Community College Enrollment Pain Point Audits

Early Research Findings from 20+ Campus Visits

Topics: Community College, Student Retention and Success, Student Experience, Student Affairs, Enrollment Management, Admissions, Financial Aid

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Executive Summary

Losing Students Before They Start

In our annual topic poll for the 2014-2015 best practice research agenda, Community College Executive Forum members voted student onboarding as a top area of concern for their institutions. “Onboarding” is defined as the series of enrollment steps students must complete before taking courses at a college; this includes application, placement testing, advising and career counseling, and many other steps before day one of class. Student interviews reveal widespread confusion and frustration during this process. Our researchers interviewed students who waited hours to speak with an advisor or who selected academic majors at random; some had little appreciation for placement testing and didn’t understand the consequences of unnecessary developmental coursework. Student aggravations during onboarding negatively impact college enrollments: according to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2013 community colleges converted only 42% of interested applicants into enrolled students. At the direction of senior leaders at member institutions, our researchers investigated the reasons for this attrition by adopting student personas and proceeding through the enrollment process themselves.

Exclusive Look at Early Research Results

Members charged us with investigating practical questions: Why do students discontinue their entry into higher education before they even start? How can we eliminate the administrative barriers or disincentives at our institutions? These questions, along with others posed at the beginning of the research initiative, will be answered in a full best practice study planned for spring 2015, Toward Student-Centered Onboarding. This report gives members a behind-the-scenes look at early results from our investigation. These audits will be expanded by hundreds of research interviews across 2014 and 2015 to inform our upcoming study.

Our Approach to the Enrollment Pain Point Audit

The onboarding experience is segmented into eight steps students must accomplish before day one of class. Pages 5 and 6 of this report list the steps in the enrollment process completed by the EAB research team during an on-campus visit at peak registration time. Researchers entered campus with little prior knowledge of the institution to guide them—much like real college applicants—and a goal of getting as far through college enrollment as possible guided solely by staff, students, or resources available on campus. No social security numbers were shared during on-campus visits to protect the privacy of our research team. Furthermore, due to federal law, researchers were unable to submit Free Applications for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and evaluate the processing or verification timeline on member campuses. This did not prevent evaluation of individual steps in the enrollment process or the holistic experience.

Institutional Assessments

Each onboarding step is assessed according to the baseline expectations for that category, as defined through more than 100 interviews we’ve conducted with administrators across the country and an extensive survey of secondary literature on the topic. Baseline expectations are the minimum level of interaction, experience, or information students should have at each stage during onboarding to complete enrollment and prepare for the first day of class. No institution fell on the extremes in either direction. As we anticipated, given the intense interest among our members, colleges of varying sizes, locations, and student populations showed strong practices in some areas and room for improvement in others.

Next Steps: Best Practice Study and National Meeting

Our aim in this project is to give members a third-party perspective of common pain points in the onboarding processes, with resources at the end of each section to guide discussion of the results with the appropriate staff or task force on campus. Executive team members interested in continuing this discussion with peers at other institutions and learning best practices for mitigating common onboarding challenges are encouraged to attend our 2015 national meeting series to learn about the full research study.

Falling Short of Orientation, Scheduling, and Payment

Our researchers visited more than 20 campuses. They selected institutions that each offered a distinct perspective and covered all institutional types. Our researchers visited colleges across different states, regions, and levels of urbanization, and size to appreciate the diversity of students’ experiences when walking onto a community college campus for the first time. However, several shared difficulties (which we call “pain points”) emerged during the course of our research. These pain points are highlighted in this report.

Our researchers were tasked with progressing through as much of the enrollment process as possible in one day at each campus. Across the board, they found it difficult to attend orientation, create a schedule, register for classes, and visit the payment and business office for tuition payment in one trip. While the researchers were able to complete all steps at a small number of campuses, the sample size was not large enough to include pain points for the last three enrollment steps in this report.

  • Topics and Questions to Consider While Reading This Report


    1. Benchmark EAB’s enrollment progress against your average student’s.
    How many steps can new students on your campus realistically complete in one day? Does your team collect data at each step? What are some barriers that might prevent students from finishing all the required enrollment steps for admission?

    2. Note which findings are most surprising.
    Which pain points identified in this report were more surprising and most familiar? Why? What is preventing staff and administrators on your campus from solving these problems?

    3. Create a student follow-up strategy using multiple channels.
    If a student cannot complete the enrollment process in one day, how does your college communicate with the student? Does your current process increase the likelihood that the prospective student will attend the first day of class?

    4. Submit practices, questions, and comments to our researchers.
    Has your college implemented a strategy to overcome a major pain point identified in this report? Is your enrollment task force eager for more detail on a recommended practice? Provide feedback on this report by communicating with us. Email Audrey Wilson.

  • 2015 Community College Executive Forum National Meeting

    Explore building a student-centered onboarding experience, identifying methods for recapturing adult learners, and analyzing future trends in allied health fields at a national meeting session. Save your seat today.

Baseline Expectations