Eliminating Enrollment Pain Points

Five Strategies to Increase Applicant Conversion Rates

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

Executive Summary

Applicant attrition rates reveal problematic intake process at two-year colleges

From 2011 to 2013, two-year colleges lost more than half of all prospective students between application and the first day of the fall term. In the fall of 2013, community colleges converted only 42% of all applicants into enrollees at their institutions—a 58% attrition rate before the semester even began. The applicant conversion challenge is exacerbated by the increasingly risky profile of incoming students. Over the past decade, more students have entered community college with remedial needs, applied for financial aid, and enrolled in college after years away from a formal educational setting, resulting in greater demands on college resources to help students navigate the enrollment process. In an era of declining enrollments and heightened competition, community college leaders must focus on optimizing intake for incoming students by smoothing their path to enrollment and completion.

Many administrative obstacles in student intake and registration process

To understand the student experience, EAB researchers visited over 20 community college campuses across 11 states just ahead of their fall 2014 terms. Each campus was unique—our on-site observations took place in rural, urban, and suburban settings at institutions of various sizes, with different cultures and demographic makeups. The only constant across these visits was our steadfast adoption of the new student perspective. Despite vast experience in higher education, members of the research team approached each campus as a new student would by relying on campus signage, student advice, and staff instructions to guide us from start to finish. In a few instances, research team members were able to register for classes. However, in the majority of on-site visits, campus procedures prevented such progress.

Structural and strategic changes needed to boost conversion rates

Despite efforts to improve customer service and create more welcoming environments, community colleges still require students to navigate complex processes and policies. Mazes of offices, forms, and new terms can discourage students and delay their progress toward enrollment. To help students enroll more easily, colleges must change their structure and strategies to reduce student effort during intake. This study explores five strategies to help institutions increase their applicant to enrollment conversion rates:

  • Immediate ID provision
  • Sequential student web portal
  • Jargon reduction audit
  • Follow-up modality recommender
  • Registration case manager

Eliminating Enrollment Pain Points

Students prefer self-service, but institutional resources difficult to navigate

Research shows that when today’s consumers need to complete a process or have a question, they are just as comfortable going online to self-serve as they are calling a professional for live support. Consumers’ comfort with online self-service applies across a wide range of activities, including ordering takeout food and filling out tax forms, and holds true across the majority of age segments. Unsurprisingly, students share these tendencies. Yet, the typical new community college student faces numerous obstacles when attempting to self-serve during the intake process: unexpected delays, crowded websites, confusing jargon, and a seemingly endless stream of interdepartmental transfers. While administrators often describe intake as a straight-line process, the actual student experience more clearly resembles a maze.

Eliminate unnecessary enrollment delays by immediately providing student ID numbers

A simple place to start is student ID numbers. Prospective students typically wait between 24 and 48 hours from the time they submit an application to the time they receive an admissions letter with a student ID number included. This delay can cause confusion and frustration among new applicants, decreasing the odds of enrollment at the institution. One institution we studied issues an ID number to any person who submits an application to the college, allowing new students to proceed through the rest of enrollment without delay.

Simplify online content to help students quickly understand enrollment next steps

While people prefer to complete processes online, it’s not enough to simply put all your information and forms online as-is. Instead, processes should be optimized for online self-service. Our research identified two major challenges students face when attempting to learn about enrollment online. First, students get lost in the sheer amount of information available on institutional websites and they struggle to find the most relevant content at the right time. A well-constructed web portal can alleviate these issues by customizing content for users. Second, students may just not understand what’s being said. The language of higher education is full of industry-specific jargon, which can be a problem for students looking to enroll. A low-cost solution to this problem is to simplify the language used in the online application process, enabling students to self-serve without relying on staff time for basic inquiries.

One-stop shops a good start, but further reduction in student effort needed

One-stop student services buildings are the most commonly proposed solution to the chaos that students face during intake. More than half of the colleges participating in the enrollment pain point audits of fall 2014 have one-stop shops that centralize student services offices in a single location. However, students report that most of these one-stop shops are unsuccessful at solving their primary challenges: changing offices at each step, waiting in various lines, repeating information, and receiving conflicting messages from staff at each visit. A single, dedicated staff person who can help new students along the enrollment process can alleviate these challenges. We studied one college that instituted this practice by employing “registration case managers” for new students.

Understanding Your Current Practice

The following questions are designed to guide members in evaluating their current activities. Use them to determine if the full range of best practices is being used on your campus and to evaluate whether absences represent an opportunity for investment or action.

Download PDF Download the questions