Kishan and Ross served on college campuses for decades. That is a lot of new years and fresh starts, so we asked them what some of the key areas are to focus on as the year begins. We heard some things you might not expect and how to accomplish the things you do.
The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
January presents a fresh start even though you are in the thick of recruitment. What’s the most important thing you want your staff to do as they return to campus?
Kishan: You can’t afford to focus on one thing in college admissions. Instead of prioritizing application outreach, counselors need to carve out time to build stronger relationships with admitted students and check in with early deposit-paid students 2-3 times this month.
Ross: January is a critical point in the enrollment cycle because seniors are still applying while others are beginning to make decisions. Sophomores and juniors are also planning their college visits for their designated high school breaks. As a result, institutions cannot lose sight of the future. As the saying goes, “you only get one chance for a first impression.”
What hard lessons have you learned in January that continue to pay off today?
Kishan: “Money talks” as the saying goes, which holds true for counting on financial aid offers to yield students. So…the lesson is…make your best offer early. Being first pays off. The first school to respond wins the inquiry. The first school to offer admission wins the deposit. The first to offer the best value wins the enrolled seat.
The next important lesson is all about data. If you haven’t already identified areas where your enrollment might fall short come yield season, you better get cracking. You need a full breakdown of your current applicant and admit pool. What regions are over and underperforming? Are your bread-and-butter majors filled? Has the student profile changed YOY? The month of January will be your last-ditch effort to move the needle in these areas. By the time February rolls around, it’s too late.
Ross: Being afraid to deviate from a set strategy. The window of opportunity to change direction is small, often days or weeks, and in January (and February) there is still time to deviate from your strategy to meet your goals regardless of how applications are unfolding. As a chief enrollment officer, understand the game isn’t over until the end of August and continue to work the funnel with your staff.
What key data points do you like to see in January?
Kishan: Be sure you know your applicant and admit pool. In addition, you’ll want 90% of applications accounted for by now. Keep an eye on deposits too. Are your early deposits soft? How much do you know about them?
Also, if you haven’t already, coordinate with the Financial Aid office. How many admitted students still need to be packaged? Are you ahead or behind in getting packages out?
How many admitted students have visited so far? Do your spring yield events need re-evaluation to get more students to campus?
Ross: There isn’t a single data point, but many working together to enroll a class. Of course, YOY applications including admits, but also a 3–5-year historical average so you can prepare for winter board meetings. “Submitted FAFSA without an application” data because you want to push those students to apply. Those who have applied, been admitted, but have not visited is a critical data point. While each institution is different, enrolling a student who has never visited campus, even in our new post-Covid virtual world, is more challenging. Understanding where applications are up and/or down geographically will provide a better pulse on yield expectations. Evaluating the inquiry pool for sophomores and juniors by late January or early February is important as you prepare the institution for the future.
As students begin to commit by submitting their enrollment deposit, paying attention to FAFSA EFC bands, net tuition revenue, and discount rate YOY. January might be a little early to make any significant adjustments, but an early analysis doesn’t hurt. If an institution is trending high or low within certain EFC bands within the applicant and admit pool, you have time to adjust your financial aid strategy.
In your experience, is January an appropriate time to tackle new projects and explore new partners?
Kishan: There is always a sense of urgency in college admissions, and it can feel like there is never a good time for new projects. We tend to wait for summer, but I always liked using January to plan the upcoming recruitment year. Summer is shorter than you think, and the to-do list is always long. If you can start thinking strategically about what you need to change and what needs to be added to your enrollment toolbox now, you will be more prepared when submitting your budget for next year. Use this month to explore new products and services, vet vendors, and prioritize your wish list. Have a loose budget outlined so you can start projects earlier and lean into opportunities that may come your way this spring.
Ross: It is certainly the beginning of budget planning for subsequent years, but it is important to evaluate partnerships towards the conclusion of yield season. That being said, if you are doubting the value of a key relationship(s), level of spend, or strategy, now is the time to explore options and evaluate the marketplace to support your enrollment goals.
