Using Data to Inform Enrollment Management Part 2

Working Together to Ensure Students 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. In Part One of the series, we focused on the admissions side of the house, while in Part Two we turn toward retention and student success.

Setting the scene

When an accepted student chooses to attend an institution, everyone should be cheering for them to succeed. But what classifies as success in higher education today? And does success actually matter more than the journey to achieving it? To some, graduating in four years is the sole measure of success. After all, the tangible reward at the end of college is a degree. Traditional metrics for success focus on retention rates, graduation rates, licensure exam passage rates, and post-graduation employment. But there is far more that occurs during four years of college than classes, grades, and graduation. Rather than merely persevering until commencement day, students should be encouraged to thrive.

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. The ability to thrive will also be defined within the mission of the particular college or university in partnership with individual students. For a two-year technical program, success and thriving may include a student leaving without debt and being able to work full-time while fulfilling the degree. For a faith-based institution, thriving might center on students developing deeper spirituality and commitments to their religion. For a traditional, four-year liberal arts college, thriving will likely involve students growing academically and as individuals through curricular, co-curricular, and extra-curricular involvements.

Charged with fulfilling enrollment goals, admissions officers can find themselves torn. They may be forced to decide between enrolling the number of students a campus has budgeted for and making sure an incoming class contains only students likely to do well at the college. While an admissions director may struggle to advocate for an applicant who, on paper, seems like a less than ideal candidate, budget realities and pressure from board members and other senior administrators may lead to more borderline matriculants. Yet such decisions can ultimately cost a campus even more than the lost revenue from enrolling a freshman class of 799 instead of 800. Academic success, student engagement, and retention will all suffer if you end up having to recruit and enroll the replacement for a student who is a poor fit.

It is the work of an entire campus to make sure the student remains as happy as they are on the day they make their decision and pay a deposit. What makes this difficult is the reality of the situation they are entering. Enrollment managers spend years telling a student how wonderful their institution is to attend. But once the deposit is paid, faculty begin discussing academic rigor and assigning work. Meanwhile, student affairs professionals describe the difficulties of living alone, being away from home, and adjusting to a new community. Unlike what the direct mail pieces may show, college will be about more than student centers and intramural volleyball. But when is the right time to transition from marketer to realist? When does the new arrival stop being a consumer? Or do they? And most importantly, how do institutions balance the academic and social expectations of students while preparing them to thrive?

It is the job of enrollment management to identify and woo individuals who are positioned to thrive. Recruiting students who do not retain, fail to graduate, or never engage with campus life is a costly endeavor. Beyond real money, it can hurt faculty morale, campus climate, and most importantly, the student. In fact, graduating a student who does not engage with campus, does not feel pride in the name across the top of their diploma, and could have graduated from any other campus also bears a cost. Traditional measures of success in higher education are undeniably meaningful, yet students who go a step beyond and truly thrive on campus are the ones most prepared to be successful in the post-college world. If thriving were easier to measure, more professionals would likely turn to it as a telling metric. But campuses that devote the requisite energy to discovering what a thriving student looks like for them possess powerful information. They can benefit from it by making more effective use of recruiting dollars, losing fewer students, and graduating more successful, engaged individuals.

How to help students stay and thrive

Your campus may have a chief retention officer. But this individual should never be viewed as solely responsible for students choosing to remain at your college or university. Retention depends on faculty, staff, administrators, and students all working to create an environment in which students can thrive. This requires campus community members to feel empowered to make a difference. A security officer or housekeeping staff member may hear a student on the phone discussing how they wish to transfer. They need to know there is someone they can tell about this who will reach out and help guide the student through the decision. If everyone views retention as their responsibility, the odds of students succeeding (and potentially thriving) increases quickly and dramatically. As an enrollment manager, how do you work to assure stakeholders that students are well-positioned to thrive on your campus?

1. Put students first—in all you do

Before students ever have a chance to consider leaving, campuses should identify and address common reasons for early disappointment. For example, if a first-semester freshman doesn’t get into a course they really want, it can send them back to the list of schools they opted not to attend. So why do so few campuses not offer yearlong scheduling? A different approach could change the mindset of an otherwise disgruntled student: I may not get into the class for fall, but at least it’s on my spring schedule. The disappointment is more muted. Even better, the student is encouraged to approach the freshman experience as a yearlong commitment versus a semester-by-semester choice. Be innovative in designing policies and procedures that put the student first and at the center of decision-making—even if it makes the lift by faculty and staff slightly more difficult.

2. Be aware of social media

Social media has done little to help enrollment management administrators, as it leaves new students to overestimate the experiences others are having and how these compare with their own. Ten years ago, colleges and universities feared Thanksgiving—the first major holiday where students would travel home and hear about the experiences their friends from high school were having on their respective campuses. Today, the discussion begins immediately, and like all things on social media, the shared posts tend to present only half the story. We brag to our networks; we don’t discuss the negatives as freely. Campuses should monitor what students are saying to the extent that it’s possible. What might seem like a random student airing a personal grievance could merit internal discussion in an effort to ascertain the potential scope of a perceived problem. Likewise, work with the campus community—both in academic and student affairs—to encourage a creative and positive use of social media platforms to engage students. The goal for the first two weeks especially should be to connect with new students in meaningful ways. Continual outreach can discourage students from comparing the choice they made to the opportunities they passed up.

3. Be willing to predict—holistically

Predictive modeling can help us determine which interventions and programming to offer to which students. Rather than reaching out to everyone with broad strokes, campuses should use focused, data-informed invitations to increase the chances of student participation. Imagine a model that produces percentage odds of a student’s likelihood of returning for their second year or graduating on time based on a series of variables, including high school GPA, test scores, demonstrated financial need, gender, major, non-cognitive factors, and distance from home. Each variable is weighted based on past predictive capabilities and allows us to better focus resources on groups of students who are potentially at risk. Through the model-building process, you will have the opportunity to talk through key considerations: balancing information about past students while attempting to determine how your new student profile is likely to perform. The model should be regularly updated to reflect changing realities of your student population. And it should include more than just cognitive and demographic variables. It’s true that knowing a student scored an 1100 on the SAT can suggest possibilities for academic performance. But even better information may be knowing the same student is high in academic self-efficacy and very low in academic engagement. This pattern suggests that the student’s midterm grades their first semester of college may be a little surprising and discouraging.

4. Involve students in the conversation

At the end of the day, students are far more likely to speak with other students openly on why they are succeeding or perhaps struggling than to a campus administrator. Recruit student leaders to conduct focus groups and individual interviews with students to determine what is working and what could be improved. And be sure to cast a wide net; you don’t want to gain feedback from one specific subpopulation and think that you have a campus-wide consensus.

Once students enroll, retention specialists bear ultimate responsibility for assuring students stay enrolled, but it is everyone’s job to help them succeed and, ideally, thrive. By using a framework to identify the thriving students on your campus, you can gain valuable insights that can in turn help shape incoming classes and position future graduates for lifelong success. And your college or university will thrive, too.

Photo of Will Miller, Ph.D.

Will Miller, Ph.D.

Executive Director of Institutional Analytics, Effectiveness, and Strategic Planning | Jacksonville University

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