Enrollment Blog

Proven paths to growth: Lessons from our 2015 Enrollment Trends Survey

by Peter Farrell

Each year, Royall & Company undertakes a survey of its partner colleges and universities, focusing on core measures of their enrollment performance. It’s a crucial pulse check for us in terms of how much we’re helping our partner institutions. But its value goes well beyond that.

Because it includes data from 140 schools around the nation, the survey also provides a unique snapshot of the state of the industry. More importantly, it highlights what the most successful schools are doing differently. In this post, I’ll be sharing with you three lessons from our top-performing partner institutions.

1. Senior marketing is more impactful than many realize

The schools we work with saw, on average, enrollment growth well above industry norms. But some did better than others. What accounts for the difference?

One key factor was their strategy for engaging newly available high school seniors. Institutions optimizing their approach to this group saw, on average, a 20% increase in deposits compared with 4% for schools not doing so.

Part of what’s going on here is a more thoughtful approach to list sourcing. While we definitely recommend engaging high school juniors and sophomores, it’s important to realize that 20% of student names don’t become available until senior year—many of them after November, by which point many schools have stopped doing new outreach. Knowing how to engage this group can pay off in a big way, adding 16% or more to your total enrollment tally.

2. Getting a bump from expert FAO

A lot of people will tell you that financial aid optimization (FAO) has become a commodity—that there are only so many ways to do a predictive model, given the limited number of available inputs.

This is wrongheaded for two main reasons.

First, there are hundreds of different variables to consider when building a predictive model, and the level of testing, knowledge, creativity and experience brought to bear on the effort will determine how effective or ineffective your model is. This is especially true now that data regarding FAFSA position is no longer available.

Second, there’s a lot more to aid optimization than regression models. Outstanding FAO performance depends heavily on strategic agility—the ability to instantly tweak aid policies, on the fly, in response to feedback you’re getting from your enrollment campaigns. This, in turn, depends on close, ongoing integration among your recruitment, yield and aid optimization efforts.

These facts were borne out by the experiences of our surveyed schools. Those using dedicated and fully integrated FAO resources saw, on average, a 9% increase in net tuition revenue, versus a 0% increase for those not doing so.

3. The undeniable power of financial aid

Nobody’s eager to brag about their discount rate. But the fact remains that financial aid gets results like few other levers you can pull—especially in this period of protracted wage stagnation. This was strikingly clear from the experience of our partner schools across the last enrollment cycle.

Schools increasing their financial aid commitment performed better on multiple core measures, including number of students enrolled and average SAT score. The impact on net tuition revenue was especially profound; schools increasing financial aid saw 10% growth over the previous year (versus a 2% increase for schools keeping their aid investment the same).

A solid foundation of data and analytics

One point I haven’t stressed so far is that the numbers I’ve been sharing with you were generated from a random sample of our partner schools. In other words, it’s an unfiltered, objective look at how the colleges and universities we work with performed, in aggregate—not just a subset of our most flattering cases.

The picture that emerges is one of consistently market-beating performance across a broad range of school types and geographies. Our three top quartiles of institutions saw annual net tuition revenue growth of 20%, 14% and 8%, respectively. (NTR for the bottom quartile, which mostly consisted of schools explicitly pursuing aims other than growth, was flat.) On average, our partner institutions saw an increase in freshman class net tuition revenue last year of more than $1 million per school.

I think it’s fair to say this is an endorsement of our methodology—a fundamentally data-driven approach to enrollment management, based on ceaseless testing, measurement, iteration and refinement.

The idea is really simple: Research alternate tactics for boosting inquiries, applications and yield; test them; measure their relative impact; and channel resources selectively to the most impactful approaches. That’s it.

Execution is another matter—the phrase “simple but not easy” comes to mind—which is why our partner institutions seek out our help. But for those getting it right, the payoff can be consistently, surprisingly big.

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