As far as tackling new projects, it is dictated by data. If low metrics need to be addressed, do not wait until it’s too late. Don’t change for the sake of change or introduce something new just because somebody flashes a shiny new solution in front of you at a conference or virtual presentation. There is value in keeping ideas fresh and trying new strategies if you are not overwhelming the staff. Their directive is to focus on enrolling students and managing a designated territory.
What trends are you seeing now that you have the luxury of being up close and personal with so many colleges and universities across the country?
Kishan: Applications are up! Students are depositing earlier. Where are you up? Are typical high-performing areas not performing? Are the increases legit or just noise that might be keeping you from staying at the top of your game.
I am also hearing more and more about digital advertising. Digital marketing strategies are an important part of a more comprehensive enrollment marketing plan. Do not let your ads try to do all the heavy lifting and ensure they support other marketing efforts.
Ross: First and foremost, nothing replaces hard work and grit. Many consultants, vendors, and partners, call them what you’d like, introduce “new” flashy services or products that are often expensive and/or unproven. Be cautious of upsells and their true value or ROI. Driving more applications does not equate to more enrolled students. Same with inquiries. Focus on qualified inquiries and applications. There are many ways to measure engagement, and companies are out there providing model scoring in various formats. While there is value to engagement and lead scoring, find a method you understand that the staff can use to manage their territory.
Greater investment in multi-channel marketing. Those who find success have lead generation, digital strategy, print, and communication flows out of their CRM and personal outreach all aligned and functioning at a high level. Their campus is engaged in recruitment and provosts are adding contemporary programs with marketplace demand.
Please share one unpopular opinion about higher education today.
Kishan: We can do better. We must do better. In our race to enroll students, we often overlook them entirely. We make a lot of assumptions about what students and families know and understand about higher education. We speak at them, throw around acronyms and boast about our prestige. What about the students? What about their experience in all of this? Our brochures say we are here to help but are we really helping? Have you done a journey mapping exercise for your admissions/enrollment process? Do you know what it is like to be a prospect, inquiry, applicant, admit, and deposited student at your institution? If not, you better.
Get started… do something. Start with putting your name into your CRM as an inquiry. Track the comms you get from your school. Inquire at your competitor schools. Compare your communication frequency and content. Are you impressed? Would you pay attention to what you are sending out? Does it sound just like the neighboring institution? Do your marketing assets mention internships, research, and study abroad like all the other schools do? Is your outreach insensitive, irrelevant and 100% boring? You can break through all the noise and meet students where they are. Take an inventory of the full cycle and how you interact with students. Leverage the things you already know about them and speak to them directly, serving relevant content at the right time.
Ross: College is unobtainable due to cost and the fear of student loan debt. College is affordable; it just might not always be the first-choice college. I will never forget sitting in my office and talking to a family because the parents wanted a third party to tell their daughter she needed to start at a local community college and transfer to the four-year institution I represented. It was a difficult conversation, but necessary so she could attend her dream school, even if it were only for two years.
Student loans are a bad investment. Unfortunately, those who default on their loans or have six-figure loan repayments are those making the headlines, not the majority who have managed their debt and repaid their loans before buying the nice car, house, or vacation.
What topic didn’t we discuss that you’d like to address?
Ross: It’s not getting easier to enroll students, and the chief enrollment officer whether it’s a Director, Dean, AVP, or VPEM, needs a seat at the senior leadership level. It is the most integral hire and position on campus, and their voice is important. With that, institutional leaders need to invest in their enrollment staff now more than ever. If they do not, the gap of rising senior enrollment leaders will continue to get wider over the next five years. The staff is often the first point of contact for future students, future donors (students and parents), and influencers like high school counselors, independent consultants, and representatives of Community-Based Organizations (CBOs) who refer students. Pay them, provide professional development, and offer growth opportunities within the institution to keep the morale high and attrition low.
Finally, it takes an entire campus community to enroll students, not just the Office of Admission. Faculty, facilities, staff, and students all play a critical role.