Using Data to Inform Enrollment Management Part 1

Recruiting Students Who Will Thrive

Enrollment managers play a critical role on every campus. While the outside world may focus much of its energy on faculty effectiveness, graduation rates, and career placement, a campus can’t survive without the ability to enroll or retain students. Especially in today’s era of lowered budget allocations and tuition discounting, the pressure is on to continually meet numbers. If a student leaves, he or she must be replaced. For enrollment managers, the goal is simple: use data to admit students who are likely to thrive and then use more data to help assure they are retained. Part One of this series will focus on the admissions side of the house, while Part Two will turn toward retention and student success.

Setting the scene

As the president of a large, four-year public university looks out at 6,000 incoming first-year students during convocation, she is not just looking at hopeful faces. She is looking at the results of a roughly $3.5 million dollar enterprise. Between paying salaries to admissions counselors to cultivate relationships with students and their families, sending staff across the country to recruit prospects, hiring consultants, and producing marketing materials, her institution has made a substantial investment in every incoming freshman before that individual ever steps foot on campus. Far from being unique, it’s a scenario that reflects the majority of colleges and universities today.

As much as we hear about the escalating costs of higher education for students and their families, the costs of recruiting and enrolling students also remains high. According to Ruffalo Noel Levitz’s 2016 Cost of Recruiting an Undergraduate Report, the median cost of recruiting a single enrolled undergraduate in 2015 for a four-year private institution was $2,232 and for a four-year public it was $578. And this doesn’t account for tuition discounting used to lower student costs and boost enrollment.

In an era where enrollment numbers drive budgets at many (if not most) colleges and universities, a non-retained student represents more than just a missed opportunity. There is a significant cost to finding a replacement—in terms of both money and time. Education professionals sell a service—an educational experience, a degree, a career path, or ideally, all three—and the student as consumer is becoming increasingly informed in a sea of options. Regardless of some faculty frustration with the concept, students are consumers, and they signal their satisfaction or unhappiness quite openly. In fact, they may carry their federally guaranteed loans and tuition checks with them from institution to institution until they find the place they want to be.

As parents, legislators, and students alike lambast higher education for increasing prices, institutions continue to cannibalize each other in the interests of gaining the one additional student who they believe will complete their incoming class. In a 2003 New York Times article, Clare Cotton, then president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, described a situation that has since become the norm: “It’s exactly the psychology of an arms race. From the outside it seems totally crazy, but from the inside it feels necessary and compelling.” Institutions cater to students they hope to dissuade from attending other institutions, and by doing so, they make the product more expensive.

Mass mailings from the admissions staff lead to more applications, and that leads to more decisions for a high-school senior to make. Tools like the Common App and Naviance have made the art of applying easier and more efficient. The economic downturn and constant discussions about potential debt have made financial aid dollars far more valuable to prospective first-year students. This has led students to push the boundaries in terms of geography and consider different types of institutions. Rampant media speculation regarding the difficulty of getting into college pushes students to panic and apply at increasingly more institutions. Ironically, this becomes a perpetual cycle, as students apply to more schools—getting rejected from many—and further deflate admission rates for the next year’s class to worry over.

Students thriving—not merely succeeding

A thriving student is one who engages in all aspects of their higher education experience. In the classroom, through meaningful co-curricular pursuits, and even in social settings, thriving students find ways to focus on their own intellectual and emotional growth. Their commitment to holistic development makes them prime candidates for becoming proud alums with degrees in-hand. Yet, as those in higher education know, every college and university is different, based on the mission, academic focus, reputation, location, and other factors. An environment where one applicant may thrive could lead another to merely survive (or in a worst-case scenario, fail.) As an admissions director, how do you determine the qualities that suggest a student is prepared to thrive at your college or university?

