How colleges can avoid a scary fall in FY2020

Review what worked—or didn’t—in your enrollment efforts
By: | Issue: October, 2018
September 18, 2018

It’s a harsh reality for many colleges leading up to fall.

No matter how much innovation and energy went into recruitment, you may be forced to wait until September to find out if marketing and admissions will look like a band of superheroes saving the day or like a horde of zombies struggling to survive.

Here are tips to avoid a scary fall in fiscal year 2020.

Don’t panic

Leading up to fall, it’s natural to form theories about the places where the enrollment effort went awry, or to even have a list of areas that you believe underperformed against expectations. It’s difficult—but necessary—at times like this to step back and reevaluate everything.

Don’t restructure your teams based on perceived shortcomings. Unless you are able to commit a significant amount of time to sweeping changes in the short term, it’s best to take a measured approach and make any necessary changes over time.

Assemble a review team

After every recruitment effort, teams should assemble to evaluate the success of the endeavor and to make iterative improvements going forward. While this is helpful throughout the year, it becomes critical at key junctures, such as right after an enrollment window.

Bring together internal marketing and admissions leadership, support team members who are on the front lines, and agencies or consultants.

Make sure that everyone has a voice and permission to share their analysis without fear of repercussions. Ask everyone to come to the meeting armed with opinions and data that provide context.

Allow time for everyone to share their ideas without challenges or conjecture about each phase of enrollment. Log the ideas, then set aside time in the meeting for critical analysis to determine which points are most impactful. Based on the severity of challenges that lie ahead, you may elect to hire a research consultant for further validation.

Consider every possibility

Sometimes biases can inadvertently set up your team for failure. For example, you may believe that your institution has a strong reputation in finance degree programs, but the campaign data may tell a different story.

This creates a situation in which, if you are not actively promoting your school’s reputation in campaigns, you are essentially “selling upstream” to prospects who don’t have a strong knowledge base to compare your programs to competitive offerings.

It’s important to critically evaluate test messaging in campaigns, identify biases and be open to challenging your own team’s assumptions about what is working.

Evaluate data benchmarks, and create new ones

Once the team has identified critical focus areas and has established performance benchmarks based on past efforts, the next step is to set both realistic goals and stretch goals to keep stakeholders focused on improvement.

When activities don’t have a benchmark for improvement, it creates an environment in which people can lose focus.

Commit to resources if it’s the right decision

There are many ways to improve performance without adding staff, time, money or outside consultants. But depending on the issues, you’ll have to be honest with yourself and leadership about whether improving performance requires outside help or additional funds.

Having input from an outside consulting team may give you the perspective you need to validate the direction that comes out of review meetings. Sometimes the data may show that the current budget allocations aren’t delivering the pipeline required to meet enrollment goals based on your school’s historical conversion percentages.

If the situation calls for acting boldly, the scariest scenario awaiting you is failing to learn more about the challenges you face and dealing with a monstrous situation again next year.


Tom Ryan is an enrollment marketing strategist with Schneider Associates, an integrated marketing firm based in Boston.