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Three Ways to Recalibrate for the New Enrollment Cycle

Welcome to the second year of our Insights for a Challenging Economy bulletin. More than in most recent Septembers, institutional and enrollment leaders seem to be sharing the same sense of excitement and disorientation that their new students experience as they navigate a new campus landscape. For students, there’s little choice but to learn quickly and keep moving. For institutional leaders, however, there is a choice.

While it’s understandably difficult to disconnect from the ever-increasing tempo of the new academic and enrollment calendar, it’s especially important to find the time to do so. It’s not fall 2007 when the student recruitment landscape allowed for relatively smooth sailing. However, it’s also not fall 2008 when much of the global economy was engulfed in turmoil and uncertainty. This is fall 2009, and if your recruitment strategies are calibrated for anything other than the moment we’re in now, it could well be a very long year.

Here are three possible areas for recalibration at the start of this cycle. Not all this work can or should be done right this minute. These are necessarily ongoing processes. However, if you get into the right mindset and get started now while the year is still fresh, you’ll put yourself and your institution in a good position come crunch time next spring.

1. Recalibrate your recruitment messages

The fundamental importance of higher education around the world and parents’ commitment to providing high-quality educational opportunities for their children has never been greater. The value placed on education was proven in a dramatic way during this past enrollment cycle. According to Maguire Associates’ recent College Decision Impact Survey, high school students and their parents reported extreme concern about the economy while at the same time – and rather relentlessly – pursuing their higher education objectives.

Happily, this widespread recognition of the role a college education plays in the advancement of individuals, communities, and societies has not been lost in the recent economic downturn. At a Maguire Associates Symposium in June, The New School’s Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer James Murtha called this phenomenon “the inelasticity of aspirations.”

The relative stability of enrollment patterns this “inelasticity” suggests, however, belies subtle but important shifts in priorities and interests of students and families in this economic climate. It’s essential to recalibrate your communication, conversation, and connections with students and parents to address precisely what’s on their minds and in their immediate priorities at that moment, whether or not those topics have been focal points of your messages or publications to date.

Market research is an indispensible resource for understanding prospective students and parents in this manner. Now, in tough times, is exactly when successful institutions are investing in research to stay as close as possible to their most important revenue sources. Timely research enables institutions to recalibrate their recruitment messages as well as the facts and stories used to animate and articulate those messages, doing so as needs dictate throughout the enrollment cycle.

Additionally, a resource such as the StudentTracker service at the National Student Clearinghouse can be utilized and carefully analyzed to provide data on where each of your admitted students enrolled this fall. Such analysis will help you calibrate your direct competition, including those whose places on the list have become more prominent during the economic downturn. Combining that competitive information with insights from market research can enable savvy enrollment managers to ask and answer key questions and generate truly relevant messaging and communication vehicles.

2. Recalibrate your market tracking

The most important knowledge about your student market comes first and foremost from exploring your own recruitment data and results. Knowing what has worked for you and, as importantly, what has not worked for you is an essential condition for deriving meaning from all other market information.

Monitoring your progress and the composition of your inquirers, applicants, and admitted students is a must at all times of the year – and in years of favorable tailwinds or ominous storm clouds. Effective tracking means looking beyond last year, beyond mere response rates, and beyond simple inquiry volume to identify the strength and interest of your prospective student pool. Remember that this year’s high school seniors and their families, unlike last year’s cohort, have absorbed frightening economic news throughout the students’ junior year. Their approach toward submitting inquiries or selecting institutions to which they’ll apply may differ slightly from the approach of cohorts in years past.

It is also important this year to recalibrate the information that you track from outside your own institution. Several publicly available data points are decidedly pertinent to the important work of recruiting students; they provide evidentiary support and guidance for decisions that you and your colleagues will need to make throughout the fall and winter. For example, we know that the ability and willingness to pay for higher education derives from far more than income figures reported on a financial aid form. Keeping a close eye on credit markets will inform your awareness of families’ borrowing power for educational costs. Monitoring home values across your primary markets will provide a sense of general trends of home equity. Public sentiment and consumer confidence data are also directly related to spending behaviors. And while noteworthy job growth isn’t expected to return until late 2010, hiring activity and unemployment rates in important markets are still useful pieces of information when recalibrating your strategies as they pertain both to messaging and, later in the cycle, to financial aid awarding.

3. Recalibrate your financial aid awarding

Many colleges and universities across the country made bold commitments of generous financial aid awards this past spring. These commitments helped stabilize enrollment at a wide variety of private institutions, especially smaller and liberal arts colleges. That momentary necessity, however, has created an important long-term question around the sustainability of awarding strategies if they are not recalibrated again for a new year – another challenging and complicated year, to be sure, but one that will not be a carbon copy of the preceding cycle.

Looking forward, you can most effectively derive strategies to meet the needs of both your institution and the families you serve by using a judicious combination of insights gleaned from interactions with those families, tracking external trends, and complex analysis of your enrollment results. It may only be September, but this is the perfect time to ramp up conversations with institutional leaders and begin formulating a comprehensive awarding strategy for the year to come, educating colleagues that simply implementing last year’s strategies without thoughtful recalibration is risky at best, and financially damaging at worst.

Sharpening your tools

As public emotions fluctuate with daily financial and economic news reports, short-term behaviors can and will be affected. This is the case even when it is likely that the most critical decisions will be made on larger and more enduring factors. This distinction between emotions and actions was a key point in the final analysis of student enrollment choices last spring, as deep concerns did not necessarily translate into altered enrollment choices.

This year, there’s no way to know which behaviors will be altered during the early parts of the enrollment cycle, or by how much. If the stock market takes another serious nosedive or a monthly employment report is worse than expected, it’s possible that families may cancel trips to your campus or fail to attend particular events due to their momentary concerns or constraints. They may make other such choices in the midst of these fluctuations that you might otherwise interpret through the prism of years past as a lack of interest in your institution. Perhaps this year it’s worth testing out different responses. Emotions now may be very different from emotions in the spring, and we have learned from our survey work that serious concerns about the economy do not necessarily translate into retrenchment.

Conventional wisdom is that higher education is genuinely countercyclical – people gravitate towards it in hard economic times. Last year proved the adage to be true to an extent. The catch is that students won’t necessarily gravitate towards you. There is intense competition for desirable students. This year, we all need to bring our A game.

So, even though it might feel difficult enough just to keep up with the overwhelming pace of business, don’t forget to keep your head up and look around. It can be disorienting to be in a new space on a new day, but there is great power to be harnessed from the experiences and skills you accumulated while surviving last year. Use your tools, exercise your curiosity, and sharpen those powers of observation for a fresh spin around the enrollment cycle. And return, with renewed momentum, to thrive in a challenging economy.

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