How colleges can hit the mark on yield and enroll new students

Teams struggling to get admitted pools across the finish line should look closely at how their data is affecting projections.
By: | December 21, 2021
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Declines in enrollment and shifting demographics among college-bound students continue to challenge college admissions leaders. With unpredictability swirling around what students really want and the multitude of options they have, being flexible and statistics-driven is essential in hitting targets long term.

Harnessing and analyzing data is one of the key pieces is being able to project yield. Missing the mark—positively or negatively—when turning admitted pools into attendees can be disastrous, especially in this time of COVID-19 and heightened competition.

“The cone of uncertainty has gotten wider,” says Madeleine Rhyneer, a former higher education admissions and enrollment leader who is Vice President of Consulting Services at EAB. “There’s so much movement and change in the marketplace, some brought on by the pandemic and some just brought on by colleges having to be more competitive, to meet enrollment goals. Teams have to be pretty nimble and agile. Having the opportunity to use big data as one of the factors in predicting where you’re going to land has become even more valuable. But you can’t just make a plan and set it and forget it. You have to analyze all the time.”

EAB recently completed a white paper on how institutions can use data to improve yield and get the most from their efforts. It focuses on six recommendations for identifying students who are truly interested as well as behaviors that can make the process a success, including ways to respond, modeling data and mobilizing stakeholders.

To learn more about those ideas and other issues facing higher education, University Business sat down with Rhyneer for a conversation on yield and the need to smartly embrace data.

What is the significance of institutions missing yield targets now?

We had partners in the pandemic miss their enrollment goals by 10% and partners who exceeded their enrollment goals by 10%. Too many in terms of revenue is always better than too few. But there are big problems that come with too many. If you’re a residential campus, where will students live? If you have to add more sections, your faculty size is usually not fungible. For those who fell short, we’re talking about budget cuts, retraction in programs, operational budget cuts across the campus. That’s inordinately painful.

Some institutions continue to report record applications while there has been declining enrollment overall. What does the higher ed landscape look like right now?

In general, it’s brutal and it’s uneven. There are schools that have really prospered during the pandemic. But the percentage of high school graduates going to college has been declining. The decline in community college enrollments put a big kink in everybody’s transfer stream. There’s a lot of free-floating anxiety—about their school and about the macro situation because there are many factors in play that individual institutions can’t control.

What are some considerations colleges should be thinking about in assessing applicants?

In a world of flat-to-declining potential students, the only chance you have to get to your desired results is to increase your applicant pool. If you have more prospective students, chances are you can grow your admits pool, which can indemnify yourself against the tough market. The downside is, when you build your admit pool, there’s only so much human capital to go around. So how do you use big data? How do you use resources that are available to you to determine who’s actually in play? Who are the students that are persuadable, who are still actively interested, versus the student who applied to eight colleges and you were No. 6 on their list? Who are the students most likely to get across the finish line? Then focusing all of your high-intensive, high-value interactions with them to influence their final decision.

How are students going through the process and what are they looking for?

Based on research we did a year ago, students identified that parents and family were their No. 1 influence in their decision about where to go to college. The job enrollment leaders are finding themselves doing is helping students with values clarification. What is it that they really want and need most from their college experience? I’m a believer in the transformational impact of a college education, but I think that students and families are bringing a very pragmatic lens—costs, distance from home and, is this college or university and the degree I would earn going to help me launch successfully? Am I going to make enough money that I can pay off my college loans?

What can colleges do to reach students, leverage data and have more predictable outcomes?

One is you just need to ask students what they plan to do through simple and straightforward surveys. The huge advantage of big data is you can create models that are predictive about all the people that are in your admit pool. What you really want to identify is the trees in the forest that are most likely to enroll. Through the power of data analytics, we know so much about students – what web pages they land on, how much time they spend there, what they’re looking at. The second key piece is you have the capacity to collect a lot of data. How do you identify what really matters? And once you do, how do you operationalize it? That’s always where I see a disconnect because people are very good at amassing data and tracking student behaviors. But what is my analysis to determine what really matters? How do I reach out to students to provide the information they need? Only about a quarter are really in play. How do I identify who they are? And how do I get that in front of them and do it quickly?

What about the other 75%? Should institutions not focus on them?

You don’t ignore them. But you use more what I would call routinized communication, as opposed to college admission counselors texting them or special invites. Your interactions with them are less intense unless as time goes on, they engage in behaviors that move them up into that pantheon of students who are more likely to enroll.

How do institutions challenged to embrace big data and analytics make it happen?

It is possible to do this DIY. It’s harder if you’re not a flagship public university, where you may have a large group of data analysts on campus. But maybe you have someone on your team in admissions who is your data expert and can partner with a faculty member in statistics. They do a regression analysis and work on it together. What slows people down is that it’s not easy and it’s time-consuming. The third barrier is having the human capital on campus to make it happen. If you can do it yourself, analyze it and update it every year, and it’s predictive, that would be great. Many institutions don’t have the internal resources to do it, and they turn to an external partner. What you get with an external partner is they’ve done it a lot and understand that it needs to be completely unique to your institution. Often, you get speed to actual implementation with outside partnerships.

How can colleges differentiate themselves to applicants?

Two things. Universities have to be pretty clear about their value proposition. Even though higher ed is deeply committed to the transformational aspect of a college degree, if that’s your lead argument, families don’t really hear you, because you’re not talking about the things that matter most to them. Why would they pay to come to your school as opposed to another school down the road? And doubling down on the personal aspects of recruiting. Students need to believe you want them and that you see a great future for them at your institution. Help them visualize it. Here’s what I would ask: what matters most to you and your college experience? What are you really looking for? Sometimes I say, from the HGTV show Love It or List It, what are your must-haves? The mistake many enrollments leaders make is they talk about their must-haves.