While we hope that most colleges exceeded their "Deposit Day" goals, the trend across the last several years has fewer than 40% of college admissions directors hitting their targets on May 1.
In a landscape this difficult, even the best college enrollment teams can miss goals, raising the question of how the highest performing enrollment teams bounce back after a disappointing year. Based on my work with hundreds of colleges across the last decade with EAB Enrollment Services, I have three observations about how the best teams make strategic, sometimes aggressive adjustments to avoid consecutive misses.
1. Diversify your focus beyond yield
I have seen many schools react to challenging results on May 1 by over-focusing on yield—the impulse is understandable. It’s natural given how critical yield is to achieving enrollment targets, but too often I see college enrollment managers use yield as the assessment, diagnosis, and antidote to disappointing results. Here are a few thoughts on why a single-minded focus on yield can be risky.
- Already a difficult metric to move, yield is becoming an even more challenging inflection point as the market continues to reward discounting.
- Predicting yield without advanced analytics is almost impossible now that key indicators like FAFSA rank have gone away.
- Yield is expensive to move. It requires high-touch efforts that are difficult to scale, or more aggressive aid policies, which are difficult to sustain.
- The runway for recourse during yield season is too short. Campuses simply don’t have time for recovery if yield falloff starts to emerge in April. The prospective universe of students you can inflect is small at this time and the opportunity to change the trend this late in the cycle is very limited.
2. Be proactive and think bold
Teams that successfully rebound are proactive and assertive and start the adjustment process early. Specifically, they do a good job of balancing the near-term spring and summer responsibilities on campus (late deposit management, melt prevention, orientation and welcome weeks) with long-term planning.
In any line of work, urgent things often trump important things, and this can limit the ability to execute high-quality, long-term initiatives. Following missed goals on May 1, college enrollment leaders need to ensure their teams work toward both urgent and important priorities and make proper trade-offs to sustain near term and long-term needs.
As part of this long-term planning, many teams that excel at rebounding have strategies anchored by bold pillars—initiatives or tactics that may fundamentally change the look of their enrollment funnel. They aren’t afraid to do things differently. This might mean launching specific marketing campaigns a few months earlier, developing a comprehensive parent communication strategy, doubling down on investments in the campus visit experience, accepting self-reported test scores, or developing a much more aggressive senior search approach.
Want more applications? Trusting student self-reporting may help.
One practice I often see is a friction audit: Enrollment teams tag each process in their recruitment plan as either "more optimized for the student" or "more optimized for institutional operations process". From there, they work to flip initiatives that are optimized for institutional operations to ones that are optimized for the student experience. This is good practice for rooting out bad practice in your enrollment office and ensures that the student experience is as much of a focal point as possible.
Finally, a difficult market demands bold ideas, so I always advise my clients to gather and brainstorm ideas. Create a safe space where no idea is shot down. Once ideas have been generated, teams can then triage their list by ranking in order of level of effort required and level of potential benefit. This creates a simple mechanism for prioritization and allows a team to determine which 8-10 items can be pulled off well. I always remind leaders that five initiatives executed an A+ level will serve them better than executing 15 at a C level.
3. Establish milestones and stay disciplined with pacing metrics
Goal setting is not a novel idea, but to fully leverage the benefits of goal setting, a high level of discipline is required. Some of the highest performing enrollment teams exhibit this discipline, and I often see it materialize in three ways. First, these colleges and universities focus closely on leading indicators like visit trajectory, first source inquiry pool stacking, and FAFSA trendlines. These markers (and others) can offer an early forecast and should be added to standard reporting on application, admit and deposit activity.
Second, I recommend establishing pacing benchmarks to manage progress as early as August. Establishing topline targets is necessary but not sufficient—a better approach involves managing activity across each key metric at several points throughout the cycle.
In my observation, when high performing teams are not hitting pacing milestones, they take a highly interventionist approach to course correction. The good news is that you can make up ground mid-cycle, especially in the fall. But if you don’t establish pacing benchmarks and measure them until December and January, much of the opportunity for inflection is gone.
Many campuses are reluctant to pivot or invest after a poor start—but this is critical. For example, I worked with a school who sat down in June after a disappointing May 1 deadline and they were committed to making impactful investment changes.
They decided on a plan to admit students within two days their application submission. Their counseling staff also pivoted to focus entirely on visits, counseling, and selling, which meant hiring a processing role to take that workload off counselors. They also launched their efforts earlier, among roughly seven other new initiatives that really worked for them. They saw their freshman enrollment jump from around 80 to near 300.
It's obvious that the enrollment environment we're operating in is extremely challenging, but teams that are willing to innovate and set bold strategies are still hitting their targets. With proper ideation, planning, monitoring, and resource allocation, rebounding from an underwhelming May 1 deadline is within reach. Let us know if we can help—we have practitioners, researchers, and enrollment experts who have advised hundreds of colleges through this experience—and can help you rebound and achieve your goals.
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