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


A National Phenomenon

Applicant Conversion Rates Worsen as More At-Risk Students Enter College

From 2011 to 2013, two-year colleges have lost more than half of all applicants in the period between application and the first day of the fall term. Data suggests the trend is worsening, with colleges converting only 42% of all applicants into enrollees for the 2013 fall term.

The applicant conversion challenge is exacerbated by the increasingly risky profile of incoming students. Over the past decade, more community college students are entering with remedial needs, applying for financial aid, and enrolling in college after years out of a formal educational setting (age 25 and older). These three factors place greater demands on college resources to help students navigate the enrollment process.

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Increasing Conversion Critical to Financial Health

Reversing Drop in Conversion Rate Could Yield $2M+

Improving applicant conversion rates by even small margins can have a significant impact on the tuition revenue a community college will collect.

Just a 5% increase in the conversion rate yields the possibility of $1.9 million in additional tuition revenue. Even 50 additional students give colleges the potential to capture $150,000, based on the average community college tuition reported by AACC. This additional revenue can support student success initiatives, critical financial needs, and staff resources that make it possible to achieve our mission.

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Much Work Left to Do

Current Efforts Lead to Incremental Improvements, But Ultimately Insufficient

Community college leaders have not been idle in the face of these challenges. In response to dwindling application numbers and rising applicant attrition rates, college leaders have implemented a variety of programs and practices on their campuses, including express registration days, customer service training modules for all student-facing roles, one-stop shops that centralize student services in one location on campus, and additional communication channels that allow students to call, text, and Skype directly with college staff.

These initiatives demonstrate leaders’ commitment to continuous improvement on their campuses and represent a step in the right direction for simplifying the new student intake experience. However, service gaps remain.

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Pleasant, Professional, but Still Effortful

Traditional Customer Service Hyper-Focused on Staff Manners

Many progressive college leaders look to the private sector for examples of process efficiency and business management. Scores of colleges have joined professional groups and partnered with private-sector heavyweights like Disney, Apple, and the Ritz-Carlton to learn what makes them so successful. Analyzing the content of these training partnerships reveals an immense focus on teaching student services staff basic soft skills, such as acting politely, saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ and repeating a student’s name during interactions.

Respectful interactions during intake are essential, but staff often described these training activities as childish and, at times, condescending. Even more importantly, the training does not prepare staff to address the reason students may visit campus during intake. If a prospective student stands in line for 35 minutes with a question about the tuition and fee schedule, the quality of her overall experience is only marginally enhanced by the sunny disposition of the staff member helping her. Instead, staff can ensure positive experiences for students by reducing the amount of effort they exert to enroll—answering questions quickly and efficiently.

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Strange Bedfellows?

Private Sector Businesses Offer Practical Strategies for Managing the Intake Process

Despite the gaps in traditional customer service training, our private sector counterparts do manage some of the same challenges that colleges face. Like colleges, business manage an overwhelming number of demands on staff time from a constituency that the organization does not want to lose—for businesses, those constituents are customers. For colleges, they are students.

In his book, The Resource Management and Capacity Planning Handbook, Jerry Manas outlines several recommendations to maximize the use of limited resources. The first recommendation is seemingly obvious, but is often missing in higher education research: reduce the volume of demand. Other customer service research from organizations, such as the Corporate Executive Board (CEB), emphasize the need to reduce effort for customers as they engage with a company. Our members asked us to investigate how these corporate theories apply in higher education.

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Gaining Insight Through Secret Shopping

Forum Researchers Gather Student Experiences of Intake Processes

To more fully understand the student experience at community colleges, our research team visited 22 community college campuses across 11 states just ahead of their fall 2014 terms. Across the industry, the weeks before enrollment are widely considered to be peak registration period: a time when students and their extended network of friends and family flood college hallways. Our on-site observations took place in rural, urban, and suburban settings at institutions of various sizes, cultures, and demographic makeups.

The only constant across these visits was our steadfast adoption of the new student perspective. Members of the research team attempted to forget everything they knew about the post-secondary experience and approach each campus as a new student. Campus signage and staff guided us from one step to the next, we documented the experiences of students from a wide range of backgrounds, and we came as close as we could to enrolling in courses for that term.

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Intake Not Easy on Your Own

Students Face Significant Challenges Trying to Self-Navigate

Unfortunately, the typical new community college student faces a wide range of obstacles when attempting to self-serve during the intake process. While administrators often describe intake as a straightline process, students experience a system much more complicated.

The graphic featured on this page is an adaptation of EAB’s “Chutes and Ladders” depiction of the new student intake process—gathered from hundreds of interviews with students and administrators, as well as from our own oncampus enrollment pain point visits. From all of these conversations and observations, we identified four primary obstacles that create excess effort for students looking to self-serve during intake.

Our research found a critical need to reduce the amount of effort and steps required to complete intake, and to help students identify the best choice in a growing sea of options.

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Five Strategies to Eliminate Enrollment Pain Points

Boosting Student Throughput from Application to Enrollment

The five practices featured in this study offer guidance for college leaders to redesign administrative processes or introduce initiatives that eliminate the most severe enrollment pain points. The first three practices help students self-serve, and the final two outline strategies to serve students who require or prefer live support from professional staff on campus.

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Eliminating Enrollment Pain Points

Best Practices