Enrollment Blog

What May 1 does and doesn't tell you

May 1, as well as the days and weeks that follow, always ends up being an emotionally charged time for admission professionals all around the country and for those of us in the Royall & Company and Hardwick Day offices as well.

We are exultant when it seems like our work with our clients is going to pay off in the form of additional deposits, students, and net tuition revenue; we are on tenterhooks when the early returns from deposit responses fall below what we’ve all expected and hoped for.

Happily, messages carrying good news far outnumbered worrisome reports this year. One of my favorite emails from all the client communications that circulated through our offices this year was from a college president reporting on the year’s end. I’ve excerpted a passage from the email here, redacting the specific numbers for the sake of confidentiality:

"This has been a record year in terms of applications and deposits. We held steady on quality, increased diversity, reduced the acceptance rate, and will likely increase yield.

We also increased net tuition revenue from an average of X% to more than XX%.

We are going from an $XX million revenue shortfall to closing the financial gap in one year through increased revenue and cost containment."

Although this email was particularly replete with positive results, our inboxes have been flooded with similar stories across the past several weeks.

Corroborating the anecdotal reports, a poll that our survey team conducted last week of 145 clients found that among the institutions that were looking to increase class size (about two-thirds of all clients), the average increase in the number of students submitting deposits was up 13%.

Too soon to declare victory

And yet, it’s far too soon to declare victory, for a number of reasons. First of all, not every single client had the year they hoped to achieve, due to changes in market dynamics or local circumstances, which means that my colleagues and I have to temper our celebrations accordingly. Also, though, data, especially hot-off-the-presses data, doesn’t always tell the whole story.

As our data analysts often remind me, numbers don’t lie … but initial results often get restated once we have the chance to analyze and verify the raw data. So we try to wait until we can double- and triple-check numbers to ratify the final results—a process that in some cases should really wait until an official census has been taken after the school year has actually started, since the reductions in class size due to “summer melt” can be considerable.

More important, though, our interpretation of May 1 outcomes can change when filtered through the lens of our clients’ real objectives and ultimate metrics of success.

Re-interpreting May 1 outcomes

For instance, if we measure success through enrollment numbers, a client that increased freshman enrollment by 10% might be labeled a success. But dig a bit deeper into their data and you might find that despite a substantial enrollment increase in an incoming class, they’ve missed their net tuition revenue goal.

Perhaps a client wanted to reduce class size in a given year. In that case, a perceived failure viewed through the lens of growth is actually a big win. Likewise, an institution that increases net tuition revenue per student but misses its enrollment target could be considered a failure from an enrollment perspective but a win from a revenue perspective.

Extend the comparisons among institutions to metrics such as discount rate, net tuition revenue per student, and profile, and the interpretation of results can become even murkier. Is it appropriate to compare an institution whose Pell eligibility is 50% to a school whose rate is 10%? How about similarly sized institutions located in different regions of the country? Or institutions that are similarly sized and of similar profile but have vastly different endowments?

Understanding how you are stacking up to your peers is essential to all of us who work in Enrollment. But educating your colleagues about appropriate comparisons and context is arguably more important, if you want to use your May 1st results to create buy-in and spark productive, strategic conversations about how to best meet your institution’s goals in the years to come.

Read more about May 1 successes

Check out our brief summary of selected Royall client results to learn about a variety of successes and the strategies that made them possible. Read more.

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