing – until now.

Understandably, for many there is fear about the course that this year’s enrollment cycle is charting and great concern about next year’s as well. Managing that fear effectively (see Bulletin #1) is essential because, if left unchecked, fear can produce misguided and even counterproductive decisions. Unchecked fear can disable even the truest internal compass. At this critical late-winter moment, when boards of trustees and leadership teams are making decisions about tuition increases, discount rates, cost-cutting, and how best to communicate these choices, resolutions informed and confirmed by evidence will best enable institutions to keep the horizon in sight and weather the storm.

What Are We Seeing?

We have reached an important juncture in this year’s complicated enrollment cycle. The market’s first major, measurable indicator is now largely available. By this time, most conventional admission application deadlines have passed. While institutions with rolling admissions are still anticipating a significant number of submissions, they too have a strong sense of the shape of their applicant pools.

To date, we have seen some noticeable shifts in student application behaviors that are attributable to the economy. However, if the economy alone were the overwhelming driver of changing behaviors, clear and consistent patterns of rising or falling application numbers should be emerging. But, here’s the catch: they aren’t.

Some of the predictions commonly made over the last six months about this cycle are proving true. Applications for admission to public institutions are higher in most regions and across levels of selectivity. For private colleges and universities, where the conventional wisdom suggested that applications could plummet this year, the picture is nowhere near as clear.

Right now, we see that many larger, urban universities with substantial portfolios of professional programs are doing well on the whole and that many liberal arts colleges are finding this a more difficult season. Aside from some of the elite, “no loan” institutions, a significant number of more-selective colleges and universities are experiencing a decline in applications for the first time in years. The experience among moderately- and less-selective institutions, however, is quite mixed, with comparable numbers of institutions experiencing significant declines, no declines, or notable increases. In fact, a great many smaller private institutions have fared very well thus far – at least in terms of applications.

Furthermore, most institutions are finding that the composition of their applicant pool is comparable to what it has been in recent years – a factor that is often at least as important as the sheer volume of applications. However, for some whose total application quantity is steady, there are substantial decreases in certain key markets or demographics, revealing a reality not as rosy as that conveyed by application numbers alone because increases are in markets where their yield is lower than in primary markets.

So, what does all of this mean? And what are the most important considerations for steering your yield tactics in the days ahead?

We offer three insights, not always obvious in the midst of this storm, to guide your perspectives during the next critical phase of this enrollment cycle:

  1. It’s Not Just the Economy. It is tempting – and too easy – to blame the economy for everything and forego scrutiny of an institution’s specific attributes and performance. However, the early evidence points to substantial variability in results at different institutions and within institutional types, which logically means that factors over and above the economy are at work. Performance right now may be as much a function of how well institutions have positioned themselves for and reacted to the economic downturn as it is to the downturn itself. In short, results to date appear based not solely on what is happening to institutions or what institutions are, but on what institutions do.

    Among our clients and a number of other colleges and universities, for example, we note greater application generation at institutions that heeded the call over the past decade to focus their marketing messages on future outcomes and not just on academic offerings. In this climate, the impact of a strong, career-opportunity value proposition is proving to be significant. And some institutions whose recruitment messages have not been tailored or targeted in that way are likely feeling the pinch. Now more than ever, it seems that focused and disciplined recruitment efforts centered on meaningful and measurable outcome messages are being rewarded by the marketplace.

  2. Historical Data Matter Now More Than Ever. We have heard at many professional conferences and read in more than a few recent articles the painfully overused mantra that “historical data no longer matter.” It may be comforting amidst uncertainty to warm ourselves to the idea that there is no way we can know what is happening, what to do, and what can be learned from the past. But it is nonsense. While it’s true that this journey is markedly different from the last, imagine a ship’s captain in troubled seas not utilizing past and current evidence in all its forms to navigate through such adversity. Assume your institution did just that, for the sake of argument. What is the alternative strategy?

    During other recent downturns – the October 1987 stock-market meltdown, the savings and loan crises of the late 1980s, the chaos of 1990s downsizing, the “dot com” and telecommunications bubble bursts, our national mourning following September 11, 2001, and other events similarly billed at the time as the economic equivalents of the “storm of the century” – the last thing effective leaders chose to do was destroy the records, discard the map, and disable the navigation system. Yes, the current emergency is more complex and even more painful than most previous chapters. Yet, who among us can possibly argue that we have nothing to learn from how institutions including our own have acted and reacted during past downturns?

  3. It is Still Predictable. Another disconcerting lament we hear suggests that you simply cannot make enrollment predictions and projections in this economic climate. We would like to disagree politely, but we cannot. We disagree profoundly. The truth is that this year’s outcomes are still predictable, but with one unsurprising caveat: What we do not know is the amount of predictive power that has been lost – if any – due to economic turbulence.

    There is clearly substantial uncertainty in the marketplace today. To whatever degree that families make decisions on a similar set of criteria as they have in recent years, however, our ability to predict and project remains stronger than it may seem. Let’s not forget that families have been considering cost when making enrollment decisions for quite some time. Cost will almost certainly be a larger consideration this year, as an extension of an ongoing trend, but it is not an entirely new phenomenon. It may be a difference in degree, but not necessarily a difference in kind. The same can be said for the timing of enrollment deposits – in general, they’ve been arriving at institutions at progressively later dates for years.

    We believe it is essential to distinguish between an entirely new concept and the continuation, change in tempo, or other modification of an old one. The notion that enrollment decisions will suddenly be made upon a sweeping new set of criteria that no one could have considered or imagined is an illusion. The point is that we are still sailing in the same ocean. Today’s circumstances do not necessarily present a new paradigm with completely different input variables and outcome measures.

Finding Calmer Seas

Though fear can be as thick as the salty air and fog over the ocean, surrendering to it is not the answer to this season’s uncertainty. The unending pursuit of the facts is. One fact we know for sure is that we are 15 months into a severe global recession that, now more than ever, requires that we marshal evidence and use institutional memory, historical knowledge, and professional experience in concert to plan and execute successful strategies. The key challenge for institutional leaders today is to ensure that employees and colleagues have access to every evidence-based and outcomes-based resource on deck.

In these – indeed, at all – times, deploying an enrollment management navigation system most effectively means:

  • Closely monitoring and analyzing the data as they become available;
  • Adjusting strategically and wisely to patterns you discern;
  • Preparing contingencies in case you veer further off course than in the past, which places a premium on precise instrumentation that informs you quickly of such course discrepancies;
  • Breaking out of the traditional framework when necessary by utilizing creative outreach efforts, incentives, and financial aid offers to encourage enrollment; and
  • Developing a compelling messaging system that truly elevates and differentiates your value proposition while ensuring that every leader and communicator on campus knows how to use it.

Some institutions may find their way to home port this year a little lighter in applications, enrolled students, or revenue than they would like. For nearly every institution at sea right now, there will be a next year and ample time between now and then to build more capabilities, acquire more information, and adjust navigation tactics. There is time to generate the research and develop the knowledge that will help you better understand the new baseline that this enrollment cycle establishes to avoid needless repetition of unsatisfying results.

This year is not lost, even for those institutions behind in applications now or in deposits as the spring and summer unfold. There are still important lessons to be learned and tools to help ensure that you find the pathway home by the time September rolls around – and if not optimally in 2009 then with renewed momentum in 2010.

You and your colleagues have likely traveled similar routes in the past. You can do it again.

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