***This piece originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed.
Back in 2001, I worked in the New York University admissions office. We were very well positioned to have a terrific incoming class.
Then 9/11 happened.
I remember huddling with my colleagues, time and time again, trying to work our way through this unprecedented, impossibly challenging year with fewer applications and distraught, distracted applicants.
All of our projections, plans, and benchmarks were thrown into disarray.
The uncertainty of the 9/11 aftermath vexed us all fall. How could we chart a new course when one day our troops were being deployed and the next we had anthrax peppering the desks of journalists just up the road from our campus?
But, as winter turned to spring, the world seemed to settle down a bit, and we were able to get students focused on filing FAFSA and visiting campus. We landed our class that year, but my colleagues and I were well aware that, had 9/11 been 4/11, we never would have been successful.
Fast forward 16 years: Now as a managing director of Royall & Company, my conversations with enrollment leaders these past months have reminded me of that long fall of 2001. Our campus partners are filled with concerns about their enrollment and revenue projections, and yet many are also confounded by the unpredictability of what might happen tomorrow.
Two major themes have emerged this year. First, early FAFSA activity has changed students’ behavior and has made forecasting enrollment outcomes extremely difficult. Second, the political world has many confronting potential losses of revenue from international students and changes to federal student aid.
Let’s take a look at those challenges and potential shortfalls and consider a few tactics that could help those of you involved in college and university admissions to mitigate them.
Forecasting enrollment outcomes
Ever since the FAFSA filing window opened, the volume of activity has surpassed most enrollment professionals’ estimations. Because filing a FAFSA has traditionally been a strong indicator of student intent, this year’s activity is difficult to read. Some colleges and universities exceeded their final FAFSA volumes before January 1, while others are seeing comparable activity to last year.
What to make of this? It’s really hard to tell. One thing that’s certain, you will need to think carefully about how much weight you’re ascribing to the FAFSA in your predictions this year. Other factors, such as campus visits and your track record with a student’s high school, are likely to be more stable indicators this year and perhaps worthy of additional weight.
On just about every campus, international students bring more revenue per person than traditional domestic students. With growing evidence that international students are less willing—and, crucially, less able in the wake of the new administration’s policies—to travel to the United States, enrollment teams will have to work creatively to replace their lost revenue.
Whether international students comprise 2 percent or 10 percent of your class, you’ll need to add more than one domestic student for each international student you think might not show up at freshman orientation, given the revenue differential. And you should probably also factor in some retention challenges, too. Some Royall & Company partner institutions have expressed concerns that current international students may choose to depart because of potential imitations on travel or fears triggered by the changing tenor of American political rhetoric. And some paranoia on this front is certainly warranted.
Federal aid support
My colleagues on campuses are asking important—and alarming—questions: What would be the budget or retention impact of a $1,000 cut in the top Pell grant? What would happen if Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (SEOGs) went away? What if the interest subsidy on student loans disappears?
We already know that even students with a grade point average above 3.0 who lose $1,000 to $1,500 in financial aid are 2.5 percent more likely to drop out of school than their peers who have little or no change in aid.
In the past, we never might have imagined a world where all of this could happen quickly. But we’re in a different climate today. Higher education’s budget is large; it is an easy target for cost-containment conversations in Washington, DC. If you haven’t started thinking about a contingency plan on your campus, you should do so right away. Confront your toughest question: What additional enrollment revenues would you need to off-set these potentialities?
What to do next?
We cannot predict when—if ever—enrollment teams will regain traction on solid, familiar ground.
In the interim, however, here are a few established strategies that can help you find your students and meet your enrollment and revenue goals even in this unpredictable time.
- Build your bandwidth. Let me assure you that it’s not too late to grow your applicant pool. One of the lessons I’ve learned is that late engagement of high school seniors (even into March and April) is possible. Scour your FAFSA applications for potential stealth applicants—students who don’t show up in a college’s inquiry pool—and proactively prod them to apply with simple, well-timed messages. And remember that transfer students from community colleges are an often under-tapped population of late-applicants. EAB research indicates transfer students are less expensive to recruit and enroll at 10 to 20 percent higher tuition rates because most schools allocate more of their tuition discounting funds for first-year students. Transfer students are also 5 to 20 percent more likely to graduate than students recruited directly out of high school.
- Persist. According to Royall & Company testing, 32 percent of all deposits come from students who respond after your fifth message. So don’t worry about annoying students. If they aren’t interested, they’ll let you know. The ones that you’re not hearing back from might be just as preoccupied with the changing dynamics in Washington, DC, and across the globe as you are. Keep at it. Target the students who started, but did not complete, their applications.
We found that a series of simple, strategic text message nudges that prodded non-completers to finish either their Common Application or an institution’s custom application increased response rates by 63 percent -- a boost that carried through to admission stage. And always keep students at the center of your messages. Royall & Company tests show can result in a 50 percent increase in response rate over institution-centered copy. Student-centered copy, for example, would tell prospective students that they can be the architect of their own education, as opposed to talking about the school’s flexible curriculum.
- Engage parents. Don’t forget about the parents of your prospective students. In Royall & Company surveys, parents consistently emerge as the most influential figures in students’ college decision making, significantly more so than high school and college counselors. Our research shows that students who provide a parent’s email address to a college or university during the recruitment phase are 52 percent more likely to apply to the institution.
Parents can also be your best partner in driving the activity you most care about. Our tests show that parents have a four times higher response rate to FAFSA communications than students. But don’t just ask students to involve their parents. Think about a parent recruitment strategy that reaches out to prospective parents directly. Enlist some of your current students’ parents to call or host informational meetings for the parents of prospective students. You will most likely find that parents are eager to help you and will welcome the positive, hopeful vision of their child’s future that is the consistent core of every institution’s mission.
Faced with new levels and kinds of enrollment risk, I encourage admissions teams to seek out these and other tested, effective enrollment strategies. A focus on data and research helped my colleagues and me in 2001, and I believe it can also help institutions in 2017 and beyond.
What’s more: I believe higher education is in a better spot now. The situation in 2001 was thankfully fairly limited. But today there are thousands of institutions coping with ambiguities we’ve not seen, nor could anticipate, before. As a result, there are many lessons to be learned from across institutions, and I am constantly surprised by how many colleges and universities are willing to share what works, with us and each other. No institution should feel the need to go at it alone.