1. Take a holistic look at your current students

No college or university will have a single profile of a thriving student. Different personas of those likely to thrive will emerge on a campus over a period of time. Your job when combing through the data (dare I suggest even data mining to help you not miss any possibly unrecognized connections?) is to find the students who are academically successful, are engaged with co-curricular and extra-curricular activities, report satisfaction when surveyed, and become loyal alumni and donors after they leave. Ask faculty, advisors, and student services personnel to name students they believe represent the vision you have for your campus. Then use this data to figure out what these ideal students have in common. Most importantly, try to determine what you knew about them based on their initial application (beyond the simple cognitive metrics) and how to identify more potential enrollees who are like them. In short, look past SAT scores and high-school GPA and think about high-school involvement, volunteer activities, and the content of admissions essays.

2. Make use of the right data

National reports may be useful in suggesting avenues of exploration. Even so, while you seek to determine what kind of learners thrive on your campus, remember that no outside report takes account of your particular student body. A report composed of generalizations about eight elite liberal arts colleges likely won’t have useful ideas for a large community college, for example. So, look at what expert reports are saying—but be sure to test their findings against your own data before blindly moving forward with initiatives just because a particular organization suggests you do so. Remove the data silos on your campus and work with everyone to get as complete an understanding of students who thrive, succeed, and fail to succeed. Only by assessing the strategies that work at your own institution can you hope to enroll the type of student primed for well-rounded success.

3. Keep new students motivated throughout the matriculation process

Colleges and universities must do a better job of helping students so they don’t second-guess their decision and think about the schools their friends are attending. Even with the wooing process over, institutions must still prevent a Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) mentality from dominating accepted students’ thoughts. If new students are stimulated and engaged, they will have less time to stew over the attractiveness of unchosen options—which will increase their happiness and willingness to explore new experiences. According to the 2016 National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), 18 percent of graduating seniors and 16 percent of first-year students say they would definitely or probably not go to the institution they are currently attending. If first-year students feel this way, problems have arisen more quickly than a college would hope. Students are excited when they choose where to attend during the spring of their senior year of high school. But if you don’t capitalize on that enthusiasm as they approach the start of classes and even well into the first semester, you risk them being vicariously excited for (and with) their friends who are going somewhere else. Colleges have such intricate communication plans for incoming students, yet they’re haphazard at best when a student matriculates and officially steps foot on campus. Always ask yourself what you are doing every day to remind students they made a good choice in attending your institution. Getting them to enroll is not the end of the journey; it is merely a start.

4. Set clear expectations on what college means

Institutions should be more upfront with students about what the college experience will be like. Instead of focusing solely on enrollment numbers, focus on attracting the right student from the start by shaping expectations and helping them to better anticipate the need to adapt. Most importantly, remind students of the constant dangers in making social comparisons with their friends and peers from home. The viewbook can show how beautiful campus is and how happy students look, but there is a reality that can be lost behind glossy, vendor-created publications. And remember that all of their peers are experiencing the same scenario, regardless of which college they are attending—and more to the point, what they are posting on social media.

Admissions is asked to fill a class, but that should not involve enrolling just any applicant. Increasing the volume of mailing lists purchased from vendors, waiving application fees, increasing institutional aid, and accepting poor-fit students can help alleviate immediate budgetary concerns. But these decisions will ultimately cause even greater headaches in the near future. Academic success, student engagement, and retention will all suffer as a result and will lead to even more pressure to fill future classes. By studying the profiles of students who thrive on your campus, you will make more effective use of recruiting dollars, lose fewer students, and graduate more successful, engaged individuals.


Photo of Will Miller

Will Miller

Assistant Vice President, Campus Adoption | Campus Labs

Will Miller, PhD, leverages data best practices to help campuses make strategic decisions. He joined the Campus Labs team in 2016, after serving as a faculty member and senior administrator at Flagler College in Florida. There, as Executive Director of Institutional Analytics, Effectiveness, and Planning, he helped transform the campus-wide outcomes assessment process. He also served as Accreditation Liaison to the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACSCOC). Before joining Flagler, he held faculty positions at Southeast Missouri State University, Notre Dame College, and Ohio University. His courses have explored topics in political science, public policy, program evaluation, and organizational behavior. His scholarly pursuits focus on assessment, campaigns and elections, polling, political psychology, and the pedagogy of political science and public administration.